by Kevin Schofield
COVID-19 is on everyone’s mind right now, so this week we’re going to have one very long read and one very short one on two topics related to the virus. First, with all the good news about vaccines this week, it’s time to take a look at Washington State’s plan for distributing and prioritizing doses. Second, we’re going to see what the latest thinking is about COVID hazards while flying.
Washington’s COVID-19 Vaccination Plan
Last month the CDC required every state to submit an interim COVID-19 vaccination plan to the agency, giving each the opportunity to articulate its priorities, its needs, and any specific challenges it might face in distributing and administering the vaccine.
The first twenty five pages of Washington State’s seventy-two-page plan are preface materials, laying out the process that the State used to write its plan and listing all the stakeholder groups that it consulted. Then we start getting into the meaty stuff. Following the CDC’s guidelines, the State is expecting vaccine distribution to happen in three phases:
- Limited doses available, which need to be prioritized
- Doses widely available, which need a scaled-up system to distribute them across the state, maintain them at cold temperatures, and deliver them into patients’ arms
- Demand for vaccinations tapers off once the bulk of the population has received them
The big challenge with the first phase is determining who is first in line to get the vaccine. According to the plan (page 40), the State assumes that it will receive about 2% of the available doses during phase one, which they expect to be about 150,000 to 450,000 doses in total across the first two months. Below is a table from the plan listing their expected “Priority 1” recipients — which total far more than 450,000. There are 500,000 healthcare workers alone in the state and another three million individuals with medical conditions that make them high-risk for severe complications if they were to contract COVID (also known as “co-morbidities”). Appendix A (starting on page 65) gives the State’s best estimate of several different sub-populations across age, race/ethnicity, and workforce characteristics; it’s a daunting task to have to decide which groups get priority — and for as long as there aren’t enough doses of the vaccine to go around, how to further prioritize within each group.
Screenshot from the Washington State Interim COVID-19 Vaccination Plan.
But even once there are plenty of doses, there are still challenges. The first two vaccines expected to be approved can only be stored at room temperature for a few hours before they degrade, so distribution will require refrigerator and freezer trucks, and each site where they will be administered will need refrigerators and possibly freezers to store the vaccine. Also, depending on how quickly production ramps up, administering the vaccine might turn out to be its own logistical challenge, similar to how COVID testing is a bottleneck today. The state will need to partner with a wide range of healthcare providers to ensure that they are staffed and equipped to vaccinate patients — all while continuing to maintain COVID safety protocols since it can take a person weeks to build up a robust immunity after receiving the vaccine.
And as the report details, the State will also need a communication plan to let all Washingtonians know how to get a vaccine, as well as a procedure to monitor on an ongoing basis the safety of the vaccination program.
How Risky is Air Travel?
The CDC, the Washington State Department of Health, and Public Health — Seattle and King County are all strongly advising against travelling for Thanksgiving given the current spike in COVID-19 infections. That’s very good advice, particularly given how many people who contract the virus either don’t show symptoms or are contagious for days before feeling sick. Sitting around the Thanksgiving dinner table shouldn’t be a super-spreader event. But for those travelling in the coming weeks — for the holidays or for other reasons — how risky is air travel? New guidance from the American Medical Association suggests that airplanes themselves are not a huge risk and perhaps lower risk than other buildings we might frequent.
The Journal of the AMA has produced a one-page explainer that discusses the airflow inside a commercial airplane and why it’s not so bad (spoiler: air flows top-down, is filtered, and is regularly exchanged with fresh air). They back this up with statistics showing that the number of documented cases of infections on airplanes is low.
Still, they recommend steps that airports, airlines, and passengers should take to further reduce the risk. Some recommendations for passengers are well known: wear a mask, distance yourself from others, don’t touch your face, and wash your hands often. But there are some airplane-specific suggestions too, such as turning that overhead air nozzle on full and pointing it straight at your head.
Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and the founder of Seattle City Council Insight, a website providing independent news and analysis of the Seattle City Council and City Hall. He also co-hosts the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast with Brian Callanan, and appears from time to time on Converge Media and KUOW’s Week in Review.
Before getting into journalism Kevin worked at Microsoft for twenty six years, including seventeen in the company’s research division. He has twin daughters, loves to cook, and is trying hard to learn Spanish and the guitar.
Featured image is attributed to Marco Verch Professional Photographer under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.