First doses may be affected by shortage
By Ann McCreary
More people are becoming eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations across Washington state, but local vaccine providers continue to deal with a limited supply of vaccine.
Eligibility opened on March 17 to a broader swath of the population, including agricultural workers and grocery store employees, as well as other individuals who work in close quarters with other people. The new eligibility also includes pregnant women over 16, or people with a disability that puts them at high risk for severe COVID-19 illness.
However, some vaccine providers in Okanogan County learned they won’t receive a shipment of vaccine this week to provide first shots to newly eligible people.
“This week will be a good reminder about how limited our vaccine supply is,” said John McReynolds, CEO of North Valley Hospital in Tonasket, which is providing Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. “North Valley Hospital didn’t receive any vaccine this week, and won’t be able to schedule additional first doses until we have additional allocation. Three Rivers Hospital and Mid-Valley Hospital are in the same boat,” McReynolds said.
Three Rivers Hospital in Brewster received 400 doses of Moderna vaccine last week and held a large vaccination event on March 17 at a fire station in Pateros.
“We have been able to start vaccinating more agricultural workers, which is fantastic,” said Jennifer Best, a spokesperson for Three Rivers Hospital. “At our event in Pateros last week, we were able to give first doses to more than 350 residents, and most of them were agricultural workers. We accepted groups of workers from Gebbers Farms, Crane & Crane, and Custom Orchards. They’re among the most vulnerable in our communities now, so we want to help them achieve greater protection as quickly as we can.”
But Three Rivers did not receive a new supply of vaccine for the week of March 22, and won’t plan another vaccination event until the state confirms the next shipment.
“We are requesting 500 doses of the Moderna vaccine for next week, but we won’t know until the end of the week whether we’ll receive anything, or how much,” Best said. “We hope to continue the once-per-week vaccination events.”
Best said hospital officials are getting a lot of inquiries about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which requires only one dose rather than the two doses needed for Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, but the hospital has not heard if it will receive that vaccine. “We have a few people who are politely declining appointments for the Moderna vaccine in hopes they’ll get Johnson & Johnson, so we’ll be sure to update everyone if we hear we’ll be able to offer it.”
The next expansion of vaccine eligibility is expected to begin on March 31. Gov. Jay Inslee and state health officials have announced that new phase will include everyone over 60 years old, anyone with two or more comorbidities or underlying conditions, anyone living in a congregate setting (such as correctional facilities, group homes or homeless shelters); and additional workers in congregate settings including restaurants, manufacturing and construction.
According to state health officials, the new eligibility will make vaccinations available to an additional 2 million Washington residents, bringing the total to 5 million people eligible to be vaccinated.
“I’m excited about this phase to be able to offer vaccines to patients over 60,” McReynolds said. “We have had a lot of interest from patients that aren’t over 65, but are still at elevated risk for their age. Additionally, I’m happy to see that restaurant workers will be eligible due to the high risk they face when they are serving customers that can’t eat with a mask on.”
North Valley held its second walk-in vaccination event last weekend at Oroville High School. The event was open to people to get their first shots without an appointment. About 100 people came for second shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, but 139 received first doses.
There were additional doses available, and North Valley used Okanogan County Emergency Management’s notification system to bring people to receive them, McReynolds said.
Working with Emergency Management, vaccine providers in Okanogan County launched a centralized registration system last week to streamline the process of signing up online for a vaccination. That system allows all county residents, whether they are currently eligible for a vaccination, to sign up at one site and get in the queue for a vaccination when they are eligible and vaccine is available.
The system also notifies people when extra doses are available at a vaccination event, like last weekend’s event hosted by North Valley Hospital.
“Quite a few residents in the next tier (of eligibility) have been anxiously waiting since the beginning, being concerned about their heightened risk of serious illness if they are infected with COVID-19,” Best said. “We had quite a few conversations with people in this group who hoped to take any extra doses, but to my knowledge we haven’t had much of an issue finding people within the current phases to get the vaccine on short notice. I think we’ll see a good turnout from the upcoming eligible groups, and they may already be registering now with the new centralized system in place.”
To sign up for a vaccine go to: okanogancountycovid19.org and follow instructions to create an account. For questions or assistance, or for people without computer access, call the Okanogan County COVID-19 Hotline, 1-866-458-0169.
Vaccine providers are continuing efforts to reach underserved populations in the county, including Spanish-speaking residents or people without access to a computer or internet to sign up for a vaccination. “As of last week, Emergency Management was working on a way to add more Spanish to the auto-messaging that goes out to residents on the waiting list,” Best said.
Three Rivers Hospital staff has also been setting up booths in Brewster to help people get signed up for the vaccination waiting list.
“It’s the best opportunity for those who don’t have computer access, and we try to get the word out regarding the sign-up events beforehand to maximize turnout. It’s wonderful to see so many people excited about the vaccine,” Best said.
While many county residents are getting vaccinated, it’s still important that people continue to follow federal and state guidelines on wearing masks and social distancing in public spaces, even people who are fully vaccinated, Best said.
“We want to protect all those who have not received the vaccine, or can’t receive the vaccine. The population in the south county is increasing due to the influx of more ag workers, and tourism will be picking up again in the Methow Valley and elsewhere, so it’s important to stay vigilant,” she said.
As of March 20, state statistics show that 11,871 people had received at last one shot of vaccine, about 28% of Okanogan County’s 42,000 residents, and 8,389 people were fully vaccinated, almost 20% of the county’s population.