Many local residents await appointments
By Ann McCreary
COVID-19 vaccination providers in Okanogan County are dealing with “a constantly evolving situation” as they work to meet public demand for vaccinations despite uncertainties in vaccine supplies and shifting guidelines on how to distribute the vaccine.
“It’s one of those ‘be careful what you wish for’ (circumstances),” said Scott Graham, CEO of Three Rivers Hospital in Brewster. “We were super excited to see the vaccine come into existence, but demand has far exceeded capacity at this point to get the vaccine out,” Graham said during a meeting last week of the Okanogan Coalition for Health Improvement. “It’s a constantly evolving situation from the federal government down to our individual hospitals. … We’re on pins and needles, going forward with faith, hoping that as much vaccine as we’re putting out there, there will be sufficient supply to make sure folks who got their first dose will get their second doses.”
Despite the challenges, Okanogan County is doing a good job of vaccinating its residents compared to other counties around the state, said John McReynolds, CEO of North Valley Hospital in Tonasket. He cited state Department of Health (DOH) statistics, which showed that as of Jan. 30, 5,551 people in Okanogan County had received at least one dose of vaccine, about 13% of the county’s 42,132 residents. Only five counties in the state had higher percentages and the statewide average was about 8%, according to DOH.
“We have a lot to be proud of in what we’ve been able to accomplish,” McReynolds said.
Appointments on hold
North Valley Hospital this week learned that it will receive enough Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to cover already scheduled appointments, but the hospital will be unable to add more people to the schedule until additional doses are allocated, McReynolds said.
“We have enough doses to cover the 1,500 second shots that are on the schedule in the next two weeks,” he said, in an update on the hospital website.
That includes doses that will complete the second round from a Jan. 23 event at the Okanogan County Fairgrounds that vaccinated 510 people.
Three Rivers Hospital in Brewster, which is providing the Moderna vaccine, also had to put new appointments on hold this week, spokesperson Jennifer Best said Tuesday (Feb. 2). “Typically the state notifies us on Friday or Saturday what to expect the following week for vaccine supply. However, we did not get a notification for this week, so we have to proceed as though we will not receive any.”
The hospital had 90 people scheduled to receive their second dose this week, but only had 70 doses on hand as the week began. By Tuesday, the hospital was “able to borrow the remaining doses needed for this week from another local health care partner, so everyone scheduled is covered,” Best said.
A second shot
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine requires a second dose after three weeks; the Moderna vaccine requires the second dose at four weeks.
Three Rivers Hospital has ordered 500 doses for next week, which would cover 110 scheduled second doses and provide first doses. At the beginning of this week, the hospital had 1,081 registration forms from people waiting for their first dose.
Three Rivers Hospital held two large vaccine events last week – one on Jan. 27 at Liberty Bell High School, which provided first doses to 250 people. On Jan. 28 Three Rivers held an event in Pateros where 125 people received their first dose.
Hospital officials are planning to hold large events like these each week, alternating between the south county and the Methow Valley, rather than hosting vaccine clinics at the hospital several days a week as it has been doing, Best said. “For instance, we’re planning to go back up to the Methow Valley on Feb. 24 to administer second doses to everyone who received their first dose on Jan. 27,” she said.
People who received their first dose at Three Rivers Hospital and have appointments for second doses will receive it there as scheduled, she said.
Graham, Three Rivers’ CEO, said the support of Aero Methow Rescue Services and many local volunteers made Liberty Bell event efficient and successful.
“We were able to do more than double what we would normally do in a day here (at the hospital.) We could probably double what we did up there … we could do 500 or more in another event.”
Planning the large vaccination events is complicated, however, by ongoing uncertainty about weekly allocations, “which means we’re planning clinics with only one week’s notice or less. This is slowing down our scheduling process,” Best said. “Some folks who have been waiting for a bit are getting frustrated and anxious. We understand how they feel. … If we don’t have vaccines to give, we don’t schedule appointments in order to avoid the canceling process for that many people.”
James Wallace, chief health officer for Family Health Centers Wallace said FHC has administered 847 COVID-19 vaccinations at its medical clinics throughout the county, including a vaccination event in Twisp last Saturday (Jan. 30) that provided the first dose of Moderna vaccine to 80 people who were pre-registered.
“People are finding themselves in a resource-scarce environment …for the first time,” Wallace said. “There’s a lot of anger and discontent and frustration with how it feels to be without something they want so badly.”
There were 1,687 people on Family Health Centers’ waiting list as of Tuesday.
Three Rivers Hospital has encountered another issue as the vaccination process unfolds – people from out of the area trying to arrange appointments. “Some people are coming over from the west side in hopes of getting the vaccine sooner,” Best said. “Because we are receiving such a small amount of the Moderna vaccine, Three Rivers opted to prioritize full-time residents of Okanogan County, as well as Bridgeport and Mansfield in north Douglas County, as they are part of our hospital district.”
The hospital is asking for photo identification or voter registration to prove residency, Best said.
“Some aren’t pleased with this, but we received far more feedback from local residents who were upset that people from out of the area were getting vaccinated first,” she said.
Graham said some people from as far away as Florida and Arizona are calling to try to get appointments. He said there have also been instances of “folks who’ve tried to use influence, or perceived influence, to muscle their way into the front of the line.”
During the first state-authorized phase of vaccinations (1A), which was open to health care providers, first responders and people in long-term care facilities, Three Rivers Hospital provided vaccinations to anyone who was eligible, Graham said. But in the current 1B Tier 1 phase, open to people 65 or older and people 50 and older living in multigenerational households, Three Rivers has chosen to limit vaccinations to Okanogan County residents, he said.
Wallace said Family Health Centers is seeing people register who have area codes and zip codes from outside Okanogan County, “but for us that’s not an indicator of whether they live in Okanogan County,” he said.
“If people are in Okanogan County, they can contract or spread the virus in Okanogan County, so they should be vaccinated,” Wallace said. “I hope we don’t have people coming to Okanogan County specifically to be vaccinated, because we receive doses based on the number of people who live in our county. But, I think that number is low and it takes too many resources to arbitrate; we’re vaccinating anyone in phase.”
Vaccine providers are working to make the process of registering for a vaccination as easy and widely accessible as possible for residents, with the goal of reaching populations that are unable to register online.
A call center is being used by Mid Valley Hospital, Three Rivers Hospital and Family Health Centers to provide information and assist people with registration. The number is 1-866-458-0169. Websites of those organizations, as well as North Valley Hospital and Confluence Health, also provide information and registration forms.
Okanogan Public Health has been distributing flyers in Spanish about COVID-19 vaccinations throughout the south county area, Best said. “Thanks to their efforts, we’re starting to see more Spanish speaking residents get signed up,” she said.