The Seattle Indian Health Board wasn’t expecting its first shipment of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine until next week, so staff were surprised — and delighted — when 500 doses showed up Monday instead. By late afternoon, several executive team members had bared their arms for the shot to demonstrate their faith in its effectiveness and safety.
“I’m excited to take the first step, and to really model the safety and value of the vaccine for our community,” said CEO Esther Lucero, who got the first jab.
Other medical facilities across the state are expecting to get the newly approved vaccine by midweek, doubling the options for fighting back against a disease that is once again threatening to overwhelm the state’s hospitals.
Washington is scheduled to receive 130,000 doses of Moderna’s vaccine this week, along with an additional 45,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTec vaccine, which was the first to be approved, according to a briefing Monday by the Washington State Hospital Association (WSHA). With the discovery last week that most vials of the Pfizer vaccine contain at least one additional dose, that means the total number could be 20% higher, said WSHA President Cassie Sauer.
The additional vaccine shipments could help alleviate concerns raised by staff at hospitals passed over in last week’s initial allocation, and those at facilities where distribution plans left some of the most at-risk health-care workers off the vaccine priority list.
Overlake Medical Center and Clinics and EvergreenHealth had both expected to receive their first vaccine Monday but were informed last week by the Washington Department of Health that the shipments would be delayed because the federal government revised estimates of the amount of vaccine allocated to Washington.
Overlake got confirmation Monday that it will receive Pfizer vaccine Tuesday, said spokesperson Chelsea Bryant. Staff will start getting shots Wednesday, two days later than originally planned. “I don’t think that’s a significant blow to our plans,” Bryant said.
EvergreenHealth, which had the nation’s first known COVID-19 death at its Kirkland hospital and helped monitor the virus’s spread early in the pandemic, was also left out of the initial allocation and then told its shipment this week would be delayed.
Palazzo said he always realized that plans could change and that he gives the officials in charge the benefit of the doubt as they oversee this “monumental task.”
“In no way do we feel that being first, or second or third is really important,” he said. “We are just excited to vaccinate our staff.
That includes 1,000 workers in the highest risk categories, and another 2,500 lower on the priority list.
At Swedish Health Services, many residents, critical care and ICU doctors, and some front-line nurses were stunned to find they were not among the first to get vaccines last week. Some of those who did get vaccinated early on were at lower risk.
“This whole saga has been very demoralizing,” said one physician, who asked not to be identified out of fear of reprisal. “You have to wonder how this decision was made,”
Administrators said problems with a computer scheduling system were partly to blame, along with efforts to ensure inclusion of receptionists, housekeepers, food service staff and others who could come into contact with infected patients or contaminants, but who are not medical personnel. However, Chief Operating Officer Kevin Brooks assured staff during a virtual town hall meeting last week that rumors that Swedish’s top leadership were vaccinated first were not true.
“We will be the last to get it,” he said.
After the meeting, the vaccination schedule was adjusted, and “all ICU providers and nurses” were offered access to the vaccine in the first round, said spokesperson Tiffany Moss.
Mistakes and technical glitches are inevitable in any operation this complex, said Andy Stergachis, professor of pharmacy at the University of Washington. The key is how quickly they are fixed.
“It is important to anticipate, detect and quickly mitigate problems as much as possible, whether they pertain to the vaccine supply chain, distribution issues or lessons learned from early vaccination experience,” he wrote in an email.
Sauer said she thinks the federal government has learned from last week’s surprise announcement that Pfizer vaccine shipments would be much smaller than states had anticipated. Gen. Gustave Perna, chief of Operation Warp Speed, took personal responsibility and apologized for the mix-up.
“There was so much bad press about it, so much concern that I think the communication is going to be much better moving forward,” Sauer said.
She estimated that all medical workers in the state will be vaccinated by the end of January. Then efforts can begin to vaccinate the next priority groups, which a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention panel recommended should include many essential workers and people age 75 and older.
In the meantime, hospitals are becoming dangerously full. As of Monday, 1,012 people statewide were hospitalized with COVID-19 — among the highest levels reported throughout the pandemic, Dr. Steve Mitchell, medical director for the emergency department at Harborview Medical Center, said in the hospital association briefing.
The numbers, which had been climbing since Thanksgiving, have leveled off over the past few days.
“But in general, our health system is stressed,” Mitchell said. “And our need to stay vigilant has never been more important than it is now.”