Washingtonians Seeking Open Appointments Make Long Treks to COVID Vaccine Sites, But Health Officials Discourage It


On a bright and early weekend morning, Annie Lai got into a car in Seattle with her friends and headed east. Their destination, 142 miles away: Yakima. More specifically: a COVID-19 vaccine dose in Yakima.

Lai and her friends, all in their mid-20s who work from home, had learned about available vaccine appointments when one of them received a mass Slack message through her employer on April 2.

"The message said, 'There's a mass vaccination site in Yakima, here's the link,' " Lai said. She clicked it, answered the eligibility questions truthfully — "no" to all of them — and was able to book an appointment anyway.

The group arrived in Yakima at noon the next day and waited for hours at the site as cars snaked around the block. Many of the people in line likely had the same idea: Travel several hours to a vaccine site in another area of Washington than where they live or work to secure a shot ahead of April 15, the day all Washingtonians 16 and older become eligible for a vaccine.

The Yakima vaccination site, administering 1,200 doses each day, in particular has been a popular destination for eligible and not-yet-eligible residents west of the Cascades. But people across the state — and beyond — told The Seattle Times of their long trips taken in hopes of getting vaccinated, despite eligibility requirements.

A family drove from Spokane to Grand Coulee after finding an appointment for their teenage son. A college student in Bellingham got a ride from a friend and then hopped a bus to a site in Monroe. And an extreme version: A couple living in Arizona boarded a plane to Washington when they heard the husband's mother's assisted-living facility had excess doses.

Reports of trips like these, consistent since the start of the vaccine rollout, have prompted local and state health officials to discourage traveling far for a vaccine, for several reasons. Doses are allocated to counties based on population and equity, and making an appointment could potentially take one away from a someone who lives or works in that area, they say. It's also better to be closer to home, in case of side effects, said Dr. Umair Shah, Washington's health secretary, in a Department of Health briefing this week.

And the federal government opened the Yakima site because it is surrounded by agricultural communities, which have been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Yakima County has had more than twice as many confirmed cases per capita than King County.

"The drive from Seattle to Yakima is beautiful, so I would encourage in other times, when it's not about going to get a vaccine," Shah said.

Meanwhile, the agencies operating vaccination sites say they are following state guidelines for eligibility. The state is in Phase 1B, tiers three and four, which includes people 60 and older, those 16 and older with two or more comorbidities and workers in high-risk settings, as well as all residents in previous phases.

Those who do not quality under these phases, about 1.2 million people, are not eligible until April 15. Across the state, 1.5 million people have been fully vaccinated, and nearly 60,000 doses are being given per day on average.

But the requirements haven't stopped some ineligible people from making the trek to sites like Yakima. On social media, rumors about the site abound: that it had fully opened to anyone over 16 (not true), or that because it's run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the eligibility requirements are different (also not true). Another persistent rumor is that Yakima County residents are rejecting the vaccine. But 17% of Yakima County residents are fully vaccinated, compared to 20% in King County, according to the state health department.

"We aren't saying others from across the state can't come, but we are wanting to reach our population in Yakima County," said Stephanie Badillo-Sanchez, spokesperson for the Yakima Health District, one of the agencies that manages the site's daily operations.

PrepMod, a tool used by the state to help residents find and book appointments, showed hundreds of open slots at the Yakima site, including more than 400 for same-day appointments, on Thursday.  Shortly before 4 p.m. Wednesday, the Yakima Health District posted on its social media accounts that it had 200 doses still available to be given out before 6 p.m. Excess doses at the end of the day are given to anyone 18 and older, Badillo-Sanchez said.

Through PrepMod, a user must answer several questions before booking an appointment, including age, if the user is in a priority group or has underlying health conditions. Those who aren't eligible still can choose a time and book an appointment, even if they click "no" on all eligibility questions. However, the user shouldn't take this to mean it's OK to book an appointment before they're eligible, health officials said.

"We encourage all community members who are not currently eligible to please wait for their turn to receive their vaccine somewhere close to home," Lilian Bravo, Yakima Health District director of public health partnerships, said in an email.

Deciding that the drive would be worth it since it was a "beautiful day," Rahul Chaturvedi and his wife drove to Yakima on a whim because they wanted a Pfizer shot before traveling to India. He called the site and was told they weren't eligible, but when they got there, they noted the large electronic sign directing drivers to turn left for a vaccine. They both got a shot.

Barry Geraghty drove from Spokane to Grand Coulee, about two hours away, for a vaccine appointment for his son, who was eligible for a shot but would have had to wait a few weeks for one in Spokane. The cost wasn't prohibitive, and his job is flexible enough that he could make the drive. They plan to get the second dose Friday.

"His Friday vaccine will mean our whole family will have received both shots, so this will be a huge relief," he said.

Workers at the site have been welcoming, Lai and others said. One North Seattle resident recalled that a greeter correctly assumed he had come from the city and when he was done wished him a safe drive back home.