Delay of Vaccine Delivery a Concern, But Washington DOH Guardedly Optimistic About COVID-19 Cases

by Jack Russillo

Last weekend’s nationwide stormy weather affected vaccine shipments from the east coast to the west coast, meaning that Washington State health care providers will see delays in vaccine shipment arrivals.

The Washington State Department of Health (DOH) estimates that more than 90% of this week’s allocation to the state will arrive late due to stormy weather across the country, DOH officials said in a virtual press conference on Thursday, Feb 18. Moderna vaccines have not shipped yet this week and Pfizer vaccines did not ship Monday, with only a limited number of vaccine shipments processed Tuesday and Wednesday. These delays caused the DOH to close its Kennewick and Spokane vaccination sites through the weekend, and others might follow suit. 

“Unfortunately, this week we encountered a hurdle in the vaccine shipments due to winter weather delays,” said Michele Roberts, the acting assistant secretary for the DOH, during the press conference. “We hope deliveries will happen later this week but we are in a holding pattern until the weather around the east coast lightens up and vaccines can ship out.”

Looking ahead, Washington’s three-week forecast for receiving vaccines from the federal government is gradually showing increases in total doses the State will receive in that time period. Beginning the week of February 21, a total of 263,570 doses (146,110 first doses; 117,460 second doses) will increase to 292,220 total doses (146,110 first doses; 146,110 second doses) by the second week of March.

Despite the increases, the allocations still do not meet the number of doses providers have requested. For the week of Feb. 21, Washington State vaccine providers requested 436,720 total doses of vaccine, which is 173,150 more doses than the State will receive from the federal government. In the coming weeks, the DOH will continue to honor providers’ second-dose requests and prioritize vaccine series completion, but State-run mass-vaccination sites will be focusing on second doses to “ensure the best protection for our immunity,” Roberts said.  First-dose appointments will be limited in upcoming weeks until more second doses have been administered.

“Right now, we are looking at all the places that people get the vaccine — hospitals, healthcare systems, clinics, pharmacies, mass-vaccination sites, and our local health department and Tribal partners — and we’re trying to find creative and innovative ways to ensure access to all Washingtonians,” said Umair Shah, Washington’s secretary of health, at the virtual press conference. “Once we saw the race and ethnicity data for vaccinations and particularly lower vaccination in the Latinx and Hispanic communities, we immediately began looking at our statewide mass-vaccination sites to identify ways that we could improve access within these core cites that we have set up.”

Shah began the virtual press conference by noting that previously reported data for those who have received at least one dose of a vaccine “do not necessarily have the same racial and ethnic makeup as the state’s general population.”

“In particular, when we compared data of the people over the age of 65 who have been vaccinated to the state’s population of people over the age of 65, some race and ethnicity groups are still underrepresented, but the gaps are markedly smaller than our initial comparisons showed,” said Shah.

For the population over the age of 65 in the state, 3.6% are Hispanic but only 2.5% of people over the age of 65 in the state who have had at least one dose of the vaccine were Hispanic. Similarly, 2.1% of the state’s population over 65 is Black while only 1.2% of the people over the age of 65 who have had at least one dose of vaccine are Black. These numbers were more specific and less stark than those presented at a DOH press conference a week ago.

In other COVID-19-related news this week, the DOH allotted the City of Seattle 1,500 first doses and 1,000 second doses of the Moderna vaccine to be distributed to older adults living in affordable housing and eligible Latinx communities at mobile pop-up clinics. The Seattle Fire Department Mobile Vaccination Teams will continue providing first doses of the vaccine to  people 65 and older; those 50 years and older in multigenerational households who live in affordable housing buildings; and those same eligible adults in Latinx communities in West Seattle, South Park, and South Seattle.

The pop-up clinics come in conjunction with Seattle City Council and Mayor Jenny Durkan’s recently approved resolution to address strategies for more equitable vaccine distribution, such as explicitly focusing on BIPOC communities, coordinating with community-based leaders and organizations, making vaccine appointments available at times and locations convenient for vulnerable populations, and reducing documentation and disability barriers.

Working with community partners to help Spanish-speaking communities register for vaccination, the DOH is leaving approximately 20% of vaccine reservations for phone-only scheduling to provide more equitable access for people who have linguistic or technological barriers to making a vaccine reservation. So far, the DOH has contracted with more than 60 community organizations to provide outreach for vaccines, which has been translated into up to 37 different languages.

“I think it’s an all-hand approach,” said Paj Nandi, Director of Community Relations and Equity at the DOH, during the press conference. “We have to look at our state systems. How can we make our practices more accessible, linguistically appropriate, culturally responsive, and community-informed? We’re providing that same guidance to our provider sites and to our local health partners so that they have the same tools and we can provide that technical assistance as we move forward. And our community partners have always known these solutions. I think they’ve been telling us for a long time, ‘Hey Public Health, listen to us,’ and I think that’s what we need to do better so that we can quickly resolve some of those barriers in a more equitable way.”

To guarantee eligible communities receive vaccines, the DOH will begin allocating more doses to counties with larger populations that qualify under Phases 1A and 1B, Tier 1. This may mean some counties get more vaccines than others. 

“Please remember that this is a team effort,” said Roberts. “Any vaccine that gets into our state helps protect all of us by building community immunity.” 

A portion of the increased number of vaccines coming to the state will be coming through the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, which starts next week. Due to the allocation increase, three more pharmacies will be added to the program: Walmart, Rite Aid, and Kroger (which owns Fred Meyer and QFC). These pharmacies will join Safeway/Albertsons, Costco, and Health Mart Independent Pharmacies, which are already participating. Program allocations for next week have not been released, but the federal government announced the nationwide program is doubling in size. This week, Washington received about 22,500 doses in the pharmacy program. 

Overall, vaccination efforts have improved since early January. On January 3, 29% of vaccines were getting into the arms of Washingtonians and, as of February 15, more than 1,201,120 doses of vaccine have been given across the state, which is nearly 83% of the 1,453,425 doses that have been delivered to the state’s providers and long-term care programs. Washington is currently averaging 26,204 vaccine doses administered each day. 

Another vaccine is arriving on the heels of this increase. The single-dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine is currently undergoing independent reviews for authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Western States Scientific Safety Review Workgroup before it can be distributed across Washington, where DOH officials are looking forward to the vaccine reinforcements.

“In Washington State, what we have been doing is working,” Scott Lindquist, an epidemiologist for communicable diseases at the DOH, said at the press conference. “If you look at our data dashboard, which I really encourage you to do, we’ve essentially had three waves of disease. The first wave being the initial small one, the second being a little larger, and this third one being this massive wave. I’m boiling down a lot of complex epidemiology into this phrase, but we are down the back end of this third wave. It looks really, really promising. And what we’ve done in Washington is clearly working. With the new vaccine on board, lots of people are getting vaccinated, our rates and our case counts [are] coming down, it’s all putting us in a very new era in this epidemic in Washington State. It’s all very encouraging. It’s the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jack Russillo has been reporting in Western Washington since 2013. He covers the environment, social justice, and other topics that affect a sustainable and equitable future. He currently lives in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.

Featured Image: A screenshot of a graph on the Washington State Department of Health COVID-19 Data Dashboard showing the progression of the COVID-19 outbreak in WA by cases (between the summer of 2020 and Feb. 17, 2021).

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