In terms of vaccine distribution in Washington state, Lewis County is currently dead last, according to data from the state Department of Health (DOH).
As of Friday, only 6.76% of county residents have initiated vaccination, compared to 11.73% statewide. Only 1.70% of residents have gotten both doses, compared to 4.10% statewide.
Local public health officials hope that the county’s new local hotline and mobile clinics — which could hit the ground as early as next week — will help boost that number by targeting vulnerable residents. So far, local seniors, many impacted by the county’s lack of reliable internet, have been vexed by fragmented online sign-up systems.
But besides the new local effort, local officials also say the state needs to change how it allocates vaccines, taking into account not just county population, but other data such as demographics and where a county’s vaccines are actually going. A significant chunk of Lewis County’s vaccines, Public Health Director J.P. Anderson previously reported, are ending up in the arms of out-of-towners.
That, paired with the county’s high population of elderly residents, warrants a bigger allocation of the life-saving medicine, Anderson contends. Even if two counties are distributing vaccinations at the same rate, if one county has more high-priority residents, that county should get more doses, he said. It’s a conversation that has surfaced statewide, too.
“What started as a ‘how do we get the vaccine out’ issue is now becoming a ‘how do you get the vaccine out equitably’ issue,” Anderson said this week. “And I think our demographics would suggest we deserve more.”
On Thursday, the DOH announced it would begin allocating more doses to counties with larger populations of eligible residents, “to guarantee eligible communities receive vaccine,” although it’s unclear if Lewis County’s allotment will increase.
Anderson hopes that even more specific data on distribution could also be pulled from the state’s Immunization Information System and used to inform allocation as well. That data could be compiled in the next week or so, he said.
Lewis County’s soon-to-be health officer Dr. Alan Melnick has also said that he’s advocating for bigger allotments to go to rural counties with larger aging populations. During a town hall with U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler earlier this month, Melnick said Pacific County — one of several that he overlooks — was seeing smaller allocations than he had hoped for. Now, Pacific County is above the state’s average vaccination rate.
Allocation needs to change, and it needs to change now, Anderson said, before the state moves into other vaccination phases and adds more demand to an already-strained system — something that could leave seniors competing with younger, more tech-savvy residents to score an appointment.
But limited allotment to Washington state — and now nationwide weather delays — continue to pose a barrier to boosting Lewis County’s vaccination efforts.
On Thursday, DOH announced that more than 90% of the state’s weekly allocation would likely be delayed due to winter weather across the country. This weekend, the state’s mass vaccination sites will close, and locally, Providence announced the postponement of four different vaccination clinics over the weekend, including a second-dose event at the fairgrounds scheduled for Sunday.
“We realize this is an inconvenience. Every person who has an appointment to be rescheduled has been notified via email but we realize some people may miss this email,” a press release from Providence read.
Patients approaching the time limit for when they should get their second dose will be prioritized, the provider said, in getting rescheduled into any cancelled appointments.
And although DOH noted a gradual increase in allocation from the federal government, the state is still getting hundreds of thousands fewer doses than providers are requesting.
Locally, winter weather added another setback to the county as last weekend’s snow storm forced a last-minute cancelation of a fairgrounds clinic. Although not an official mobile clinic, it would’ve been the first time the rubber met the road for the county’s mobile clinic team — a partnership between the county, United Way of Lewis County, Twin Transit and Bird’s Eye Medical. Bird’s Eye Medical’s doses were instead given to Arbor Health for them to distribute.
This past week, Lewis County didn’t receive any first-dose allocations, meaning all doses were used for individuals who had already gotten their first shot. It was unexpected and disappointing, Anderson said.
And first-dose shots will be critical to start the mobile clinics, which target people 85 and older that have struggled to get connected with any vaccine.
“Mobile COVID-19 vaccine clinics are designed for residents who are unable to secure an appointment online because they do not have access to or knowledge of how to use the internet appointment system, are homebound, or have other barriers to traveling to mass vaccination sites such as lack of transportation,” a press release read.
Clinics will vary week by week depending on vaccine availability, but the hope is that they will eventually operate five days a week in five separate regions of the county. A hotline will be announced when appointments are ready to be scheduled.