Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Wondering when you might get the COVID-19 vaccine? Here’s what we know so far about distribution in the Inland NW

By Laurel Demkovich, Jim Allen, Maggie Quinlan, Adam Shanks and Amy Edelen The Spokesman-Review The Spokesman-Review

With two COVID-19 vaccinations federally approved and more on the way, the nation prepares for its largest inoculation effort in history.

In Washington, 30,000 high-risk health care workers were vaccinated in the first week that the Pfizer-BioNTech doses were available. In Idaho, 13,650 initial doses were allocated to local public health districts in the first week. As more shipments are received, those numbers will rise quickly.

While state governments have the ultimate say on prioritizing groups for the vaccine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID-19 vaccine work group voted last week on recommendations for who’s next. That group includes people 75 or older and frontline essential workers, such as first responders, teachers and grocery store workers.

Idaho guidelines in place are similar to CDC recommendations. Washington officials have said the state’s order for vaccinations likely will be similar to what the CDC recommends.

For many, it’s a bright spot in what seemed like an unending tunnel.

For others, questions remain about the vaccines’ effectiveness, the state’s plans and when they’ll be able to receive one.

While much is still unknown, here’s what we know so far about vaccination plans in the Inland Northwest.

Distribution ‘a very fluid situation’ Along with its initial allocation, Washington received 44,850 Pfizer doses in the week ending Dec. 25, with an additional 57,525 doses expected to arrive by the end of the year.

The state also will receive 127,900 doses of the Moderna vaccine in the coming week.

By the end of December, Washington likely will receive more than 330,000 doses of a vaccine, Washington Assistant Secretary of Health Michele Roberts told reporters Wednesday.

The state will release allocation numbers on a week-by-week basis, Roberts said.

“Vaccine distribution is a very fluid situation,” Spokane Regional Health District Interim Health Officer Dr. Francisco Velazquez told reporters Wednesday. “We’re seeing changes with distribution quantities often.”

The Spokane Regional Health District confirmed 3,900 Pfizer doses were distributed to health care providers in the county in its first week of use. It expected to get the same amount each of the following two weeks.

The district announced it would receive 15,800 doses of the Moderna vaccine by the week of Dec. 28. MultiCare and Providence hospitals have begun vaccinations.

Along with those major hospitals systems, 21 other providers are registered and will receive the vaccine in Spokane County. The shipments go directly to registered providers, who then decide who will receive it based on the state’s priority list.

Those in the state’s first priority group are front-line health care workers who interact with COVID patients daily, including cleaning staff and front desk workers. First responders and residents and staff of long-term care facilities are also near the top of the list.

Vaccinations of those in longterm care facilities will begin Dec. 28, Roberts said.

The next group eligible for vaccinations still is being determined, with Gov. Jay Inslee making the final decision.

“It’s still going to be several weeks before we’re going to be ready to move to the next group,” Roberts said, adding by the end of January she hopes to start vaccinating the next set of priorities.

In Idaho, 13,650 doses of the Pfizer vaccine have been distributed, with 1,950 going toward the Panhandle Health District in North Idaho. Most of those doses went to Kootenai Health, which received 1,370 and has started vaccinations. The others were spread out among other hospitals and clinics in the five-county district.

The state received 28,000 initial doses of Moderna last week, with the Panhandle Health District receiving 4,200 doses, spokesperson Katherine Hoyer said. Those doses will go to the same providers that received the initial Pfizer doses.

Healthcare personnel and long-term care facility residents are the first in line for those initial doses, with first responders, teachers and essential workers next, according to Idaho’s vaccine advisory committee.

First responders may get vaccinated in JanuaryThe Spokane Regional Health District will allocate enough doses to vaccinate 100% of the roughly 2,500 first responders and public safety personnel in Spokane County, according to Spokane County Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer. That includes employees, firefighters, law enforcement, corrections officers and dispatchers.

When the inventory arrives – tentatively scheduled for the first week of January – Schaeffer said there will be a vaccination clinic for first responders. They will return a few weeks later to receive a second dose.

The vaccination plan was formed by the Spokane County EMS Vaccination Task Force, which is led by Mike Lopez, integrated medical services director for the Spokane Fire Department. It’s a facet of the existing pandemic response plan that public safety and health officials had in place well before the coronavirus took hold in the United States this year.

Fire Department employees will not be required to get the vaccine, which Schaeffer does not believe is within his power to mandate. It will be an “individual decision,” Schaeffer said.

He estimated that about half of the workforce could forego the vaccine. While many have not ruled it out entirely, Schaeffer said that feedback from first responders was “they were a little hesitant, and not sure if they wanted to be on the first rollout of this vaccination program.”

“We need to prove to people that it is beneficial and safe, and that’s just going to take time and effort,” Schaeffer said.

Schaeffer plans on receiving the vaccine, but he has to wait 90 days from the time he was treated for COVID-19. The chief was diagnosed with COVID-19 in November . Though he was not hospitalized, he experienced symptoms and, at their apex, he coughed up blood.

“It’s all perspective. When you look on the spectrum of very minor symptoms to death, it was probably more toward the minor side,” Schaeffer said.

The vaccine is key to ending the pandemic, Schaeffer stressed.

At its worst, the fire department has been without 20% of its workforce due to employees either testing positive for the virus or isolating due to potential exposure. That’s resulted in more overtime and stress on personnel.

To date, 29 Spokane police officers have tested positive for COVID-19, according to spokeswoman Julie Humphreys. Humphreys said in an email that “the city is developing a policy that will follow state and federal directives on vaccines for employees,” when asked whether officers will be required to get the vaccine.

“Information is still evolving rapidly about the availability, timing and directives for first-responder employees,” Humphreys said.

It’s still unclear where teachers fall in the distribution orderTeachers are moving toward the front of the line for COVID-19 vaccinations, but it’s unclear what difference that will make before the school year ends.

Depending on a final determination by the Washington State Department of Health, teachers could get their COVID-19 shots in the next few weeks or well into spring. That’s also true in Idaho, where teachers are currently listed in the second tier of groups in line for vaccinations.

In education circles, the reaction to the national news was mixed.

At the top, Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.7 million-member American Federation of Teachers, said teachers should be at the front of the line, just behind health care workers.

Her message: If you want to open schools, vaccinate teachers first.

“Those in schools that are reopening in person or have reopened in person should be a very close second priority,” Weingarten said.

“The way in which we see it,” she said, “is that the vaccination prioritization should be aligned with those who are in school.”

Larry Delaney, president of the Washington Education Association, said he’s hopeful.

“We certainly think that’s good news, also recognizing so much is fluid. We don’t want to get our hopes up too high, recognizing things could change,” Delaney said.

Of the 153,000 employees in Washington public schools, about 40% are over 50.

Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Adam Swinyard said the district is “encouraged by the ongoing discussions focused on strategies to support the safe reopening of schools, and look forward to state and local decisions regarding the vaccine distribution plan.”

There will be speed bumps, though.

“If you bring a bunch of children all back to school and none of them are vaccinated, there’s going to be some high-risk child who is going to end up in the hospital,” Helen Chu, an infectious disease expert and associate professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine, told the Seattle Times last week.

CDC recommends prioritizing essential workersThe United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents 62,000 members in Washington, praised the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation to prioritize COVID-19 vaccines for essential workers in grocery stores, food processing and meatpacking plants.

In a statement Wednesday, the UFCW urged Inslee to expedite vaccine distribution.

“The CDC move to prioritize essential workers for the COVID vaccine is a critical first step, but Governor Jay Inslee must act to expedite distribution and guarantee free access to the vaccine for these thousands of Washington workers on the frontlines,” UFCW President Marc Perrone said in a statement.

UFCW Local 1439 President Eric Renner said while some members expressed concern about getting COVID-19 vaccinations, it was a “very small percentage.” UFCW Local 1439 represents more than 6,500 workers in Eastern Washington, North Idaho and northeastern Oregon.

Renner said he has not yet heard when workers could receive COVID-19 vaccinations, but it’s a priority to ensure they have access when it becomes available.

“They’ve been putting their lives at risk for nine months and the conditions they’ve been working in have not been easy,” Renner said. “The sooner we can get vaccines, the better.”

Safeway spokeswoman Tairsa Worman said in an email Safeway is not mandating, but strongly encouraging employees to obtain COVID-19 vaccinations.

Those already vaccinated say it’s ‘the right thing to do’Dr. Chandler Hill has sent many COVID patients to an intensive care unit knowing they will likely die.

Hill, an emergency room doctor at Sacred Heart, estimates he’s treated between 50 and 100 COVID-positive patients. One sticks out – a man in his 40s like Hill, with few other conditions, whom he could tell was unlikely to survive.

“I think the main thing that gives people a misimpression of the virus is that it does cause a mild illness in some people,” Hill said. “I feel like it would be a roll of the dice if I get COVID. The younger you are and healthier you are, that dice roll gets better, but it’s definitely not inconsequential.”

He’s also seen the long-term effects of COVID. Some patients develop clots and get strokes. He’s gotten into the routine of wearing PPE and double-checking everything, but he said he still fears for his wife and two young children.

“It’s something that weighs down on you every day as you go through your day,” Hill said.

Hill was one of the first people in Spokane to get a COVID vaccine, and he said he had no side effects, outside of a little soreness on his arm like he’d get with many vaccines.

All of his coworkers are getting the vaccine, he said. The research is “as good as it can be” and the side effects are minimal, he said.

“It’s really the right thing to do, not just for yourself but for your family and community, so we can get back to normal,” Hill said.

He said the mood in the medical community is excitement. It feels like the beginning of the end, he said. The pandemic, though wearing, has been “almost sort of inspiring,” he said, as he sees his team rise to the challenge.

“This hopefully is one of the more significant events we’ll go through. I’ve been proud to be part of a team that’s doing a good job and rising up to the moment, so hopefully we can keep doing that,” Hill said. “If everybody does their part and is willing to take the vaccine, then we can hopefully put this thing behind us.”