Nursing home residents also part of first phase
More than 200 people — front-line health care workers and nursing home residents — have been vaccinated against COVID-19 as of early this week, after the first shipment of vaccine to Okanogan County arrived last Tuesday (Dec. 15).
North Valley Hospital in Tonasket is the first facility in the county to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, and began giving shots on Wednesday (Dec. 16).
Health care workers who received vaccinations last week said they were excited and relieved to get protection from getting infected with COVID-19 on the job.
“There was a little bit of giddiness” among Aero Methow Rescue Service employees who got vaccinated last week, said Cindy Button, a paramedic and director of services for Aero Methow. “Everybody was so relieved to get that first shot… it gives a layer of confidence, you don’t feel so vulnerable.”
“We’re all glad to have an effective vaccine,” said James Wallace, chief health officer with Family Health Centers and a family physician who got vaccinated last week. “It’s a relief for individuals and we look forward to getting vaccinations in numbers to protect the whole county.”
Health care workers at high risk of exposure to COVID-19, as well as staff and residents of long-term care facilities and high-risk first responders, are prioritized under state and federal guidelines as the first people to receive the vaccine in the initial phase, called Phase 1A.
Staff of Aero Methow, Methow Valley’s ambulance service, drove to Tonasket to receive the vaccine on Wednesday, the first day it became available in the county. Sixteen Aero Methow employees were vaccinated last week, about one-third of Aero Methow’s staff.
“We will try to get everyone vaccinated during this first round,” said Button.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine requires two shots three weeks apart. It is the first vaccine to get federal authorization for emergency use. Another vaccine made by Moderna got approval last week and has begun shipping across the nation. Three Rivers Hospital in Brewster is expecting a delivery of the Moderna vaccine next week.
Extra vaccine doses
North Valley Hospital received 195 vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which was expected to be 975 doses, said John McReynolds, hospital CEO. “However, like many other organizations, we have found that we can frequently get more than five doses per vial, so this initial shipment is likely enough for over 1,100 doses,” he said.
North Valley Hospital is providing about 50-60 vaccinations per day by appointment at its medical clinic in Tonasket, McReynolds said. “We have distributed a website link to all organizations that have Phase 1A employees. The website has a pre-registration and screen form that the eligible employee completes and returns to North Valley Hospital. We then schedule an appointment, immunize the patient, and then observe them for 15-30 minutes,” he said.
“We also are working to conduct vaccinating events at other organizations. Last week we were able to bring the vaccine to Mid-Valley Hospital [in Omak] and did a group of employees there. We have a couple more events being planned, which will hopefully allow for better access at other organizations,” McReynolds said.
“The health care providers that signed up [to get vaccinated] in the first few days were very eager and excited,” he added. “A lot of them took pictures to share with friends and family.”
Wallace was among the people who received the vaccination at Mid-Valley Hospital. “I was on call this weekend at Mid-Valley and they offered it to me. I got vaccinated on Friday. I had a low-grade fever and felt a little sluggish on Saturday. That’s to be expected, and I’m glad I felt it — it means my immune system was responding and building immunity,” Wallace said.
Button said Aero Methow employees are staggering their vaccinations because of the potential side effects, to ensure that only a few staff members would be affected at a time. Button said she experienced only a sore arm after the injection.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine must be maintained at ultra-cold temperatures of minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit. North Valley Hospital purchased an ultra-cold freezer a few months ago specifically for that purpose, when it became clear that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine would likely be the first to get federal approval.
Because of strict guidelines on handling the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, North Valley Hospital won’t be able to transport it from Tonasket to the Methow Valley to conduct vaccination clinics, McReynolds said.
“Right now we can’t do events in the Methow because we are only allowed to drive the vaccine 30 minutes. Maybe the guidance will change, but that’s the current rule,” he said.
Among the 200-plus health care workers in the county who have received the first dose of vaccine are employees of North Valley Hospital, Three Rivers Hospital, Family Health Centers, Confluence Health, LifeLine EMS and Aero Methow, McReynolds said. Residents of North Valley Extended Care, operated by North Valley Hospital, and staff of other extended-care facilities in the county also received vaccinations.
In addition to North Valley Hospital, Family Health Centers, headquartered in Omak, and Three Rivers Hospital in Brewster have also been approved by the Washington Department of Health (DOH) to receive and distribute the COVID-19 vaccines. Three Rivers Hospital has ordered an ultra-cold freezer for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, but does not expect delivery until late January, said Jennifer Best, hospital spokesperson.
Three Rivers Hospital got good news this week when DOH told hospital officials to expect a shipment of 200 doses of the Moderna vaccine, probably next week. The Moderna vaccine can be stored in standard hospital refrigerators like many other vaccines.
“Our team is reviewing as much information as we can get our hands on to prepare for this. We’re thrilled that two hospitals in our county will be equipped to offer both vaccines,” Best said.
“Three Rivers will work with other local health care organizations to inoculate their workers, such as Life Flight, once the vaccine arrives,” Best said. “Our team is also working on a process for administering the vaccine to community members on a more widespread basis, once we’re able to move to that phase.”
After frontline health care workers and nursing home residents in Phase 1A, people who are 75 and older and frontline essential workers — like grocery store employees, teachers and police officers — should be next in line to get COVID-19 vaccines in Phase 1B, a federal advisory committee recommended Sunday (Dec. 20). The committee advises the Centers for Disease Control, and the recommendations will guide states in developing their own plans for distributing the vaccine.
The next group, Phase 1C, should include people 65 and older, people with underlying conditions that put them at higher risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19, and other essential but not frontline workers, according to the federal guidelines. States will move through the vaccination phases at different rates, federal health officials said.
Family Health Centers, which operates medical and dental clinics in six communities in Okanogan County and in Bridgeport, has not been told when to expect a shipment of the vaccine, Wallace said. Family Health Centers does not have an ultra-cold freezer that can store the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
“It appears that hospitals are still being prioritized by DOH,” Wallace said. “Family Health Centers is working with North Valley Hospital to get the supply distributed to other sites in the county,” although maintaining the “cold chain” requirements for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine complicates logistics, he said.
Washington health officials learned last week that the state will receive less of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine than federal officials had initially said would be delivered this week. Operation Warp Speed, the federal organization overseeing COVID-19 vaccine distribution, informed DOH that Washington will receive 44,850 doses, rather than the 74,100 doses that the state had been told to expect — a 40% reduction.
The state “was not given an explanation as to why our allocation was reduced, and we do not currently have allocation numbers beyond next week,” DOH said in a statement on Dec. 17. The state expected to receive 62,400 doses last week.
The unexplained reduction in vaccine delivery could delay vaccinations for residents of long-term care facilities and health care workers in Phase 1A of the vaccine distribution plan, DOH said.
DOH said it expects 128,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine to arrive in Washington this week. State health officials estimate that about 500,000 people are eligible for the vaccine in this initial phase.