- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 17, 2021

JOHNSTON, Iowa (AP) - Within days of abandoning a plan to hire a private company to establish a statewide call center to help residents set up coronavirus vaccine appointments, Iowa officials on Wednesday said they have cancelled a deal with Microsoft Corp. to develop a centralized online system.

Gov. Kim Reynolds announced the decision just 10 days after she said Microsoft had been selected from a group of bidders to create the online registration and appointment system. At the time, Reynolds said the system would be ready in a few weeks.

“When we dug into what the options were and what was available and the timeline to get that done it just didn’t make sense for us to move forward, especially with the registration and scheduling component because of all the different providers that are tied into that right now and the systems that they had,” she said.

Reynolds said the focus will shift to a different system but offered no details.

“We know that barriers still remain for Iowans who are currently eligible and we’re actively determining how we can leverage existing partnerships to provide an easier alternative to online scheduling,” she said.

The Microsoft project was part of the state’s solution to improve on a rocky vaccine rollout that has frustrated many residents and had the state initially lagging far behind the national average for the percentage of its population getting shots. As of Wednesday, Iowa was in 27th place among states with about 11% of its residents having received one or more doses, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

The latest decision follows a move last Friday, when Reynolds’ administration informed bidders it would not award a contract for an outside vendor to operate a call center to help residents set up coronavirus vaccine appointments.

The call center was to field inquiries about coronavirus vaccines, including helping screen residents for eligibility and setting them up with providers to make appointments. Eligible workers and people over age 65 have struggled in Iowa to set up appointments on their own.

Reynolds said the state is considering updates to allow appointments through the state’s existing 211 help line, which links residents to human service programs, community services, disaster services and governmental programs.

Asked how elderly people should arrange vaccines, Reynolds recommended they call their local Area Agency on Aging.

Reynolds has faced questions about why the state had not planned earlier for a system to allow for registration, appointments and calls.

Her only answer has been that they’ve been working on it.

Former Democratic U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer criticized state officials in a Twitter post Wednesday asking ,“Why why why wasn’t this process started months ago? Literally, what could have been more important? How were they not thinking ahead, looking at systems, cracks etc. and doing more to anticipate need as most states have done?”

Iowa’s inability to launch a system is in contrast to Nebraska, where state officials spent several weeks planning a similar registration website and telephone hotline with their own Microsoft contract.

The site launched late last month, and state officials said they haven’t had any major problems . The site logged 54,000 sign-ups on its first day, and nearly 200,000 Nebraska residents were enrolled as of Wednesday afternoon.

“It’s been remarkably smooth,” said Julie Naughton, a spokeswoman for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

Angie Ling, the department’s incident commander, told reporters last month that getting the website ready was complicated, and state officials were careful to ensure that they coordinated with local public health officials and considered the challenges that elderly residents and people with disabilities might face.

More vaccine should be coming to Iowa, as Reynolds said the White House told governors Monday that it would increase vaccine distribution to states by 2.5 million doses to 13.5 million. Iowa’s weekly allocation will increase next week 24% to nearly 62,000 doses.

Pharmacies will also get an additional 1 million doses, which will boost vaccination capacity at Hy-Vee grocery stores and independent pharmacies participating in the national program, she said.

Iowa reported 624 new confirmed coronavirus cases on Wednesday and 43 more deaths for a total of 5,306 deaths.

Reynolds also announced the state was changing its coronavirus data tracking reporting by the end of the week to shift from showing individual tests to a total test positivity rate. The result of the change is expected to show a lower state positivity rate in Iowa.


Associated Press writer Grant Schulte in Omaha, Nebraska, contributed to this report.

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