The anxious wait for COVID-19 vaccine eligibility will end by May 1 for all adult Washingtonians, when everyone 16 and older can get in line for a shot, state officials confirmed Wednesday.
The state Department of Health (DOH) has accelerated its tiered approach to vaccine eligibility after President Joseph Biden earlier this month directed states to make the vaccine available to all adults in America come May Day.
The state's vaccine prioritization guidance, which has opened vaccines to health-care workers, long-term care residents, people 65 and older and others, hadn't clarified whether Washington would comply.
But now those who have been waiting can at least plan to hunt for appointments in a little more than a month.
"We will follow the president's directive that everyone 16 and older will be eligible for vaccine May 1," DOH spokesperson Shelby Anderson confirmed in an email.
There are now 3 million people who are eligible for a vaccine in Washington, and another 2 million will be cleared Wednesday when the state adds Phase 1B tiers three and four, which includes all people 60 and older. Further expansion by May 1, to comply with Biden's directive, would add another 1.2 million Washingtonians to the pool, according to state estimates.
Each addition to the state's COVID-19 vaccine phases brings jubilation, frustration and anger. Joy for those made eligible. Frustration for people trying to secure sometimes hard-to-find appointments. Anger for those left on the outside.
Having the option to be vaccinated doesn't mean those pre-eligibility feelings will go away. Instead, those feelings could shift.
The vast expansion simplifies the process because everyone knows where they stand. But because supply won't meet demand, it will be more difficult to find a vaccination appointment, said Dr. Chris Spitters, Snohomish Health District's health officer.
"Frankly, it's harder on those who are eligible because as you become eligible that's an uplifting thing, and there's hope," he said Tuesday during the health district's weekly press briefing. "But the chances of you getting up to bat within the next week are not as high as they are compared to your chance of getting vaccinated sometime in the next two months."
The state's three-week forecast of vaccine coming from the federal government is expected to stay relatively stable with 408,730 doses shipping here the week of March 28, 343,700 the week of April 4 and 368,270 the week of April 11.
In addition to people 60 and older the new tiers opening March 31 include:
* People 16 and older with at least two co-morbidities or underlying conditions.
* People living, working or volunteering in congregate living settings like correctional facilities, group homes for people with disabilities, places where people experiencing homelessness live or are receiving services.
* Workers considered at high-risk in congregate settings, including construction, manufacturing, food services and restaurants.
The new additions coming Wednesday will bring in more than 430,000 King County residents, bringing the total number of people eligible in the county to 1.2 million.
In King County, 574,000 people as of March 22 had at least one shot of the two-shot vaccines made by either Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna, leaving about 626,000 residents waiting to make the vaccination cut.
Through its two mass vaccination sites in Auburn and Kent and other venues, King County has the ability to administer three times the current volume of doses, said Kate Cole, a Public Health — Seattle & King County spokesperson.
"This capacity expansion will happen across the many settings where vaccines are already being administered, including health systems, community health centers, pharmacies, community vaccination sites and mobile teams," she wrote in an email.
In Seattle, the city plans to stop providing free coronavirus testing at facilities in West Seattle and Rainier Beach on March 31, as it seeks to increase distribution of vaccines at those sites. Transitioning both sites to vaccination-only will allow each site to vaccinate 1,500 people a day, up from 1,000 a day currently, the city said Wednesday.
The looming question now is who else might be made eligible before May 1. DOH officials aren't saying what might happen between now and then, other than that they are re-evaluating future phases while keeping in mind supply and demand.
According to the framework DOH is using to inform vaccine prioritization and allocations, Phase 2 could happen next month, which pulls in "critical workers" who can't work remotely and people 16 and older with one co-morbidity or underlying condition.
DOH doesn't add a new tier or phase without working with other parts of state government, the counties and local health districts.
"Decisions on who is eligible for COVID vaccine in the phases and tiers are being made between the Governor's office and DOH leadership based on a number of factors, including broad federal guidance, community input, information about COVID risk for different groups, and our own Washington COVID data on outbreaks and COVID cases, hospitalizations and death," acting assistant secretary of health Michele Roberts said in an email.
Deciding who is in a new phase or tier and who has to wait to be vaccinated is always going to generate friction. The restaurant industry is a good example. When the state said on March 4 that grocery store workers were eligible, restaurateurs and their employees were vocal about not being included.
The next time Gov. Jay Inslee announced an expansion on March 18, restaurant staff were included for the tier opening up Wednesday.
The construction industry stands to benefit from the phase expansion happening this week because construction workers are being added.
Getting the people vaccinated who were working in a booming sector pre-pandemic doesn't mean things will improve quickly, said Kevin Daniels, a developer who had multiple projects halted after the governor's stay-home orders last spring.
This past year has been difficult and made harder to keep people focused as the pandemic dragged on, he said.
"It's going to take a while, I think, before we recover any semblance of normalcy," Daniels said.