OLYMPIA — With federal COVID-19 vaccine shipments on the rise, Gov. Jay Inslee Thursday expanded the list of Washingtonians eligible for doses in the coming weeks to law enforcement, public transit and grocery workers, and to people who are incarcerated, experiencing homelessness or have underlying medical conditions.
The new timelines — which are still tentative — nonetheless put some specifics to a vaccination plan that is picking up speed after a slow start.
The new schedule is based on estimates given by the Biden administration and companies producing the three authorized vaccines authorized for what is expected to be coming available, Inslee said in a news conference.
"I feel pretty confident that the supply chain will remain as we have estimated," said Inslee.
The governor pointed to the quickening pace of vaccinations in Washington, saying more than 1.7 million doses have so far been administered. That includes two recent days where more than 60,000 doses were administered each day, he said, calling it "a remarkable acceleration of our vaccination program."
Even as the task of getting shots in arms speeds up, Inslee Thursday expressed frustration with the slowness in Washington schools' reopening.
"If I had a nickel for every excuse I have heard for not giving our children on-site instruction, I would be a millionaire at this point," said Inslee. "These excuses are getting just a little bit tiresome, frankly.
"We know that we have 1,400 schools today in the state of Washington, urban and rural, east and west, rich and poor ... that are doing this today with these existing rules," he added.
Thursday's announcement about expanded vaccine eligibility comes after Inslee earlier this week — prompted by a directive from President Joe Biden — announced that doses would be made available to Washington's educators and child care workers, regardless of age.
People from all walks of life will join the queue in the coming weeks for a shot.
Around March 22, the state will open up doses to Phase 1B's second tier. That includes law enforcement, firefighters and corrections staffers, as well as workers in public transit, grocery stores, food processing and agricultural sectors.
Also included in that phase will be people over 16 who have a disability that puts them in a high-risk category, or who are pregnant.
There is limited data right now about the effect vaccines may have on pregnancy, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website.
But, "Observational data demonstrate that ... pregnant people with COVID-19 have an increased risk of severe illness, including illness that results in ICU admission, mechanical ventilation, and death" compared with those who are not pregnant, according to the CDC website.
Then, by April 12, the state intends to make eligible people who are 50 and older if they have two or more comorbidities. Those include conditions such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease, all which can make someone more at risk for a severe case of COVID-19.
Two weeks after that, around April 26, the state intends to make eligible people who are 16 and older who have two or more comorbidities.
Also by April 26, the state intends to begin rolling out the vaccines to people who live in congregate settings, such as those in prisons and people with disabilities in group homes. Homeless people who live in congregate settings like shelters, or who access services there, will also be eligible at that time.
The recent approval of a third vaccine — manufactured by Johnson & Johnson — will gradually start to add more supply to the statewide effort, on top of increasing expected shipments of the others.
"As we add more eligibility, our region must be patient," said Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan in a statement released after Inslee's announcement. "Even though we are still receiving limited doses each week, we are working hard to ramp up our capacity to administer vaccines to as many people as possible as quickly as possible.
"In addition to our mobile teams and sites in Rainier Beach and West Seattle, we'll soon open a major regional site at Lumen Field Event Center, which will be capable of more than 20,000 doses a day. "
State health officials on Thursday reported 866 new coronavirus cases and 20 more deaths, bringing the total number of diagnoses to 343,090, including 5,032 deaths. During the pandemic, 19,500 people have been hospitalized in the state due to the coronavirus.
Washington's cases, like elsewhere, have been on the decline.
That led Republican state lawmakers Thursday to offer a new reopening plan for the state that would immediately raise the limits in restaurants, gyms, movie theaters and many other venues to 50% capacity, up from the current 25%.
If cases continued to decrease after three weeks, Republicans would then lift all restrictions on businesses. Republican governors in Texas and Mississippi announced Wednesday those states are reopening at 100% capacity.
The Republican proposal in Washington would also reopen schools immediately. In a news conference Thursday morning, Republican House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox of Yelm described the situation as "The status quo has become 'let's not do things.'"
"Let's not have kids in school, even when science and experience indicates they can be safe," said Wilcox. He added that wearing masks would be a component that would allow schools and business activities to resume.
Wilcox also urged people to get vaccinated.
"When it comes to vaccinations, I applaud the fact that we've made better progress over the last month or two," he said. "And when people ask me about the vaccine, I just tell them I'm a lifelong livestock farmer, I've given tens of thousands of vaccinations.
"And it's only fair that I get vaccinated, too," he added. "I would encourage people to be vaccinated."