OLYMPIA — After a year of hunkering down through the COVID-19 pandemic, and months of deciphering complicated tiers and phases for who in Washington can get a vaccine, Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday simplified things: everyone 16 years and older can go for a dose starting April 15.
The announcement is a dramatic expansion of vaccine eligibility, and it comes the same day that roughly two million Washingtonians, including manufacturing and food service workers, first become eligible for doses of their own.
Wednesday’s announcement would make an additional 1.2 million Washingtonians eligible for a dose by April 15, opening vaccines to the 6.3 million state residents ages 16 and older.
In a news conference, Inslee said state officials are confident in taking the step in part because federal vaccine allocations continue to increase and more people are getting vaccinated.
At the same time, in what the governor called a “dangerous situation,” many older people who have been eligible for months are not getting vaccinated.
About 27% of state residents 65 and older have not received any doses, according to Inslee’s office. That is more than 330,000 people who are particularly at risk to serious illness or death from the virus.
“It is a dangerous situation not to be vaccinated, particularly if you’re over 65 today,” Inslee said. He urged people to speak with older family members and encourage them to get vaccinated.
Already, more than a dozen other states were planning to expand vaccine eligibility to all adults starting this week. California officials announced recently that starting April 15, they, too, would open up doses to people 16 years and older.
Meanwhile, a flattening of coronavirus cases across Washington — and a recent rise in King County — has health officials worried about a possible fourth wave of infections.
State health officials Wednesday reported 1,271 new coronavirus cases in Washington for a total of 364,486, and 10 new deaths, totaling 5,247. About 17% of Washington’s 7.65 million residents have been fully vaccinated against the virus.
In a statement Wednesday, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan emphasized that demand continues to outstrip supply in and around Seattle, and that vaccine providers should continue to focus on vulnerable communities.
But, “Gov. Inslee’s decision to open up vaccine eligibility will reduce confusion in our communities and help cities, hospitals, and health care providers across our state vaccinate more people as quickly as possible,” Durkan said in prepared remarks.
Seattle is now capable of administering as many as 168,000 shots per week, she said, and the city “is ready to significantly expand our vaccination efforts.” A fourth city-affiliated mass vaccination site opened this week at North Seattle College.
Cassie Sauer, president and CEO of the Washington State Hospital Association, said Wednesday that supply will continue to be an issue but providers will be able to handle the load as supply increases and eligibility opens.
It’s become a little easier in recent days for those eligible to snag a vaccine appointment. It may get a little tougher as the eligibility flood gates open, but, Sauer said, people should remember the big picture.
“Some people, for sure, will have to wait a couple weeks to get an appointment, but they’re going to get one pretty soon,” she said. It wasn’t so long ago, she said, that officials were predicting everyone could get a vaccine by September, or later.
“It’s really a tightrope to think about how do you do the phases and how do you get as much vaccine out as possible,” Sauer said. “I think the governor has been super smart in terms of how he’s done the phasing, to make sure that people most at risk of hospitalization and death are able to get through the line.”
Nathan Schlicher, president of the Washington State Medical Association, said he was hopeful vaccine supply would allow everyone to get a shot by the end of May.
“Not everybody’s going to be able to get a shot tomorrow just because they’re eligible by the new guidelines,” Schlicher said. “Right now, we’ve got a demand that is beyond our supply and it’s been that way for some time, but we’ve been able to fill out our vaccine clinics and make sure we’re able to use every dose of the vaccine.”
He recommended that those searching for vaccine appointments check with their health care providers, county health departments and the state’s vaccine locator website.
During Wednesday’s news conference, state Health Secretary Dr. Umair Shah said people have not been allowed to book appointments until the date they become eligible for a shot.
“Because we’re still trying to make sure that we can get folks that are eligible for a vaccine currently,” he said.
Many more people became eligible for doses on Wednesday, as the state opened up vaccine appointments to those considered in Phase 1B, Tiers 3 and 4.
That made all Washingtonians 60 and older eligible, as well as people 16 years and older who have two or more underlying health conditions.
Additionally, food service, restaurant, construction and manufacturing workers in group settings became eligible Wednesday. Likewise, the vaccine became available to people working, volunteering or living in congregate settings. That includes the state’s prisons, group homes and places where people experiencing homelessness receive services or live.
On Tuesday, a legal-aid group announced a lawsuit against the state Department of Corrections, demanding that doses be made immediately available for everyone incarcerated in the state’s prisons.
Washington’s vaccination efforts early on were hampered by a slow rollout and a lack of focus on basic logistics.
As those issues got resolved and as federal vaccine supply increased, Inslee and state officials repeatedly accelerated the timeline, giving eligibility to wider groups of people ahead of the original planned timeline.
Still, Inslee’s decision Wednesday to open vaccines to all is a striking turnaround from last week. Asked in a March 25 news conference on the virus response about the possibility of expanding vaccine eligibility to all adults, Inslee said there were no discussions to do so before May 1.
“We want to make sure that the people who are most at risk … have the prioritization,” Inslee said in that news conference. “We still have people with comorbidities that are at a higher risk of death, a much higher risk of death than, say, younger, healthy people.”