Randall Tomaras got up at 6:30 a.m. on Thursday to head to the COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Sequim, thinking he’d be one of the first in line. It turned out that about 2,000 people had the same idea.
News had spread that the drive-through clinic, run by the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, was offering vaccines to Sequim residents over 70 and their spouses. Tomaras, 71, found himself in a line of cars more than a mile and a half long. Officials started turning drivers away soon after, before the clinic even opened.
Tomaras came up 10 cars short of making the cutoff. He, and some of the hundreds of others who were turned away, are considering getting in line the night before Saturday’s clinic. They’re willing to camp out overnight for the promise of seeing loved ones again and of no longer having to live in fear.
The high demand and confusion in Sequim may be a preview of what’s to come for other Washington residents. By starting to vaccinate their large older adult populations, Clallam and Jefferson counties have moved into the next phase of vaccination, ahead of the state. The state Department of Health (DOH) plans to move into the next phase in the “coming days.”
State public health officials have been concerned about moving into new phases too quickly, before the supply can match the demand, which could lead to long lines and many people being turned away.
The state plans to ramp up vaccination infrastructure by helping support workplace clinics, mobile teams and pop-ups at community centers or places of worship. King County, anxious to jump-start the process, last week announced it would spend money out of its own budget to open mass vaccination sites as soon as February.
Health officials on the north Olympic Peninsula say it’s urgent that they be allowed to continue their vaccination sprint. Officials in other parts of the state are still struggling to vaccinate those in the first priority group, such as high-risk health care workers and long-term care residents and staff. In Clallam County, 85% of the first priority group has received vaccines. In Jefferson County, the figure is around 70%.
“I do not support the notion that areas of the state that have completed their 1a lists ‘wait’ until other areas of the state catch up,” Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Tom Locke said in an email.
“This would mean holding vaccines in ultracold freezers that could be in people’s arms helping develop population immunity.”
State health officials have allowed the counties to move forward but will focus on supplying vaccines to counties still focused on the first phase, said Clallam County Health Officer Dr. Allison Berry. Local and state health officials discussed whether counties ahead of schedule should share vaccine with others, but “what makes a huge difference out here doesn’t make a huge difference in Seattle,” Berry said.
“They’re in a difficult spot because everyone wants to move the vaccine as fast as possible, but by and large we want the state to move forward together,” Berry said.
DOH said it expects providers to vaccinate groups with the highest risk before moving to the next phase, but they can administer doses to people in the next group to prevent vaccine waste.
Clallam County has been able to expand vaccinations largely because of help from the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, which is sharing its excess vaccine. As a sovereign nation, the tribe isn’t bound to the state’s strict schedule.
Once it vaccinated its members, as well as health care workers and first responders in the area, the tribe decided to offer vaccines to seniors in Sequim, where the tribe is headquartered. The tribe has received about 4,000 doses so far and has gone through about half of them, said Brent Simcosky, the tribe’s health director.
“We really kind of got tired of waiting for everyone to just do stuff,” Simcosky said. “If we wait to do each group individually, we’re going to be doing this for years.”
A team of around 60 staff and volunteers prepared for the drive-through clinic Thursday. Residents would fill out a form and receive a vaccine card in a church parking lot, drive to a nearby park for the vaccine, then move into an area to be monitored, with EMTs from the local fire department nearby in the case of an allergic reaction.
They weren’t prepared for the demand. The first person in line showed up Wednesday night in a camper van, Simcosky said. When he got vaccinated, the nurses cheered and others in line honked their horns. It was like a tailgate, Simcosky said, but everyone stayed in their cars.
One woman who received the vaccine said she had been isolating in her home since March, Simcosky said. Many others said they were confused about the vaccine process.
The clinic vaccinated about 500 people in four hours and had to turn about 1,500 people away, Simcosky said. It will open again Saturday and three days next week. Whether it can continue after will depend on distribution.
Despite the chaos Thursday, Simcosky said the clinic plans to continue its first-come-first-served system to ensure it is accessible for residents who don’t have access to a computer or smartphone.
Clallam County will vaccinate seniors in Port Angeles this weekend. All the appointments were claimed less than three hours after the online scheduling system went live, Berry said.
Jefferson County seniors will start to get vaccinations next week through Jefferson Healthcare, as described in the Peninsula Daily News’ updating list of clinic sites. The health care system received Pfizer vaccine, which comes in large shipments of 975 doses. The county, where one-fourth of residents are over 70, is restricting vaccines to those 85 and older.
Officials know supply won’t meet demand, as they saw Thursday in Sequim.
“It’s kind of a gamble whether you get a vaccination,” Tomaras said after being turned away.
But he’s is determined to get the shot. He’s gone almost a year without seeing his wife, who is in an adult family home, except through her window.
“I just want to hold my wife,” Tomaras said. “I guess maybe I have to camp out.”
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the last name of Randall Tomaras.