A patient receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a pop-up site in Rainier Beach.

As State Prepares to Reopen, Some Communities Still Have Lower Vaccination Rates

by Elizabeth Turnbull

After over a year of pushing through the pandemic, state and county health officials are hopeful about declining COVID-19 cases and hospitalization rates. But at the same time, significant pockets of Washington State and King County residents remain unvaccinated as restrictions are set to be lifted statewide next week.

“We still have people that have not been vaccinated, we still have people who are unprotected, and we still have people that are going to be at risk for COVID-19,” said Dr. Umair Shah, the Washington Secretary of Health at a press conference on Wednesday, June 23. “We want to make sure that that message of vaccination continues to be there.”

As of last week, 70% of King County residents 16 years and older had completed their vaccine series, and 68% of residents in Washington in that same age group have also been fully vaccinated, according to recent statistics from Public Health – Seattle & King County and the Washington Department of Health. These numbers mark an important shift in future COVID-19 precautions as Gov. Jay Inslee plans to lift the mask directive and other restrictions on June 30.

Unsurprisingly, demand for vaccinations has been softening nationwide and across the state. At the same time, health officials are remaining cognisant of pockets of the population that remain unprotected while the rest of society makes plans to get a bit closer to normal.

In reality, more than half of the state is not yet fully vaccinated — if residents under 12 are counted — according to Shah. In addition, geographical and racial disparities exist in rates of vaccination, both in the county and state.

During the first two weeks of June, South and Southeast King County experienced a rate of new COVID-19 cases two to four times higher than the county overall. In addition, Black/African American and Latino residents have the lowest vaccination rates among racial or ethnic groups in King County. According to Public Health – Seattle & King County’s COVID-19 dashboard, only 54% of the county’s Black residents are completely vaccinated, and just 56% of Hispanic/Latino residents are fully vaccinated.

Bar graph depicting the vaccination rates based on ethnicity with blue indicating currently on pace to reach target by June 30 and red/orange indicating currently on pace to reach target later than June 30. Sourced from Public Health – Seattle & King County’s COVID-19 Vaccination Summary for King County.

Though 70% of white residents in King County are projected to be fully vaccinated by July 22, Black/African American residents are not projected to reach this benchmark until as late as Oct. 2 — long after Inslee’s mask directive will be lifted at the end of this month.

With a current vaccination rate in King County of 56%, current projections say that 70% of Hispanic or Latino residents will not be fully vaccinated until Sept. 23.

Reasons for not getting vaccinated can be varied and personal, but a study released by the University of Washington this spring has revealed that vaccine hesitancy among Latinos in Washington has actually been low.

Instead, researchers found that a significant percentage of Latino residents in Washington have concerns regarding costs associated with getting the vaccine — for instance, the economic impact of missing a few days of work in jobs that often don’t provide sick leave.

“I think there are many factors at work, I still think that yes, there are questions around hesitancy that have to do with concerns about vaccine safety,” said Dr. Leo Morales, co-director of the Latino Center for Health at the University of Washington, in an interview with the Emerald. “But I think that a significant amount of the lack of vaccination is still due to access and concerns around cost.”

Vaccination rates in South King County continue to lag behind the county overall, with 64% of residents in the South End fully vaccinated, and projected to reach the 70% threshold by Aug. 6. In response, Public Health – Seattle & King County has pushed an aggressive equity program to bring those rates up, including pop-up vaccination sites and teams of community navigators who work to increase vaccination rates among underserved populations.

Elizabeth Turnbull is a journalist with reporting experience in the U.S. and the Middle East. She has a passion for covering human-centric issues and doing so consistently.

📸 Featured Image: A patient receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a pop-up site in Rainier Beach. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)

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