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Inland Northwest health workers started getting COVID-19 shots last week. What’s next?

The Inland Northwest has begun the long process of vaccinating its residents for COVID-19, starting with those on the front lines of the pandemic.

Nurses, respiratory therapists, physicians and emergency medical services personnel began lining up to get the first of two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, starting on Friday.

The Northeast Tri County Health District is distributing the first round of vaccines in the three-county region north of Spokane. Health care providers there also will receive the first doses.

The minimum shipment of Pfizer doses a group could get was 975, much more than any rural health facility could take in without wasting it.

“One of the challenges in our rural areas is that no one facility or organization would have 975 (people) that would meet that qualification, which is one of the benefits of our ability to canvas the three-county area,” said Matt Schanz, district administrator.

Schanz said the health district does not have ultracold storage, but is keeping the doses in its shipping container, where they stay good for up to 30 days.

The district is shipping out vials of the vaccine to providers in Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties this month. In the shipping packaging, the vaccine can last 120 hours without going into ultracold storage. Schanz said Ferry County Hospital has an ultracold freezer, while other hospitals in the region do not.

This means a lightning-speed vaccination clinic for Newport Hospital, where providers got excited when a volunteer drove to Colville and back to pick up 220 doses of the vaccine. Jenny Smith, incident commander for COVID-19 at the hospital, said they have to get all those doses out in just five days.

“It’s a fun atmosphere, and people are excited,” Smith said.

Frontline workers, hospital staff and emergency services providers in Newport are coming to get vaccinated. Smith said hospital staff was vaccinating people Saturday and then on Monday and Tuesday.

Vaccinating staff in the midst of a pandemic comes with challenges, however. Smith said if a staff member has had the virus, that person can only be vaccinated 90 days or more after their positive test. This means any staff member who has been exposed or recently tested positive cannot get the vaccine.

Schanz said about 900 of the 975 doses initially sent to the Northeast Tri County Health District are earmarked for health care providers across the region.

“We feel like we can fully utilize the vast majority of those doses,” he told reporters Friday.

In the event that there are leftover vials, federal agencies and the state health department are set to clarify who is prioritized next for vaccines as soon as this week. That guidance could help the district distribute leftover doses.

Hospitals in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene began vaccinating health care workers on Friday and were expected to continue over the weekend.

Kootenai Health received 1,370 doses in the hospital’s first shipment and expects more to arrive in December.

The hospital has a goal of vaccinating all frontline staff that wants to be vaccinated by the end of the year. Dr. Todd Hoopman, a critical care physician, was the fifth person in the Idaho Panhandle to be vaccinated.

“I am here today as one of the first recipients to show my colleagues, my co-workers and my community that I believe in this vaccine and the importance of being vaccinated in order to see the day when the COVID-19 pandemic has ended,” Hoopman said in a news release on his Friday inoculation.

Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center also began vaccinating staff on Friday.

The hospital received 3,900 doses of the Pfizer vaccine last week, and thus far has the only doses in Spokane County.

MultiCare hospitals are ready to receive their shipment this week with distribution plans in place.

On Friday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the Moderna vaccine for emergency use authorization, which will bring many more doses to Washington and Idaho. Washington expects to receive 128,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine this week.

This is welcome news for the majority of counties in Washington that did not receive initial shipments last week. It also will help alleviate dose allocation problems, as the Moderna vaccine does not need to be stored in ultracold freezers or shipped in such large quantities. Schanz said he envisions the Northeast Tri County Health District not being as involved with distribution when more doses arrive.

“Those (doses) will be in smaller increments, so we envision those will go straight to our medical facilities and clinics and they’ll schedule out times to be able to provide vaccine clinics as those supplies come in and roll through that phased approach for allocation,” Schanz said.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.