State Moves to Accelerate Vaccination Timeline Against Backdrop of Frightening Spike in COVID-19 Cases

by Carolyn Bick

Washington State will be accelerating its vaccination timeline by moving into Phase 1B within the next few days, the state’s Department of Health (DOH) Health Secretary Dr. Umair Shah announced in a press briefing on Jan. 13. But this appears to hinge on some bad news: not only is the state’s case rate peaking again, DOH officials say the state is in “urgent need” of professionally licensed health care professionals, particularly nurses, to volunteer to help the state in its efforts against COVID-19.

While neither Shah, the other DOH officials, nor other health experts included in the afternoon briefing could reveal many details about the accelerated move — they said those would be coming in the next several days — Shah emphasized over and over again in both his initial remarks and in his later answers to reporters during the question-and-answer portion of the press conference that the speed with which the state could move into Phase 1B would be dependent upon the amount of vaccines the state could consistently obtain. Phase 1B had initially been slated to begin later this month.

“Without consistent and enhanced vaccine supply, by making pronouncements, we are simply having people get into even longer lines, which only adds to the frustration and consternation of everyone and doesn’t help us get vaccines administered,” Shah said. “While all of us want more vaccines into communities and the arms of people, we have to have consistent and enhanced supply of those vaccines from our federal partners.”

Assistant Health Secretary Michele Roberts emphasized the need for health care professionals who have not yet been vaccinated to get their vaccines as soon as possible. While the window for health care professionals to get vaccinated will not close once Phase 1B is implemented, it is critical that those working in a health care setting who have contact with the public on a daily basis get vaccinated, Roberts said.

“You need to get your vaccine, and you need to get it now,” Roberts said. “We are moving forward quickly, and we want to make sure that, while we are still in Phase 1A, you are taking advantage of having the first place in line. And now is the time to get that shot. If you haven’t done it yet, the clock is ticking.”

It is unclear whether the DOH’s decision to accelerate its vaccination timeline has to do with the bad news DOH Health Officer Dr. Scott Lindquist shared in the press conference. 

Lindquist shared several concerning data points that show that, while the hotspots throughout the state have not changed, the number of COVID-19 cases throughout the state are once again reaching a peak and remain far above what they were at both the outset of the pandemic and the peak in the summer. Perhaps even more concerning is the fact that, over the last several weeks, officials have been emphasizing the need to bend the curve down, not just flatten it — and now that cases are increasing, the state is reaching a frighteningly critical point.

“[There is] this very concerning blip in cases. You can see one of the main concerns is that we are at higher rates than we have ever been since the beginning of this in March [2020],” Lindquist said. “But we were very happy — and I am talking about last week — [with] a downward trend, which, unfortunately, has shown an increase again. Many of our counties are showing a sharp increase. We don’t know how far this is going to go. … The concern, very clearly, is we are having spikes in cases in many of our counties within the state.”

Though Lindquist said that hospitalizations remain steady and have not yet risen, he suspects that a rise may not be far behind, as hospitalizations tend to follow case rates.

DOH Deputy Sec. of Health Lacy Fehrenbach also put out what appeared to amount to a plea for professionally licensed health care workers, specifically nurses, to volunteer to assist in the state’s efforts against the disease.

“As we move into the second year of the pandemic, we are in urgent need of professionally licensed volunteers to support some of our key COVID-19 response mission,” Fehrenbach said. “Currently, our greatest need is for nursing professionals like registered nurses and nurse practitioners. We are also looking for doctors, physician assistants, pharmacists, and other medical professionals.”

As a volunteer, Fehrenbach said, a person could be asked to assist local facilities with vaccination, could care for COVID-19 patients, or support medical staff or missions in other ways. If a person is interested in assisting, Fehrenbach asked that they register in WAserv, Washington State’s registry of volunteers.

Carolyn Bick is a local journalist and photographer. As the Emerald’s Watchdragon reporter, they dive deep into local issues to keep the public informed and ensure those in positions of power are held accountable for their actions. You can reach them here and can check out their work here and here.

Featured image is a screenshot from the DOH’s COVID-19 dashboard of the map showing the disease burden of different counties throughout the state. The darker the region, the more diseased a county is. The map was last updated Jan. 12, 2021.

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