Although many older Lewis County residents are now eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine under the first tier of Phase 1B, many report frustration and confusion about how and where to get one. And with limited supply and no clear timeline for future allocation, county officials can’t offer residents much reassurance.
“In an event that has had a lot of challenges, I would say this is definitely among the most frustrating,” Lewis County’s Public Health Director J.P. Anderson said Tuesday.
He noted that people should continue to monitor the state Department of Health (DOH) website, which lists all local providers and their preferred method of communication.
“I know that’s frustrating,” he said. “But that’s really all you can do right now.”
Demand still far outweighs supply statewide, and even with four mass vaccine clinics opening this week throughout the state, appointments are filling up quickly, and clinics are at the mercy of the state in terms of when more doses may be allocated to them. Some residents are expecting the county to become a centralized entity to connect people to vaccines, but Anderson said it’s not going to happen. Instead, distribution is fragmented into a network of individual providers, each with their own sign-up policies and procedures.
Now, eligible residents under the first tier of Phase 1B — people 65 and older, or people 50 and older who live in a multigenerational household — are struggling to figure out how to get a shot.
“You’re talking about a population where many of us don’t even have internet,” Lewis County Seniors President Ron Averill said. “And if they do, they easily become confused. And I can tell you the process of getting into the system is not easy.”
One 84-year-old Chehalis resident, Bob Tuininga, said he was surprised this weekend to read that the vaccine was even in the county. Although he has a computer, Tuininga said he doesn’t like using it. Many of his friends assumed that some government agency would be reaching out to connect them with a vaccine.
“I was thinking I’m on a list somewhere,” Tuininga said. “Some people are aggressive about calling their doctors … Most of us are sitting around thinking, ‘I don’t want to be a pest.’”
But residents will largely have to take initiative to score an appointment. Providers are already seeing residents driving over county lines in order to get a dose. Some have expressed frustration with people claiming doses not allotted to their county in what can seem like a statewide free-for-all. But Anderson said it’s a tactic residents may want to consider.
“If our residents are able to sign up for a spot at a care provider and they’re able to make it to that appointment, whether it be out of this county, I would not discourage them from doing that,” he told county commissioners. “I think that’s becoming more commonplace.”
More individuals may have to travel further away, too, as the state opens its four mass vaccination sites. In a Monday meeting with lawmakers, Washington’s Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah said that the sites — which are planned to administer 500 vaccines per site per day, and more in the future — may end up decreasing allocations for other providers around the state.
Averill hopes that Lewis County Seniors can utilize their meal delivery program to distribute all this information to the hundreds of seniors they serve weekly.
United Way of Lewis County Executive Director Debbie Campbell, who organized volunteers for Sunday’s mass vaccination event at the fairgrounds, said she’s hearing eligible residents express frustrations about technology issues, lack of internet access and lack of information — issues exacerbated by the pandemic.
“If things were open, I know the senior centers would have a session on how to fill out these forms, or the library would, but jeez, nothing is open,” she said.
Former County Commissioner Edna Fund said this week that she would be talking to the Timberland Regional Library about potentially working to amplify information as well.
When asked about seniors who may be struggling to use technology to get a vaccine appointment, Gov. Jay Inslee said during a Tuesday press conference that individual citizens will need to lend a hand to those individuals.
“It’s like any emergency … a significant part of the rescue is by individuals. It’s by us, it’s taking care of our neighbors, our relatives, extending a hand to maybe an older person ... Grandkids that help their grandparents,” he said. “This is a moment in time where all of us can step up and help people, particularly the people like you say, who might be challenged when it comes to technology.”
Averill is most concerned about seniors who are homebound, unable to make it to large vaccination events or even a local clinic. While Anderson said the county is working on plans to get rural, homebound seniors vaccinated, nothing is totally fleshed out yet. One option is mobile clinics, which Twin Transit has offered to help with. Plans for any vaccine events are significantly stifled by a lack of actual vaccines, and the fact that providers are currently only getting about seven-days’ notice before doses roll in from the state.
“It’s a great idea, and it could be something we’re able to do and realize here in the medium-future, but it’s not going to be in the near future as in the next week and a half,” Anderson said.