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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Panel of experts gives COVID-19 vaccine OK for use in Washington

OLYMPIA – A special panel of experts reviewing the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine has given its approval for use in Washington and three other Western states, Gov. Jay Inslee said Sunday.

Health officials will begin vaccinating key health-care workers and residents of long-term care facilities as soon as Tuesday.

“The enormity of this success cannot be overstated,” Inslee said in a late morning news conference. “It is a wonderful holiday season in the sense to believe that in the darkness of the year we have the bright light of recognition that we have the end in sight before us.”

The Western States Scientific Safety Review Work Group joined the Federal Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in greenlighting the vaccine, Inslee said. The federal agencies gave their approval late last week.

Earlier this fall, Inslee and the governors of California, Oregon and Nevada had announced the extra review of any vaccine approved by the FDA over concerns the Trump administration might rush approval without adequate study. The 17-member group included experts in medicine, pediatrics, public health, biostatistics, pharmacy and epidemiology.

The working group gave its unanimous approval Saturday evening and encouraged “immediate use of the vaccine” in all four states.

The Spokane Regional Health District released a statement Sunday saying there are 22 health care organizations in the area seeking approval to administer the vaccine in Spokane and surrounding counties. The first doses in the area will likely go to Providence Health Care and Multicare “so that they can vaccinate their frontline health care workers” and those in the community who meet criteria for immediate vaccination, the statement said.

John Dunn, a physician who has worked on vaccine safety studies and one of the Washington members of the work group, said the benefits of the vaccine greatly outweigh the risks. It has a 95% effective rate – which he described as “terrific by any measure” – and with side effects that are “transitory.”

Ed Marcuse, a pediatrician who has been involved in previous vaccine reviews for the FDA and serves as a Washington member of the work group, said the government approval was comparable to other decisions in the last decade and “a pretty exhaustive process.”

How long the vaccine will provide immunity isn’t yet clear, Marcuse said, although it appears to provide a greater level of immunity in the bloodstream than what is found in those who have been infected and recovered from COVID-19.

Inslee called the decision “the gold seal of approval” and said he hoped it would allay the fears of some people about taking the vaccine when it becomes available.

“I’ve been as questioning and untrustful of this administration as maybe anyone in this country,” he said. “But what we have demonstrated is there is scientific certainty about the safety of this product.”

An estimated 62,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine will begin arriving in Washington on Monday and will start being administered Tuesday. They will go to health care workers who have jobs that put them in close and regular contact with COVID-19 patients, long-term care residents and some tribal health operations. By the end of the month the state expects to have about 222,000 doses of that vaccine.

A second vaccine, developed by Moderna, will undergo review by the FDA this week with a possible approval on Thursday, and be reviewed by the Western States group. It could start being administered the week of Dec. 21.

Inslee called the beginning of vaccinations a turning point in fighting COVID-19, quoting a famous line of Winston Churchill during the Battle of Britain that it was not “the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning.” It doesn’t mean the state would drop restrictions and return to normal, he added.

“We cannot let up on masking, physical distancing and restrictions on indoor activities,” he said.

The state will wait for further federal guidance before deciding how to distribute the vaccine as more doses become available.

“These are not easy decisions, as you can imagine,” Inslee said. “There will be, as much as we can, a way to convey to Washingtonians what certain circumstances will lead you to be eligible.”

State Health Officer Kathy Lofy said the goal is to have 70% of the population immunized to reach “herd immunity” and stop outbreaks of the virus. It’s hard to predict when the state will reach that goal because it’s not clear yet how much vaccine it will be receiving or what percentage of the population will choose to get vaccinated, she said.

There is no state law that would require people who work in certain jobs to get vaccinated, although “that could change,” Inslee said.

“Right now what were depending on is people’s voluntary decisions to protect themselves and their loved ones,” he said.