by Ben Adlin
Editors’ Note: This article will be updated periodically as new information becomes available. New sections will be dated for your convenience.
Beginning Thursday, April 15, everyone in Washington 16 years or older will be eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Chances are that’s you. So now that you qualify for a shot, how do you actually get one?
The good news: There are plenty of places around South Seattle and South King County that offer the vaccines. Vaccination is also free of charge, no matter where you get it or whether or not you have insurance.
The not-so-good news: Finding a shot — at least for now — might take some time. Millions of people across the state have become eligible in recent weeks, and waitlists are getting long. The region is also forecast to see a near-term shortage in vaccines as manufacturers scramble to ramp up production.
“Demand far, far, far outpaces supply,” said Kelsey Nyland, a spokesperson for the Seattle mayor’s office. As of late last week, Nyland told the Emerald, a City-run waitlist for vaccine appointments had around 120,000 signups.
Complicating things further is an immediate pause on administering Johnson & Johnson vaccines, which the State announced Tuesday, April 13, after a warning from federal health regulators that six people who received the shot had experienced severe side effects involving blood clots. Johnson & Johnson makes up about 6% of vaccines in the state, state health officials said. The vast majority of doses are of Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, which are not associated with blood clots and will continue to be administered. [Editor’s Note: On Friday, April 23, 2021, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices voted to recommend resuming vaccinations using the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in the United States.]
The side effects believed to be associated with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are extremely rare — so far observed in roughly 1 in a million people who received the shot — and state officials said they expect the pause to be only temporary as regulators evaluate those cases over the coming days. But the unexpected halt has already canceled some vaccination appointments and could further slow Washington’s vaccine rollout as eligibility expands.
“We’re doing everything we can,” Dr. Umair Shaw, Washington’s secretary of health, said at a press conference Tuesday. “We want to make sure we stay cautious as we move forward during this pause, but we are also confident that this pause will be temporary and that we will be able to move forward with the administration of all three of these vaccines in the future.”
Black, Brown, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) are being prioritized in the City and County vaccine rollout efforts, and priority will be given to residents of certain zip codes — predominantly in and around South Seattle — in an effort at ensuring equitable access. But even those groups are likely to experience some wait.
To make the process as painless as possible, this guide explains how to locate and schedule a vaccine appointment and what to expect once you do. With a little planning and patience, getting a vaccine for yourself or a loved one should be fairly simple.
Where Do I Go? How Do I Make an Appointment?
The first step to getting a COVID-19 vaccine is finding an appointment. Given the sheer number of people trying to get the vaccine, this can sometimes feel daunting. Available appointments often come and go within minutes.
While the rush isn’t expected to last long — the U.S. is on track to see a vaccine surplus sometime this summer — Nyland advised that people consider multiple options for securing a vaccine. “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” she said. “Assume multiple strategies.”
If you’re getting a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, these require two doses. But don’t worry — you’ll only need to go hunting for a vaccine once. Most providers, including City- and County-run vaccination sites, will schedule an appointment for your second dose at the time of your first shot. If not, they provide instructions on scheduling a second dose. Both doses of Pfizer or Moderna vaccines are required for maximum protection from the virus.
If you have a primary care doctor or are enrolled as a patient at a health clinic, start there. Some providers have separate sign-up systems specifically for their patients, making it easier to schedule an appointment.
If you don’t have a primary care doctor (or even if you do), there are lots of other options:
- The City of Seattle has established four vaccination locations: Rainier Beach, West Seattle, North Seattle, and Lumen Field in SODO. To make an appointment, you’ll first need to get on the waitlist, which you can do either by signing up for notifications through a City website or by calling the City’s customer service hotline at (206) 684-2489. The website is available in seven languages, and interpreters are available to provide language assistance over the phone.
- Update, April 26, 2021: The City of Seattle announced that due to increasing vaccine supplies there are currently 17,000 appointments open between April 27 and May 3 at three of the City’s vaccination sites closest to South Seattle: Lumen Field, Rainier Beach, and West Seattle. If you’re 16 years or older, you can sign up for an appointment online here.
In addition, the City announced the week of April 19 that anyone 60 years or older can receive a walk-up COVID-19 vaccine at two pop-up sites in or near the South End: at the Rainier Beach site (Mon– Sat, 9 a.m.– 4 p.m. at the Atlantic City Boat Ramp at 8702 Seward Park Ave S, 98118) and a site in West Seattle: (Mon–Sat, 9 a.m.–4 p.m. at 2801 SW Thistle St, 98126). The City’s “Good Neighbor” program also qualifies anyone over 16 years old to receive a walk-up vaccine at each of these two sites if they accompany someone 60 years or older. Find more information here.
- Outside Seattle, King County has opened vaccination sites in Auburn, Kent, and Redmond. Pre-registration for either the Auburn or Kent locations can be done through a County website, currently available only in English, while registration for the Redmond facility is handled through a separate site. You can also call the County’s COVID-19 call center at (206) 477-3977 between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. Language interpretation services are available.
- Many pharmacies and drugstore chains — including Safeway, Walgreens, Costco, QFC, and others — offer vaccine appointments and have set up registration systems that can be accessed online or over the phone. These companies receive vaccine allocations directly from the federal government, meaning their supply is separate from the City and County stockpile. Note that some of these companies may require you to set up an account in order to register.
- Dozens of other area vaccination sites can be found through various websites. A state-run tool allows you to search for available appointments at clinics within 50 miles of a zip code, although many who’ve gone through the registration process prefer a volunteer-led site, CovidWA.com, which offers more search features and a new option allowing for text alerts. The two groups are now sharing information, although the systems remain separate.
- Other grassroots-led efforts, including the private Facebook groups Find a Covid Shot WA and Seattle Vaccine Hunters, offer crowdsourced information about vaccine availability and other details.
If you choose to pursue multiple options, you might find that you’ve put your name on a few different waitlists. Nyland, in the mayor’s office, said that’s OK — just be sure to take your name off other waitlists once you finalize an appointment.
“People should feel comfortable putting their name on as many waitlists as they’re eligible for,” she said. “The one thing that I ask from folks who sign up is that they unsubscribe if they get an appointment by other means.”
Once you’re on a waitlist, expect to wait between a few days and a couple weeks to hear back. Same-day appointments are rare, and officials declined to offer an estimated timeline, saying availability and demand are changing quickly.
Keep in mind that the current pause on Johnson & Johnson vaccinations may complicate scheduling, and in some cases appointments may need to be canceled or delayed. Some providers have already canceled those appointments, while others are working to replace planned Johnson & Johnson vaccines with doses from Pfizer or Moderna.
Nyland said Tuesday the City does not expect it will need to reschedule existing vaccination appointments at City-run sites. State health officials said they’re coordinating with providers on how to respond, adding that people who have already scheduled a Johnson & Johnson vaccine should expect to hear from those providers.
“Those clinics will be putting information out on their own channels,” Shaw said, “whether it’s media information, social media, their website, or making contact with the individual to give them the additional steps.”
For those unable to make an appointment or who would prefer not to register in advance, some clinics offer walk-in service. Around the Seattle area, nearly all of these appear to be operated by Sea Mar Community Health Centers, which includes locations in South Park, White Center, Burien, Kent, and Federal Way. The sites generally open at 8 a.m. each day, though the line often gets started around 7 a.m. Check the Sea Mar website before heading out to determine vaccine availability, which is updated daily.
Patients at International Community Health Services (ICHS), which has been doing vaccine outreach in and around the International District, can call the clinic to schedule appointments immediately (non-patients can use their online system to make appointments as they’re made available to the general public).
Another option, especially for BIPOC communities in and around South Seattle, is to be vaccinated through a community-organized vaccination event. City and County officials have partnered with trusted organizations already, and the groups continue to arrange pop-up clinics at community centers and places of worship in addition to organizing priority vaccination sessions at City- and County-run sites.
Because these events aren’t open to the general public, organizers encourage residents to stay connected to places of worship and other community groups. “One thing I have learned when it comes to navigating the system for resources is networking,” said Thyda Ros, a Khmer community organizer and advocate who has helped others through the vaccination process.
Ros spearheaded a vaccination event that administered doses to nearly 300 people earlier this month, primarily Khmer elders. “All of our elders had a great experience,” she said, “as they felt a sense of belonging as well as reducing their fear and anxiety around the vaccine.”
What Do I Need to Get a Vaccine?
Not much! Vaccines are available free of charge to anyone 16 or older. Most vaccination sites ask you to bring a photo ID and health insurance card, if you have them. Vaccines are available regardless of immigration or documentation status.
“There are places that do ask for ID, but it’s not required,” said Meredith Li-Vollmer, a risk communications specialist for Public Health – Seattle & King County. Nor do you need to provide a Social Security number. “We have heard of instances where providers mistakenly have been asking for Social Security numbers. You do not have to give it, and we’ve been following up with those providers.”
While health insurance isn’t required for a vaccine and you won’t be charged regardless of your coverage, some clinics will ask for your insurance information because they may be able to receive payment for administrative fees. City-run sites won’t even ask for insurance information, Nyland said, with the exception of the vaccination site in North Seattle, which is operated by a separate contractor.
The only information collected at the state level is for the Washington Immunization Information System. “It is considered part of a person’s medical record,” said Li-Vollmer, “so it’s protected health information that can’t be shared with external agencies and no individually identifying information is reported to CDC.”
In terms of what to bring to your appointment, pack light. Some vaccination sites, such as the one at Lumen Field, have security checkpoints, and large backpacks can slow down the process. Remember to wear short sleeves or similar clothing that allows for the shot to be administered in the arm.
What Vaccines Are Available? Can I Choose Which One I Get?
Three vaccines — by drugmakers Pfizer–BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson — have been approved for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration so far. All have been deemed safe and effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalization, and death resulting from COVID-19.
On Tuesday, April 13, administration of Johnson & Johnson vaccines were halted over concerns that some patients might develop severe blood clots. Federal, regional, and state health agencies are all analyzing the data and are scheduled to meet in the coming days over how to proceed.
All three vaccines are approved for adult use. The Pfizer vaccine is currently the only one approved for use in 16- and 17-year-olds, meaning those individuals will need to make sure they look for sites that offer the Pfizer vaccine. All the vaccines are being studied for future use in younger children.
Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require a second dose between three weeks and a month after the initial shot. Generally speaking, providers will make your second appointment at the time of your first dose, so there’s no need to go through the waitlist process again. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a single-dose injection.
While you may be able to choose which vaccine you receive, many sites only carry one of the vaccines. Others carry multiple types but don’t let patients choose which they receive. Public health officials broadly agree that the best vaccine is the one that’s available.
Nyland said that City-run sites currently don’t have the capacity to allow people to choose which vaccine they receive, though that could eventually change. “The bottom line is that all three of these vaccines are highly effective,” she said. “They accomplish what they set out to do.”
What Are the Side Effects?
Side effects vary significantly from person to person, as well as based on the type of vaccine administered. Some people report flu-like symptoms, such as headache, fatigue, fever, chills, or muscle aches. These seem to be more common after the second doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which create an immune response through a different mechanism than the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Side effects usually clear up within a day or two after they appear.
“The side effects can be uncomfortable and inconvenient,” said Li-Vollmer at Public Health – Seattle & King County, “but it’s much more important to get full protection.”
That’s why it’s especially important that people who receive Pfizer and Moderna vaccines come back for their second dose. “Really to get the full benefit, the full protection, you need a second dose,” she said.
A very small number of people have experienced a severe allergic reaction after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. This is extremely rare, but as a precaution, you’ll need to stay at the vaccination site for at least 15 minutes after receiving a vaccine. This allows attendants to monitor and respond to any signs of a reaction.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, meanwhile, was put on pause this week after reports that six people, all women between 18 and 48, developed severe blood clots within a few weeks after receiving the shot. So far about 6.8 million people have received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Shaw, the Washington state secretary of health, said the reaction appears to be linked to a condition called thrombocytopenia, or a low blood platelet count. He urged patients to contact a physician if they experience certain side effects within three weeks after the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, including severe headache, abdominal pain, leg pain, or shortness of breath.
“We have a vaccine system that’s about getting as much vaccine out as quickly as possible to communities across this country and across our state, and we want to do so both quickly and equitably,” he said. “At the same time, when when we learn in the health community that something is going on, we want to take careful consideration of what that is.”
Because the side effect is so rare, officials said, it wasn’t apparent in earlier vaccine safety data. State, regional, and federal authorities are scheduled to meet about the concerns over the coming days.
What About Accessibility and Vaccine Equity?
City and County officials say that addressing the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on BIPOC communities has been a priority throughout the vaccination process. Partnerships with community groups, faith-based organizations, labor unions, and other associations have targeted elders, immigrants, and refugees, among others.
“Vaccine equity remains central to our process,” Nyland, at the mayor’s office, told the Emerald last week. “As of this moment, roughly 55% of the people the City has vaccinated identify as BIPOC in a city that’s around 67% white.”
The City and County both also use zip codes to prioritize vaccine appointments. “If you live in South King County, we really do try to prioritize appointments,” Li-Vollmer said. “That’s where there’s been the highest rate of COVID cases, and the impact has been highest in those zip codes.”
Trang Tu, a community organizer who works to facilitate equitable access to vaccines and related services, told the Emerald that while she initially noticed accessibility obstacles for BIPOC elders at City and County vaccination sites, the departments have worked to improve the process drastically based on feedback she and other advocates have provided.
At Lumen Field, which Tu said was probably the most widely accessible site, organizers have instituted a greeter system, with roving volunteers who are dressed in bright colors and hold large overhead signs for visibility.
The helpers are focused on language support, mobility, and “really anyone needing special assistance,” Tu said. “Interpreters come out, they’ll escort people from start to finish. There is no handoff,” she added. The site has also made printed materials, such as after-vaccination information, available in more languages since it opened.
“There’s just this overriding focus on centering people who need extra support,” Tu said, “ and not just accommodating them.”
For people who need language or other accessibility accommodations when looking for or making appointments, Tu recommended the Facebook group Find a Covid Shot WA. Not only does the group specifically prioritize helping high-risk communities, it also runs a volunteer phone service that fields individual questions and supports dozens of languages.
Why Get Vaccinated?
Even as more and more Americans receive vaccines, cases of COVID-19 are on the rise, both nationally and here at home. “We are seeing increased cases right now, and it does put stress on our hospital systems,” said Li-Vollmer at Public Health – Seattle & King County. “We want to make sure we have plenty of capacity for that.”
As health officials have repeatedly stressed, all three vaccines are effective at preventing serious illness, hospitalization, and death. And vaccination doesn’t just help individuals — it also minimizes the spread of outbreaks as more and more people are protected from the virus.
Those public health impacts allow for schools and businesses to continue to reopen and for friends and family to begin seeing one another, often after more than a year apart.
“That’s when you can really spend time with each other. That’s when you can hug each other again and do things you miss doing with each other,” Li-Vollmer said. “I know everyone is just longing to be with the people they care about again and do the kinds of activities they miss doing. Getting a vaccine gives you the confidence to know that when you do that, you’ll be safe.”
I Have More Questions!
A good place to start is King County’s COVID-19 vaccine FAQ page. It includes information on vaccine development and safety, how the vaccines work, as well as more details on availability and what to expect. You may also be able to find answers from volunteer-led resources such as the Find a Covid Shot WA Facebook group.
Editor’s Note: This article was updated on April 23, 2021, to note the CDC’s recommendation to end the pause in Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccinations.
Ben Adlin is a reporter and editor who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives on Capitol Hill. He’s covered politics and legal affairs from Seattle and Los Angeles for the past decade and has been an Emerald contributor since May 2020, writing about community and municipal news. Find him on Twitter at @badlin.
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