Following reports of three large local hospital systems giving special vaccine access to donors, board members or other community members with connections, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan is calling on the state Department of Health to put a stop to the practice.
Durkan further called for the state to reallocate vaccines to community health clinics that serve low-income communities of color amid rising concerns that a limited vaccine supply is not reaching people who are higher risk than others.
“Not only are communities of color disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, many (Black, Indigenous and people of color) communities are hesitant to get the COVID-19 vaccine due to systemic racism perpetuated by government and the health care system,” Durkan said in a statement.
The statement continued: “Unfortunately, the recent stories of preferential treatment by providers for financial donors, coupled with the struggles of communities to vaccinate their most vulnerable members, show even more starkly that these systems are failing communities of color.”
A spokesperson for King County Executive Dow Constantine said the county shared Durkan’s concerns and passed them on to the office of Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday.
“While vaccine allocation decisions continue to be made by the Washington State Department of Health, we have asked the state to allow us to have a greater role in these decisions,” Alex Fryer, director of communications for Constantine, said by email.
Tara Lee, executive communications director for Gov. Jay Inslee, said it was “extremely unfortunate” that Durkan did not call Inslee’s office before issuing a statement “as we are already making progress on the things she talks about in her press release.”
During the weeks of Jan. 18 and Jan. 25, less than 14% of first doses went to community health clinics, according to Lee, but next week, the state will distribute 19% of first doses to those clinics. The state held three vaccination clinics in Eastern Washington to serve large Latino populations, Lee added.
“When Mayor Durkan spoke to the governor a short while ago, she clarified for him that she does not want to take vaccinations away from the hospitals,” Lee said. “So what is in her press release and what she told the governor are different.”
In a series of stories this week, The Seattle Times revealed that three medical systems in the region — Providence Regional Medical Center, Overlake Medical Center & Clinics and EvergreenHealth — gave special access to their major donors or foundation board members.
Hospital officials have said they were trying to fill vaccine appointments quickly or test software as efficiently as possible using familiar contacts, but two of the organizations acknowledged they erred by creating an appearance of favoritism toward wealthy or connected individuals.
Overlake Medical Center emailed about 110 donors who gave more than $10,000 to the Eastside hospital system, informing them that highly coveted vaccine slots were available the same afternoon and the next several days. On its public website, appointments were booked through March. The hospital also offered the special access to board members, volunteers, employees and retired health providers.
Overlake shut down online access to the invite-only clinic after getting a call from Gov. Jay Inslee’s staff.
Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett offered a Jan. 25 invite-only clinic for donors, board members and fundraising campaign volunteers. At the time of the special-access clinic, Providence expected to provide vaccination for the general public this week, but ultimately did not receive enough supply, spokesperson Casey Calamusa said.
“As a courtesy to you, we are offering a special clinic for our valued Friends of Providence, board members and campaign volunteers,” wrote Lori Kloes, the chief philanthropy officer of the Providence General Foundation, in a Jan. 19 email.
Membership to the Friends of Providence Donor Society begins with a minimum of $10,000 in cumulative gifts to the foundation. The group includes owners of auto dealerships and prominent Everett-area philanthropists.
EvergreenHealth in Kirkland also performed a “test” of its scheduling tool by sharing a link to vaccine appointments with certain foundation board members and volunteers, in addition to people who serve older adults. The hospital said the special invitations were not sent to its broader donor base.
Some hospital officials expressed regrets.
“We thought that was the most efficient way to add slots,” said Tom DeBord, Overlake’s chief operating officer, adding that he understood why it was being perceived negatively, but that “it was never intended to be a donor event.”
Providence issued a statement that said, “In retrospect we understand that in our haste to vaccinate people quickly — including certain members of our hospital community — we created the impression that some people are able to use their access to unfairly get a vaccination appointment.”
While large hospital systems were providing special vaccine access to donors, board members or others, health care organizations and social workers who serve low-income communities of color, immigrants and refugees have voiced concern that their clients face barriers in accessing the doses.
The state Department of Health has said racial equity would be a focus of its vaccination efforts but has not yet made racial equity data available on its vaccination dashboard. It has said it plans to add that information soon.
According to a Kaiser Family Foundation report published last week, just 17 states were reporting such data as of Jan. 19. Among 13 of 16 states that had reported the distribution of vaccines by race and ethnicity, the share of vaccinations among white people was larger than that demographic’s proportion of coronavirus cases.