EVERETT — As the state prepares to expand vaccine eligibility to more than a million additional Washingtonians, public health agencies and medical providers must meet the logistical requirements of getting the doses injected in people’s arms, letting eligible people know when and how to get their shots, while also fighting disinformation about the vaccine.
Weeks into the process, the majority of doses received in Washington are still waiting to be used, but state leaders say they’re hopeful to be done with the first phase by the end of the month.
“If anybody thought that building up a vaccine administration system for the entirety of the United States, and doing that in several months in the way we had to, and that was going to be easy? I’ll be the first to tell you, that was incorrect,” state Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah said Friday.
In Snohomish County, about one in five doses have been administered, according to health district data.
“I know there are a lot of people anxiously waiting for their turn to get the vaccine,” Snohomish Health District health officer Dr. Chris Spitters said in a news release. “Like any new process, it takes time to achieve maximum velocity. We will continue to follow state and federal guidance to make the best use of vaccine supply and our collective capacity to administer it. I ask for everyone’s patience and cooperation with the phased process of this massive undertaking over the next 6-9 months.”
The pool of who can get a dose will soon more than double.
On Wednesday, the state Department of Health outlined who will be eligible in the next phases of vaccine distribution, which could begin in late January or early February.
The state’s Phase 1B is broken into four tiers. The first group includes anyone 70 and older and those 50 or older who live in a multi-generational household — an estimated 1.2 million people, according to state numbers. They could get their first shots in the next few weeks.
The second tier consists of high-risk critical workers over 50 who work in certain congregate settings like schools, jails, grocery stores and farms, an estimated 100,000 Washingtonians.
In March, officials hope to advance to people over 16 years old who have multiple underlying conditions, an estimated 1.2 million people — the third tier.
High-risk critical workers younger than 50 and those who live and work in congregate settings including inmates, homeless people staying in shelters and residents of group homes — the fourth tier of Phase 1B — could be eligible in April. They account for about 350,000 people.
As doses become more available, public health officials will rely on hospitals, clinics, pharmacies and mass vaccination sites to meet the logistical demand.
In King County, Executive Dow Constantine announced Friday that staff are working on setting up vaccine clinics, akin to the county’s testing facilities.
Similar plans are being drawn up in Snohomish County, although no sites have been announced.
But the state’s timeline for vaccine phases could change.
President-elect Joe Biden plans to make available nearly all of the country’s reserved vaccine doses, it was announced Friday.
Currently, the federal government is storing enough COVID doses to guarantee that everyone who has gotten a first shot will receive their second.
“The President-elect believes we must accelerate distribution of the vaccine while continuing to ensure the Americans who need it most get it as soon as possible,” said TJ Ducklo, the president-elect’s spokesman.
Biden has said he will use executive authority to ensure the country receives enough doses for everyone to get a second shot.
Additionally, vaccines from AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson could get emergency federal approval. Those would be the third and fourth vaccines available in the U.S.
In Olympia, Shah, who took over as secretary of health in December, acknowledged that during the pandemic nothing is set in stone.
“The name of the game in emergency response is evolving with the emergency,” Shah said. “Plans are plans, but it’s really the pivoting that’s everything. As the science has evolved, as our understanding of the pandemic has evolved, we, too, must evolve from our response perspective.
“When it comes to vaccines, we’ve got our best plans based on what we have … and guess what … something could change.”
Who is eligible?
On Jan. 18, the state is expected to debut Phase Finder, an online tool that will show people their place in line and notify them when they’re eligible for the vaccine.
Phase Finder will be available in multiple languages.
But planning for who would first receive the COVID vaccine has been under way for months, since long before the first doses arrived in December.
State leaders were given federal guidance on which groups should be prioritized but were left to make their own decisions.
In Washington, the Department of Health opted to give early doses to high-risk health care workers, as well as staff and residents at long-term care homes.
Many hospitals, including Providence Regional Medical Center Everett, received shipments directly and administered shots to staff.
For others, health care administrators worked with state-approved vaccine providers to schedule inoculations for eligible employees.
At long-term care homes, managers were tasked with setting up vaccination clinics through Walgreens and CVS for residents and staff.
To avoid wasting doses, the state expanded the first phase to all health care workers, including ones who have no interactions with COVID patients, and some first responders.
On Friday, the Marysville Fire District opened a COVID-19 vaccine clinic at Fire Station 62 for local firefighters and other emergency medical services personnel.
“Vaccinating first responders against this virus is so important to the health of our entire community, because we need to ensure we’ll be there to meet your needs,” Fire Chief Martin McFalls said in a news release. “We’re thrilled to be a part of this and to make our station available for this historic effort. Finally, we have a chance to fight back against this virus.”
The clinic will primarily serve responders from the Marysville Fire District, Tulalip Bay Fire, Arlington Fire Department, North County Fire and EMS and other nearby departments. But it will be open also to any emergency medical services employees in the county.
Dozens of Marysville firefighters, and some from Everett, already received their initial vaccine dose through the Everett Clinic.
What we know about the vaccine
The vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna are 95% and 94% effective, respectively, in preventing COVID infection seven days after the second shot is administered.
As the state begins to loosen who can get a vaccine, public health experts worry disinformation may prevent some people from seeking a dose.
“I hope that doesn’t happen here,” Shah said. “Our way out of this pandemic is to get vaccinated.”
Vaccine skepticism has ramped up in recent years, Dr. Douglas Paauw, an internal medicine specialist with UW Medicine, said Friday.
“The problem with that thinking is we’re living a lot longer because of public health, and vaccinations are a part of that,” Paauw said.
Shah and Paauw have each received their first doses of the vaccine. So has Pauuw’s daughter, who works in health care.
“I have no problem with myself or a loved one getting it,” Paauw said.
Some vaccines use a small dose of a live virus to trigger an immune response that teaches your body to develop antibodies.
That’s not the case for either the Pfizer or Moderna treatments.
Instead, they use messenger RNA that gives your body instructions for creating one of the proteins found in the coronavirus, which triggers your body to create antibodies that protect you from infection.
With no live virus, there’s no risk of you getting COVID from either vaccine.
But you could experience some symptoms — a sore arm, fatigue, headaches, light fever — for a few days.
“With everything we’ve seen so far, it’s an extremely safe vaccine,” Paauw said.
But while getting vaccinated means you likely won’t catch the virus, it’s unclear whether it will protect you from spreading it.
That’s why health experts and local leaders are asking everyone to continue wearing masks and social distancing, even those who have been inoculated, until an overwhelming portion of the population has received the full vaccine.
When you get vaccinated, health experts recommend waiting where you are for 15 minutes, in case your body has an allergic reaction to the dose. Reactions are rare, but it’s important to be near critical treatment in case one occurs, Paauw said.
If you have severe allergies or have had a reaction to a vaccine in the past, wait for 30 minutes, Paauw said.