King County, With Second-Lowest COVID-19 Rate in U.S., Still Needs More Vaccines

by Jack Russillo

Acquiring additional doses of the COVID-19 vaccine is the main constraint for getting King County residents vaccinated, King County Public Health Director Patty Hayes said at a virtual Town Hall on the evening of March 3. 

The virtual Town Hall event came less than a week after New York Times analysis showed that, of the top 100 most populous U.S. counties, King County has the second-lowest COVID-19 infection rate in the entire country, after Honolulu County in Hawai‘i. Snohomish County to the north has the third-lowest rate in the country while Pierce County to the south has the sixth-lowest rate. King County is seventh on the list for the lowest number of deaths from the virus. As a state, Washington has the fifth-lowest COVID-19 case rate despite being the country’s epicenter of the pandemic more than a year ago.

“I’m very proud to be here, but that’s a huge thank you that goes out to all of you,” said Hayes. “This has been a response from the entire community. My team is just so grateful for the support we’ve had from all the elected officials sticking to the science but also everyone in the community.”

The King County community, however, will likely have to continue to bide its time before the newly approved single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine is distributed, Hayes said, and noted that supplies of the new vaccine in King County are “extremely limited.” 

“I’m not sure King County will even get any,” Hayes said. 

Hayes stated that King County is attempting to vaccinate 70% of its adults, which would lead the County toward its goal of achieving herd immunity. There are still no approved vaccines for people under the age of 16, but Hayes expects developments on that front over the summer.

As for how to continue to vaccinate King County residents, Hayes said that King County Public Health has established a multi-modal vaccine delivery system to distribute the vaccine to certain communities in different ways. This system includes high-volume sites like mass-vaccination hubs, medium-capacity methods such as through pharmacies or grocery stores, and low-volume sites such as mobile vaccine teams or pop-up vaccination clinics.

As of March 3, 20% of King County residents (369,359 people) have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 11.2% (207,315 people) have been fully vaccinated. 

The federal government is in charge of distributing the vaccine across the country, but it’s the State government that enrolls healthcare providers to give them the training and the resources to safely vaccinate their clients. The State health department also chooses which providers to ship the vaccine to, after receiving guidance from County agencies for how to best reach priority populations.

While the last four weeks have seen King County receive its four largest weekly shipments of the vaccine — around 80,000 doses — the number of doses is still below what the County wants. Within King County, there are 391 provider vaccination sites, but only 24 received doses this past week, Hayes said. A key issue in making appointments is the lack of a centralized system to coordinate the providers with clients and their available doses.

“Doses remain our constraint,” said Hayes. “I just want to let everyone know that, from what I can tell, we’re going to experience a slow increase over the next few weeks. As President Biden has promised to up the [vaccine production], I think we will see it slowly go up, but I don’t expect to see a huge bump until we get into April. This is part of the challenge with adding school employees and childcare workers right now.”

Educators and childcare workers were recently added to the 1B Tier 2 list for people eligible to receive their vaccination — and are immediately eligible — while workers in law enforcement, grocery stores, and other essential jobs will qualify for the vaccine on March 22. Educator and childcare worker vaccinations will be carried out through existing providers and the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program.

“Like President Biden, I am grateful for the hard work and sacrifice of educators every day and especially during this pandemic,” said Gov. Jay Inslee in a press release. “The good news is that schools will be able to open and we are pleased that teachers will be back in the classroom. This should give educators more confidence to return to in-person learning and that it can be done with the safety protocols that are being used by 1,400 other schools in our state right now. We will continue the current state plans and goals to focus on those most at risk, including older adults and those facing the greatest equity gaps.”

Hayes also spoke about some of the equity gaps Inslee mentioned, primarily that the coronavirus continues to affect BIPOC people at a disproportionate rate. To curb the disparities — which show up in lower vaccination numbers for Black King County residents, the only racial demographic with less than 35% of people over the age of 65 vaccinated — Hayes said that King County Public Health is having more conversations about how to increase partnerships with community organizations to improve information distribution and accessibility and ensure that more priority populations can be vaccinated. The Kent and Renton mass-vaccination sites, for example, were originally chosen for their locations due to their close proximity to BIPOC population centers, but they’re only distributing about a quarter of the possible 2,000 doses per day due to a lack of supply.

King County Public Health is currently working with community clinic professionals from International Community Health Services and Sea Mar Community Health Centers to help eligible BIPOC people get registered for their vaccine appointments and to ensure they get vaccinated. Working with community-based organizations is “an essential bridge into both the communities having a trusted voice” and identifying “the best venue for folks to get vaccinated,” said Hayes. There are emerging partnerships with Uber and Lyft to help people arrive at their vaccination sites.

“Our priority this month will continue to be these communities,” said Hayes. “I know that if we don’t continue to focus on these communities of need, they will continue to see the barriers that they have seen historically. That’s where our commitment remains.”

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 courtesy of ICHS.

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