Availability increases for all age groups
By Ann McCreary
Providers of the COVID-19 vaccine in Okanogan County are welcoming plans to make vaccinations available to all Washington residents 16 and older beginning April 15.
The decision to open vaccinations to all adults, announced last week by Gov. Jay Inslee, means the state will drop the phased eligibility approach that has restricted vaccinations to specific segments of the population based on factors like age, employment and health conditions.
“I am so excited to be done with the phases as of April 15 and just be able to offer the vaccine to any adult,” said John McReynolds, CEO of North Valley Hospital in Tonasket.
Opening vaccinations to the broader population is timely, because it appears the number of people in Okanogan County who are currently eligible and want to get vaccinated is “dwindling,” McReynolds said.
“Over the last few days we’ve had a few shipments come into the county and for the events this week we have struggled to fill out appointment slots with eligible patients,” McReynolds said on Monday (April 5).
“Today I opened 40 appointments and through the county’s (vaccination registration system) we only got 15 to confirm,” McReynolds said. “We have additional days and times this week that are still in the process of being filled, but it looks like with the current phases we might be reaching saturation with those who have applied up to this point.”
Prioritizing the vulnerable
The phased eligibility system was developed by state health officials to ensure that people most at risk from COVID-19 — like the elderly, health care workers, first responders and essential workers — got vaccinated first.
But the system also “added complexity, confusion and complication to determine eligibility based on the current phase,” McReynolds said. “The phase guidance document is 13 pages long and it always feels like you are missing a group of people that should be considered.”
“The phased approach was necessary in order to prioritize our most vulnerable patient populations, and we have accomplished that goal,” said Melodie White, chief operating officer for Family Health Centers, which operates six medical clinics in Okanogan County and one in Bridgeport.
With restrictions on who could get vaccinated, most vaccinations have been provided at events with required pre-registration to ensure that vaccinations went to eligible people, and all doses of vaccine would be used.
“The removal of the age/phase restriction will allow us to offer the vaccine to our patients as part of their regular visits, without having to coordinate use of multidose vials to stay in phase and not waste any doses,” White said.
No longer having to restrict vaccinations to eligible phases “will be some relief to providers because we will not have to worry about turning people away that do not meet phase qualifications,” said Afton May, director of quality at Mid-Valley Hospital in Omak. “The goal is to vaccinate as many people as possible, so opening vaccinations to all adults will allow us to do this, and we are ready to get it done.”
“A number of residents have been anxiously waiting for their turn since the (vaccine) rollout began, so it’s great to be able to tell them that they’ll be eligible,” said Jennifer Best, a spokesperson for Three Rivers Hospital in Brewster.
With vaccinations opening to all Washington adults, the process of getting vaccinated “will be simpler, involve fewer questions, and less of an application to determine eligibility,” McReynolds said.
The state’s “Phase Finder” online tool, developed to help residents determine when they would be eligible for a vaccine, is no longer needed, state health officials said. A new online tool called “Vaccine Locator” (vaccinelocator.doh.wa.gov), helps people find and make appointments with vaccine providers within 50 miles of their home.
In Okanogan County, a centralized registration system was put in place a few weeks ago to help residents sign up for appointments with county vaccine providers. The system also notifies people who are waiting for an appointment when there are extra doses available at an event. To register, go to okanogancountycovid19.org and follow instructions to create an account.
A hotline for county residents is available in English and Spanish for questions or assistance with registering, or to help people who prefer to sign up over the phone. The number is 1-866-458-0169.
Most people using the county’s registration system have been able to get an appointment within 24-72 hours, and many people are able to receive a vaccination within a week of signing up, according to providers in the county. Accessibility has depended, however, on whether providers have received vaccine allocations from the state.
“When we don’t have vaccine, it has taken up to a couple of weeks to get in. This variation understandably increases anxiety and confusion for residents,” said May at Mid-Valley Hospital, which has hosted large vaccination events at the Okanogan County Fairgrounds.
Despite unpredictable vaccine allocations, Okanogan County’s health care organizations — including public health, hospitals, clinics, EMS — have worked as a team over the past four months and achieved good results, Best said.
“Our community partners have set an exemplary standard for health care collaboration,” she said. “Our percentage of vaccinations proves it, as we’re one of the highest counties in the state.”
High vaccination rates
Data from the federal Centers from Disease Control (CDC) confirms that Okanogan County has among the highest rates of vaccination in comparison to other counties in Washington. As of April 5, 30% of Okanogan County’s 42,243 residents were fully vaccinated — the third-highest percentage among counties in the state. Among people 18 and older in the county, 38.3% were fully vaccinated, the second-highest percentage in the state for that group. And among people 65 and older in the county, 65.6% were fully vaccinated, the sixth-highest percentage in the state.
As eligibility opens to all adults in Washington next week, vaccines are becoming available through a growing number of providers in the county, including pharmacies and EMS services. Aero Methow Rescue Service recently received its first allocation of Moderna vaccine and is holding an event on Saturday (April 10) at Liberty Bell High School, with the goal of providing 300 first doses by appointment to people on the county’s registration list.
North Valley and Mid-Valley each received shipments of 1,170 doses of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine during the past week, and North Valley also received its first supply of 200 doses of Johnson & Johnson vaccine. As of early this week, just over 1,150 people were on the county’s list for a vaccination, McReynolds said.
Vaccine providers are continuing a concerted effort to provide vaccinations to migrant agricultural workers employed by growers in the region.
“Our health care organizations are working directly with the fruit companies to bring vans and buses full of workers to the mass vaccination events,” Best said. “On April 2 and April 5, some of our team members helped Family Health Centers give … over 800 total vaccines to agricultural workers.”