The Washington state Department of Health will move into its next phase of coronavirus vaccination sooner than expected, moving up the timeline to begin inoculating people aged 70 years and older, among others.
Health Secretary Dr. Umair Shah also acknowledged the state’s rollout had been uneven, that the public expected more and that the department needed to hasten the pace of vaccination.
“While we are making progress every single day … I recognize it has not been enough,” Shah said in a news briefing Wednesday, adding that he had directed changes at the department. “One of those changes is an accelerated timeline to move to our next grouping — Phase 1B — which we expect to do in the next coming days.”
Shah did not give an exact date for when the state would move to Phase B1, which includes people 70 years and older and people 50 years and older in multigenerational households.
Health officials implored health care workers and first responders to ensure they make vaccine appointments as soon as possible to ensure they are able to receive vaccine before access is expanded to the some seniors.
The hastening of the state’s plan comes as the federal government called for governors to open up vaccine access to anyone 65 and older and anyone with a health complication that enhances the risk of COVID-19 disease.
Shah said the department had concerns about the federal policy change Tuesday, which caught state officials off guard, saying he did not think supply was sufficient or reliable enough to expand access. The federal priority group would include nearly one-third of all Americans.
“The line, you’re making it longer, but you’re not necessarily helping get people vaccine because there’s not enough supply,” Shah said. “We want to continue to focus on those who we think are the most likely to be impacted by COVID disease — the most vulnerable. … That’s why we’re wanting to prioritize in the way we have.”
As concern grows over the pace of vaccination, state leaders insist the reliability of federal supply is one of the primary challenges they face. But of the doses that arrive in Washington, few are making it into people’s arms, according to the state’s data, and health officials continue to struggle to explain why.
At least 201,660 doses of vaccine have been used in Washington state as of Jan. 11, according to Michele Roberts, the state Department of Health’s acting assistant secretary. Washington has received 624,975 doses as of Wednesday, meaning that only 32% of doses had been administered.
That number is a minimum. Some of the gap between delivery and administration can be explained by data lags. Also, the federal partnership with CVS and Walgreen to vaccinate those in long term care facilities is moving slowly. Roberts said she joined Gov. Jay Inslee in a meeting with pharmacy officials this week to see what could be done to increase the pace of that program.
But it’s not clear how many doses remain on the health facilities’ freezers, in transit or otherwise unused.
“We are working to get information from providers who we have gotten vaccine to know how much vaccine they have actually administered,” Shah said.
Roberts said vaccination was speeding up, and that administration was beginning to meet supply.
“Each day, we are giving between 15-20,000 doses,” Roberts said, noting that over a week’s time that was similar to recent, weekly allocations from the federal government. (The federal government planned to allocate more than 151,000 doses to Washington this week, according to a health department news release).
Roberts said the health department this week was facilitating the transfer of vaccine doses between health organizations to better match local supply and demand.
More vaccine supply could come soon. The federal government also announced Tuesday that it would no longer reserve booster doses of vaccine, instead pumping all of its available supply out to states. But so far, state health officials said they were unsure what the federal policy change would mean.
“The vaccine supply for next week has not been altered,” Shah said. The federal government still makes estimates week by week and with only a few days’ notice. Roberts said the state desperately needs long-term projections from the federal government.
Roberts said the state plans to launch its vaccination dashboard this week, so the public can track its progress. King County has published its own dashboard, which relies on state data. At least 141,375 doses had been allocated to the county. Inoculations have been administered to 78,749 King County residents. The rolling, seven-day average of doses administered has generally trended higher, though few vaccination clinics seem to have been operating on Christmas Day or on New Year’s Day.
Meantime, the novel coronavirus has begun to spread more rapidly in Washington. State officials believe each person who contracts the virus infects, on average, more than one person, meaning the virus is growing more prevalent.
“We’re having spikes in cases in many of our counties across the state,” said Dr. Scott Lindquist, the state epidemiologist.
Vaccines represent the way out of the pandemic, the chorus of health officials attending the briefing said.
And while you wait:
“Wash your hands, wear your masks and watch your distance,” Lindquist said.