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Key Iowa vaccine panel will keep meetings closed to public

December 16, 2020 GMT
FILE - In this April 15, 2020, file photo, Kelly Garcia, Interim Director of Iowa Department of Human Services speaks during a news conference on COVID-19 at the State Emergency Operations Center, in Johnston, Iowa. A panel of experts that will help decide which groups get the coronavirus vaccine first in Iowa has been holding closed meetings, circumventing the state open meetings law. The Iowa Department of Public Health convened the Infectious Disease Advisory Council in December to develop recommendations on how to use the vaccine when supplies are limited in the coming weeks and months. (Brian Powers/The Des Moines Register via AP, File)
FILE - In this April 15, 2020, file photo, Kelly Garcia, Interim Director of Iowa Department of Human Services speaks during a news conference on COVID-19 at the State Emergency Operations Center, in Johnston, Iowa. A panel of experts that will help decide which groups get the coronavirus vaccine first in Iowa has been holding closed meetings, circumventing the state open meetings law. The Iowa Department of Public Health convened the Infectious Disease Advisory Council in December to develop recommendations on how to use the vaccine when supplies are limited in the coming weeks and months. (Brian Powers/The Des Moines Register via AP, File)

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — A panel of experts that will help decide which groups get the coronavirus vaccine first in Iowa has been holding closed meetings, circumventing the state open meetings law.

The Iowa Department of Public Health convened the Infectious Disease Advisory Council this month to develop recommendations on how to use the vaccine when supplies are limited in the coming weeks and months.

In particular, the 25-member panel will recommend which groups of health care workers, essential workers and people at risk for severe COVID-19 illness should be considered higher priorities than others.

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The panel has met twice this month without giving prior notice to the public, publishing an agenda or allowing the public to participate as required by the Iowa Open Meetings Act.

The act states that advisory committees formed by the governor or Legislature to develop and make recommendations on public policy are required to follow those steps. So are those that are created by “executive order of this state” or one of its political subdivisions.

The Iowa Department of Public Health’s interim director, Kelly Garcia, argued at a news conference Wednesday that the council is exempt from the law’s requirements. She said she has been trying to balance transparency against the desire to have “a free flow of conversation” that can take place outside of public scrutiny.

“You can imagine the type of conversation that the group is having is on prioritization and these are difficult. They are challenging,” she said. “I want the clinicians and the other experts in that room to be able to ask questions of each other without additional criticism of what those questions might be.”

Garcia said the council’s recommendations will be made public and that it will solicit input from specific employers around the state.

Department of Public Health spokeswoman Sarah Ekstrand said later Wednesday that the council is not a “government body” under the law because it was convened by the agency and not created by statute or executive order.

She released minutes of its Dec. 10 meeting showing that the council chair, state public health official Ken Sharp, asked members to review and be ready to discuss North Dakota’s model for distributing initial vaccines to health care workers and nursing homes.

States have taken different approaches to whether similar meetings are open to the public. A committee in Wisconsin has been holding open meetings and one in California met publicly Wednesday. A Kansas agency said its vaccine committee was exempt from open meeting requirements.

Gov. Kim Reynolds announced the formation of Iowa’s council earlier this month and has said it would help make key decisions, such as when teachers or inmates will be eligible for the vaccine.

The council includes experts from the University of Iowa, local and state public health officials, representatives of medical groups and advocates for specific vulnerable populations. It will make recommendations to Garcia, who said she will present them to the governor.

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Garcia said Wednesday that the council last week discussed which health care workers and long-term care staff should be prioritized, including how those on clinical rotations, students and nonclinical staff are treated. Its initial recommendations are expected Dec. 21.

Next week, the council will begin discussing the order in which essential workers should be prioritized, including those who work in schools, food supply industries and jails and prisons.

The department says the panel’s recommendations must “recognize the importance of treating individuals fairly and promoting social equity, by addressing racial and ethnic disparities in COVID mortality, and by recognizing the contributions of critical infrastructure workers.”

Reynolds said that more than 500 out of the state’s 154,000 health care workers have received an initial dose of Pfizer’s vaccine since the first shipments arrived Monday. A group of 59,000 long-term care residents and staff will begin getting shots later this month.

Randy Evans, director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said the council should open its meetings to the public rather than seek legal justification for closing them. He said the decisions about who will get the vaccine will be “fraught with controversy” and raise questions about whether they were influenced by special interests.

“You are not going to build that public trust and confidence by making these decisions in secret,” he said.