Relief Is on the Way to Washington's Strapped COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout

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As Washington closes in on 1 million COVID-19 shots administered, the state is finally able to plan vaccinations more than one week in advance, health officials said Wednesday.

For the first time, the federal government is forecasting vaccine allocations three weeks ahead of time, eliminating what has been a vexing, weekly scramble to match supply and demand, said Michele Roberts, acting assistant health secretary.

"This will help us develop a multiweek strategy to help with consistency and predictability, which will help both the providers on the ground and all of the public who are looking for places to be vaccinated," she said in a news briefing.

The federal government has also told states to expect increased vaccine shipments "in the coming weeks and months," Roberts added. A third vaccine — Johnson & Johnson's one-shot regimen — could be available as early as next month if the FDA grants emergency use authorization later this month, as expected.

There's also work underway to streamline the often-clunky systems used to determine eligibility for the vaccine and schedule appointments, said state Health Secretary Dr. Umair Shah. The goal is to make the process clearer and easier and avoid situations like one that played out recently in Wenatchee.

A state-run mass vaccination clinic in the Central Washington city sent out notices that it had vaccine available. The response was great, but unfortunately the online-scheduling system allowed younger people who don't yet qualify for the shots to enroll and essentially jump the line.

Local health officials said they would turn away unqualified people — but the snafu underscored the type of muddled communications and technical problems people are experiencing across the state as they search for an open slot.

The health department is working with Microsoft and other private sector partners to better integrate the state's Phase Finder tool, which helps people determine whether they qualify for the shots, with some of the systems being used to set up appointments, Shah said.

"We're not there yet, but we certainly are working to get there," he said.

In the meantime, with vaccine still in very short supply, appointments remain hard to come by. This week, providers requested almost 450,000 doses, but received only about 200,000 from the federal government.

The state is averaging about 27,000 doses a day — roughly the same as last week, and still far below its target of 45,000 shots a day.

The Phase 1B category — which includes everyone 65 and older and people 50 and older who live in multigenerational households — totals almost 1.7 million people, which translates into 3.4 million doses that must be administered before moving on to the next phases.

Local vaccine supplies are getting at least a small boost from a Biden administration initiative to deliver vaccine directly to pharmacies. Three chains in Washington — Costco, Safeway/Albertson and Health Mart Independent Pharmacies — are collectively scheduled to receive 22,500 injections this week. That allocation does not come out of the state's federal vaccine supply, Roberts said.

With preliminary data suggesting Hispanic and Black communities are not receiving equal access to vaccines despite bearing a disproportionate level of infection and disease, strategies to improve equity are a high priority for the state, Shah said.

Approaches include setting aside 20% of vaccine appointments at the state's four mass-vaccination clinics for people who prefer to make appointments by phone, rather than online, said Paj Nandi, DOH director of community relations & equity.

Other efforts include prioritizing vaccine supply for providers in underserved communities and working with local groups and leaders to address concerns over the safety of vaccines and long-standing mistrust of government and health systems. For example, the state recently contracted with The Black Lens, an independent community publication in Spokane, to produce a radio show featuring Black leaders addressing vaccine hesitancy.

"There's no one single strategy that is going to turn the course on inequities," Nandi said.

To clear up confusion over second doses, DOH also reached out to providers late last week, clarifying that administering boosters takes priority over first shots, Roberts added. "That might mean using first-dose supplies to vaccinate people who need second doses," she said. "We are committed to ensuring there is a second dose of COVID-19 vaccine for everyone who has received their first dose."

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