Acknowledging lagging coronavirus vaccine distribution, Gov. Jay Inslee announced a public-private partnership Monday he said would speed up the process by creating new vaccination sites, mobilizing thousands of workers and making everyone 65 and over immediately eligible.
"This is designed to bring to bear all of our resources in the state of Washington to get the job done," Inslee said during a Monday news conference. "This is a massive effort."
The state is ready to begin the next phase of vaccination, known as 1B, and it will be more flexible by including those 65 and older in the first tier. Previously, that tier was to include people 70 and older, as well as those 50 and older in multigenerational households (including people caring for a grandchild but not a partner, friend or child). But the federal government has called for states to lower the eligibility age to 65 right away, and some have already done so. About 80% of the state's COVID-19 deaths are among those 65 and older, Inslee noted.
With help from the National Guard, the state is setting up four new vaccination sites at Spokane Arena, the Benton County Fairgrounds in Kennewick, Town Toyota Center in Wenatchee, and the Clark County Fairgrounds in Ridgefield. Vaccines also will be administered at pharmacies and local clinics, as well as at existing sites in Snohomish, King and Pierce counties.
State officials say people can also find out where vaccinations are happening in their area on the DOH website and call those providers.
Washington's vaccination rollout, as around the country, has been slow and confusing, with a big gap between the number of vaccines distributed to vaccination sites and the number reported administered.
And even as Inslee, other state officials and members of the new partnership announced what they said would bring dramatic progress, glitches were apparent. A new online Phase Finder launched Monday by the state to let people know when and where they can be vaccinated was not working.
"I'm trying everything I can," said Robert Lux, an 81-year-old Seattleite who went to the site after trying for weeks to figure out how to get vaccinated. "Everything seems to lead to a dead end."
A state Department of Health (DOH) spokesperson said thousands of people tried to access the site within hours of it going up, and the department was working on expanding its bandwidth. Still, said DOH's Franji Mayes, who urged people to try again shortly, "we're heartened by the sheer number of people in Washington who have logged on," which she said indicates "overwhelming interest" in vaccination.
Washingtonians will have to steel themselves in the face of other frustrations, and be patient, said Inslee. The partnership he is creating, the Washington State Vaccine Command and Coordination Center, has a goal of administering 45,000 vaccinations a day. That's the current number.
Yet, that will require a bigger allotment that the state is currently getting from the federal government, which is 100,000 doses a week. Inslee said he is counting on the feds increasing their allotment, but he had no concrete details. With the new rules, more than 1.5 million people are now eligible to be vaccinated.
"We want people to recognize this is going to take time," the governor said.
Inslee said the state is shifting its strategy to create the infrastructure for mass vaccination without waiting for the volume of doses to match.
The governor was joined at the news conference by Microsoft President Brad Smith, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson and representatives of SeaMar Community Health Centers, SEIU Healthcare 1199 NW and Kaiser Permanente of Washington — all members of the new partnership.
Most were not specific about what they would be doing. But Smith said Microsoft is providing technical help, including with DOH's online data dashboards, bringing in volunteers and paid staffers to help with all sorts of logistics, and planning for a vaccination site on its campus that would be open to the community.
Inslee said the state will send volunteers to help vaccinate at sites where dosages have been "underutilized," though Michele Roberts, acting DOH assistant secretary of prevention and community health, said there has been "minimal wastage."
The state has not given clear answers about why it has been slow to use the vaccines it has, although it has said the discrepancy between the amount received and given may not be as large as it appears because of delays in reporting and compiling data. As of Jan. 16, the state has received 696,000 doses and has put almost 295,000 into people's arms, according to Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah.
Inslee said he will now require vaccination sites to administer doses within a week of getting them, to report that data to the state within 24 hours and, beginning Tuesday, to provide daily reports on doses administered and plans for using any that remain.
"We need them to hustle up," Inslee said.
The 1B phase has four tiers. So they won't have to wait as long, those in the second through fourth tiers — including residents and workers in congregate facilities and those 16 years or older with underlying health conditions — will now be able to get vaccinated once half of those in the first tier are vaccinated.
Inslee, who is 69, said he and his wife, Trudi, plan to be vaccinated in a few days.
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