Washingtonians Will Need to 'Pack Their Patience' When COVID Vaccine Appointments Open to All 16 and Older


The minute Kirsten Rogers got a push notification on her phone that she would soon be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine, she and her husband started looking for an appointment.

They, like all Washingtonians 16 and older, will be able to get in line for a coveted shot on April 15 after Gov. Jay Inslee announced this week the state would throw open eligibility for more than 6 million people.

But when Rogers went online to secure a time, she kept hitting dead ends. Websites crashed and sites that did work didn't yet have appointments after April 15.

"It's exhausting to be told we can get vaccinated, but hitting walls at every turn on booking appointments," said Rogers, who lives in Seattle.

Her experience will likely be a shared frustration in the coming weeks among hundreds of thousands of Washington residents whose turn came earlier than expected, as well as those already eligible. So far, nearly 1.3 million people have been fully vaccinated in the state.

Public health experts say the change to an open-for-all system is good news, but caution that, at least immediately following what's been coined "Vax Day," patience and persistence will be required as appointments are quickly swept up.

"You don't hear any official saying, 'Isn't it great you'll be able to get it on April 15?'" said Dr. Janet Baseman, a University of Washington professor in the department of epidemiology. "It's going to take weeks. It may take time and people will need to pack their patience with them in order to get in alignment between available appointment and becoming eligible."

The state may soon receive enough doses to meet the supply providers have requested. Next week's allocation is expected to be about 460,000 doses, a substantial increase attributed to a large delivery of Johnson & Johnson single-regimen doses.

The week of April 11, the state expects to receive 412,570 total doses, including 217,320 doses for those getting a first jab, according to DOH. About 390,340 total doses are expected the third full week of April.

The state Department of Health recommends using its vaccine locator site, vaccinelocator.doh.wa.gov, which instructs the user to put in a ZIP code and brings up clinics within 50 miles that offer appointments. The user then must go to the chosen clinic's website.

In one day this week, 163,000 people used the locator site, and 70% of those users went on to make an appointment, according to interim Assistant Health Secretary Michele Roberts.

The state health department also recommends checking with health care providers and county health departments. Other resources have popped up online; on Facebook, several groups share information about appointments. Another website, CovidWA.com, checks for appointment openings from 800 clinics throughout the state and updates every 5 to 10 minutes. Once Inslee announced everyone 16 and up would be eligible, the hits on the site tripled, to about 50,000 each day, according to George Hu, a co-founders of the site.

"As soon as I heard Inslee, I thought, 'Oh my gosh, CovidWA is going to be so much in need in the next few weeks,' " Hu said.

His advice: the best time to look for appointments is Wednesdays starting around 5 p.m., to about noon Thursdays.

Phase Finder, an online questionnaire that showed Washington residents whether they were eligible and was required to receive a shot, was discontinued March 31. Instead, individual clinics use their own questionnaires to determine whether someone is eligible, still relying on the honor system. Very few clinics have openings more than a week in advance, though some community mass-vaccination sites in Yakima and Spokane allow residents to schedule appointments for days in late April.

With the absence of Phase Finder or additional eligibility checks, it's possible someone could lie and claim membership in a current priority group. That has been a concern throughout the vaccine rollout, Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer for Public Health — Seattle & King County, said Friday in a media briefing, calling it "unavoidable and unfortunate."

Meanwhile, a significant number of seniors and other groups at higher risk of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, still haven't received the vaccine, which Inslee called a "dangerous situation" amid concerns about equity.

More than 330,000 people 65 and older haven't received a dose, accounting for about a fourth of the state's senior population. Getting more seniors vaccinated is an ongoing effort, said Walt Bowen, president of the Washington State Senior Citizens Lobby, even as they're pleased more people are eligible.

"We've got grandkids we are concerned about," Bowen said. "Seniors are not just some little group off in a corner; we are engaged with our extended families. We are trying to get vaccines for ourselves, but we're also concerned about others. The fact that more is available, and easier to get, we're excited."

In King County, the health department has supported clinics at neighborhood sites like churches and other community hubs to reach communities of color that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Clinics have created blocks of time for appointments, rather than a specific time, to accommodate people with inflexible work schedules.

In Kitsap County, the health department withholds a portion of appointments each week for people who have difficulty getting a vaccine, such as residents without computer access, those with limited English proficiency and others referred by community partners, spokesperson Tad Sooter said.

How long will it take for everyone who wants a vaccine to get one? Experts say it will be sooner than initially thought, though not all within a week of April 15. But we're not far from a time when there will be more vaccine doses than people who want them, Baseman said, putting that time around the end of May.

"What people should expect is not to have vaccine for everyone right away," Duchin said. "But if the governor is accurate ... you are going to get what you need."