Providers work to streamline process
Providers of the COVID-19 vaccine in Okanogan County described the past week’s ramp-up of vaccinations as a “whirlwind,” as hundreds of newly eligible residents got their first shots at clinics and at a mass vaccination event at the Okanogan County Fairgrounds.
Vaccine providers are urging the public to be patient as they work to meet the surging demand for vaccinations. At the same time, they are taking steps to streamline the information and registration process in the county, and ensure access for all eligible residents.
The state moved into Phase 1B-1 (also called B1) of its vaccination plan on Jan. 18, expanding vaccinations to include anyone over 65. That’s an estimated 22% of Okanogan County residents, according to county health officials. The new phase also includes people over 50 who live in multi-generational households.
Last week, Gov. Jay Inslee directed vaccine providers throughout the state to increase the rate of vaccinations to meet a statewide goal of 45,000 shots per week, and to administer 95% of their vaccine supply within a week of receiving it.
On Saturday (Jan. 23), Mid-Valley Hospital in Omak organized a drive-in vaccination event at the Okanogan County Fairgrounds in collaboration with Lifeline EMS and North Valley Hospital in Tonasket, which provided the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for the event.
Mid-Valley Hospital used the county’s emergency management system to send texts and phone calls to 475 qualified, pre-registered people on the hospital’s list, which saved the hospital many hours on the phone, said Afton May, director of quality for Mid-Valley. People were asked to confirm whether they would attend, and hospital staff called an additional 105 preregistered people the night before to make sure all doses would be used.
“We administered 510 vaccinations in just over five hours,” said May. “A future event to provide second doses is being planned for the middle of February, pending allocation of vaccine from the state.” Also on Saturday, North Valley held a large event at its Tonasket clinic, administering 260 doses.
“It has been only one week since Gov. Inslee announced the start of Phase 1B, and it has been a bit of a whirlwind,” said Jennifer Best, a spokesperson for Three Rivers Hospital in Brewster, which is providing the Moderna vaccine.
The hospital saw online registrations for vaccinations increase ten-fold after Phase 1B opened up. During the first phase (1A), restricted to health care workers and people in long-term care, Three Rivers was seeing about 20 registrations a day, she said.
“Now we get an average of 200 registrations per day, and hundreds of phone calls and emails,” Best said. “We’re doing as many (vaccinations) as we can, but there are some factors outside of our control. I think our initial goal was 100 per day, and we get close sometimes, but scheduling is proving to be a cumbersome process.”
Three Rivers planned a vaccination event Wednesday (Jan. 27) at Liberty Bell High School, with support from Aero Methow Rescue Services, for people who were preregistered with the hospital for a vaccination. “We’re hoping to vaccinate upward of 240-260 people,” she said.
“Because we’ve gotten such tremendous help and support from Aero Methow, we may be able to do more clinics up there, but it’s difficult to schedule out because we don’t know exactly how much vaccine we’ll have and when,” Best said.
Trying to manage the public demand for information and appointments, especially since moving into Phase 1B, has been a challenge for all the vaccine sites, which have set up their own online registration systems on their websites and fielded an onslaught of inquiries. “Along with every other vaccine distributor, we’re swamped with calls and trying to play catch-up with voicemails,” Best said.
Mid-Valley Hospital contracted last week with a call center to help relieve the burden on hospital staff, and to help people who do not have a computer or are not comfortable preregistering online, May said. She estimated the call center had saved the staff more than 20 hours on the phone. The number is 866-458-0169.
County health officials announced this week that they are working toward developing a collaborative communication approach for COVID-19 vaccinations. That includes plans for a “centralized COVID-19 vaccine call center and registration system,” according to an announcement from Okanogan Public Health, Family Health Centers, Confluence Health, and North Valley, Mid-Valley and Three Rivers hospitals.
“The overall goal is to offer one step for our communities to receive up-to-date information,” said Alan Fisher, Mid-Valley Hospital CEO. “With a single call, residents will be able to obtain information on availability, eligibility, vaccination sites, clinics and options to register.”
Health officials said planning for a centralized information and registration system is underway, but not yet available to the public.
Ensuring access to vaccinations for all community members, particularly those who don’t have access to a computer or are not comfortable registering online, is a concern to local health care providers.
“Those who are most vulnerable and have demonstrated for 10 months that they are at greatest risk of complications are also those who find it more difficult to access the health care system,” said James Wallace, chief health officer for Okanogan Public Health and Family Health Centers.
“We are certainly concerned about non-English speakers and those without computer access,” said John McReynolds, CEO of North Valley Hospital. “Paper forms and Spanish language forms are available … we’ve had a lot of children signing their parents up and assisting with the electronic forms.”
“Okanogan County Public Health is sending people out in Brewster and Bridgeport this week with English and Spanish flyers, to reach more of our residents who may not be getting information through the usual means,” said Best at Three Rivers Hospital.
Three Rivers recently installed kiosks at the entrances of the hospital and medical clinics with paper registration forms in English and Spanish for people unable to sign up electronically.
Meeting the governor’s goal of 45,000 shots per day statewide translates to about 250 shots a day in Okanogan County, based on population, Wallace said. The goal can be met by “expanding the number of vaccinators in Okanogan County, continuing in-clinic vaccinations all week, and then hosting large mass vaccination events toward the end of each week to ensure we extinguish the week’s supply,” Wallace said.
“We believe we can keep our pace of 500-700 shots per week (in the county), and as more organizations have adequate supply this will be attainable,” said McReynolds. “Right now we are only getting 100,000 doses a week into the state, so the biggest issue is not capacity, but rather supply.”
Supply issues pose logistical challenges for vaccine providers in planning for the required second doses, especially since the governor has mandated that vaccine sites use all doses within a week of receiving them.
North Valley Hospital had 1,000 vaccinations scheduled in the next 30 days, and 1,000 doses left as of Monday (Jan. 25), McReynolds said. “Unless we receive an additional shipment of vaccine next week, we will be forced to pause new appointments and reschedule second dose appointments that are already on the calendar,” he said. “Due to the supply uncertainty, we are trying to only schedule a few days in advance for first doses.”
Family Health Centers is “tracking it (supply) closely, ensuring that we know our numbers for the second dose in 28 days, and not over-vaccinating the first-timers,” Wallace said. “Every conversation I’ve had with the state ensures that second doses are guaranteed.”
The supply outlook for Washington improved Tuesday (Jan. 26), when Inslee announced the federal government is increasing the weekly allotment of vaccines to the state by 16% for the coming weeks. President Joe Biden announced the purchase of 200 million doses of vaccine and increased distribution to states next week.
Inslee also announced the state will be receiving higher-efficiency syringes that can pull an extra dose out of vaccine vials.