A greater number of Washingtonians are set to become eligible for COVID-19 vaccination in the coming weeks as Gov. Jay Inslee announced a tentative timeline for subsequent phases of dose administration Thursday.
During a press conference Thursday, Inslee laid out the timeline, which will see three more “tiers” of the state’s population become eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. The news comes as the governor added educators from prekindergarten to 12th grade, school staff and licensed childcare workers to the current phase of vaccine eligibility earlier in the week, following a directive from President Joe Biden.
According to the tentative schedule Inslee provided, on March 22 the state is planning on entering the second tier of the current phase of vaccination priority, which includes critical workers in settings such as agriculture, food processing, grocery stores, public transit, corrections, fire protection, law enforcement and staff and volunteers in congregate living settings, according to information from the governor’s office. Individuals 16 and older with a disability that puts them at higher risk or who are pregnant will also be covered in this tier.
On April 12, the next tier is anticipated to become eligible. That includes individuals 50 or older with two or more comorbidities, Inslee said. On April 26, individuals 16 and older with two or more comorbidities would become eligible, as well as individuals living in congregate settings, those experiencing homelessness, and those who live in or access congregate settings, according to governor’s office information.
Inslee said some examples of comorbidities including heart disease, cancer and diabetes, which could make an individual more vulnerable to COVID-19 complications.
The planning for entering the subsequent phases was based on the assumption that vaccine supply continued on the current trajectory, Inslee said, based on information from the White House, the state’s own vaccination team, and what pharmaceutical companies have told the state. He said that Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla gave “high confidence” that vaccine supplies would increase when the governor spoke with the company’s head earlier in the week.
Washington State Secretary of Health Umair Shah noted that now there were “three fantastic, effective and safe vaccines” following the recent approval of a one-dose vaccine from Johnson & Johnson. He said that while the state moves into subsequent tiers of vaccination priority, those in prior phases should not feel left behind as the state begins to offer doses to more Washingtonians.
“Those individuals remain eligible for the vaccine, and today’s announcements do not change that,” Shah remarked, urging senior citizens in particular to continue to seek the vaccine while it becomes more available to other segments of the population.
Inslee also addressed the recent addition of K-12 school staff to its current vaccination eligibility phase. He said he disagreed with Biden’s directive, though he added that tentatively teachers would be included with the expanded tier of eligibility to go into effect March 22.
“The president made a different decision, and he issued a directive, and we followed it, as we should, and we are constitutionally-bound to do,” Inslee remarked.
He said he hoped the inclusion of educators and school staff in current vaccine eligibility would help to build confidence in returning to in-person instruction among districts statewide.
As to why he differed from Biden’s directive, Inslee explained that both the benefits of a return to in-person learning and the evidence that schools can reopen safely without mass vaccination of staff were greater than the risks of having unvaccinated staff.
Inslee said concerns shared by school district employees were understandable given that COVID-19 was a potentially deadly disease, noting his decision to close school buildings last March was an acknowledgement of that threat.
“What we know now is that we are fully capable of doing this (reopening on) a safe basis,” Inslee added, pointing to 1,400 schools across the state that have begun some sort of in-person learning with “very minimal” COVID-19 transmission in buildings. He said he has toured school districts statewide that have returned to some form of in-person instruction.
“What I’ve seen is educators who have been so innovative, so dynamic — they have torn their hair out trying to keep the attention of these eight and nine-year-olds to keep them focused on their learning,” Inslee said about remote learning efforts. “But there is a certainty, which is that our children are having learning loss because of the difficulties of remote learning.”
“I’m from a family of teachers,” Inslee remarked, noting his father, brother and siblings-in-law had all been teachers, “and I can tell you I would never send a teacher into an unsafe working condition.”
“Yes, it is difficult. It is logistically challenging. It takes people to cooperate with one another. But we know all of that can be done,” Inslee said.