Editor's Note: After publication of this story, 20th District lawmakers released a letter they've sent to Gov. Jay Inslee. Read that letter here.
Lewis County’s dismally low percentage of residents vaccinated against COVID-19 has nothing to do with local deficiencies, the county’s public health officials say. Instead, it’s the result of a “lack of transparency” and allocation decisions made by the state.
According to data provided by Lewis County Public Health and Social Services, the county represents 1% of the state’s population, and has a disproportionate amount of seniors, yet has only received .5% of the state’s vaccines, plummeting it to last place in terms of vaccine distribution.
“It’s disgusting to see where we’re at now. And I don’t say that lightly,” Public Health Director J.P. Anderson said Monday. “The questions that need to be answered as far as how we got here need to be answered by the state Department of Health. And they need to be answered quickly.”
Dr. Alan Melnick, soon-to-be Lewis County health officer, who also serves several other Southwest Washington counties, said health officers have been iced out of the decision-making process.
“The formula, if there is a formula for allocation of vaccine to counties, has not been really clear,” he said. “Sitting here right now, I couldn’t tell you how the decision was made to give Lewis County a specific amount of vaccine.”
In an email, state Department of Health (DOH) spokesperson Shelby Anderson said the state goes through a multi-step allocation process each week.
“Decisions are made based on several factors: proportional population of those eligible in the county, data from providers, providers’ current inventory and documented throughput, equity, and access to all provider types (hospitals, pharmacies, mass vaccination sites, and clinics),” she wrote.
But local officials say they haven’t seen any decision-making tree or other tools used by DOH to determine where vaccines are sent in the state. One metric they would like to see is a breakdown of which priority groups are actually accessing the vaccine by county — but according to Public Health Deputy Director John Abplanalp, after weeks of requesting that data from the state, they still don't have it.
Of the data they do have, Abplanalp said one “especially striking” trend is that in the last three weeks, Lewis County providers have been allocated only .1% of first-dose vaccines in the state — approximately 300 in total.
In Lewis County, only 6.92% of residents have received their first dose, compared to 12.18% across the state. The difference is starker compared to some neighboring counties, like Grays Harbor, at 13.63% and Pacific at 15.61%. Thurston County is at 11.07%.
And although residents have struggled to navigate online sign-ups and faced barriers like transportation and internet access, Anderson said those things aren’t the main driver of Lewis County’s poor performance. The demand is there, as evident by frustrated residents, providers' requests which have been denied by the state, and the fact that no local doses have been wasted so far.
“We’ve got staff that are ready to go. We’ve got lists thousands long. We’ve got operations ready to go. And we stood up mass vaccination clinics even before the state of Washington,” Anderson said, referencing the county’s first fairgrounds clinic, which operated with the help of dozens of local volunteers. “So our local logistics are not the barrier to this work at this time. It’s purely allocation.”
Lower vaccine allocations statewide have been the result of the state’s mass vaccination sites, which state officials expected would siphon off vaccines from local providers. For example, Valley View CEO Gaelon Spradley said his clinics saw a “halt” in allocations around the same time the mass vaccine clinics were stood up.
But local officials point to barriers preventing many Lewis County residents from getting to those sites to begin with.
“I think it’s ridiculous to expect an elderly population to drive from Lewis County to Ridgefield to get a vaccine,” Melnick said.
For now, Anderson said the county may pivot to try to request Pfizer vaccines instead of Moderna. Despite being more difficult to handle and transport, Anderson said Moderna vaccines have been highly sought-after and harder to acquire. But planning around getting the Pfizer vaccine out will require “some pretty timely planning,” he said, noting that a deep freezer would likely be loaned out by a local high school.
“Regardless of whose fault it is, our department will be working to address it,” Anderson said.