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Spokane area officials had little warning about Inslee’s mass vaccination plan

UPDATED: Tue., Jan. 19, 2021

By Arielle Dreher and Laurel Demkovich The Spokesman-Review

After Gov. Jay Inslee announced a new COVID-19 vaccination effort Monday that lowers age restrictions and calls for the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena to be turned into a massive shot clinic, local officials said they were left out of the loop and may be unable to meet the governor’s aggressive plans.

The governor listed four mass vaccination sites in a news conference, including the Spokane Arena, that he said will be operational next week.

Spokane County Commissioner and Board of Health Chairwoman Mary Kuney said the state health department gave the Spokane Regional Health District warning that the county might be mentioned as a vaccine site, but with no further details.

Kuney said she only knows what Inslee said in his news conference, noting there was no coordination or discussions about the plan that she was privy to at the county or health district level.

“That’s all I know so far, and we’re trying to figure out more information,” she said.

Kuney said even Spokane Arena officials were not given notice of the governor’s announcement. A spokesperson for the Spokane Arena could not be reached by late Tuesday.

The Washington National Guard, which Inslee said would help with the mass vaccination sites, is not sure how it will be used.

The Guard has resources, Washington Military Communications Director Karina Shagren said in an email, but the finer details for vaccine site plans are still being worked out with the Department of Health.

Tara Lee, a spokesperson for Inslee, wrote in an email that it was the office’s understanding that the state Department of Health was initiating the conversations with the vaccination sites.

The health department didn’t offer many more details about the sites, only that planning is still in process, according to a statement. Spokesperson Danielle Koenig said the department is working with each of the selected local health jurisdictions to find ways to have the clinics open by Monday.

“The Department of Health is moving quickly to make Gov. Inslee’s vision of regional mass vaccination locations a reality,” according to an email from Koenig.

By end of day Tuesday, the Department of Health had reached out to the Spokane Regional Health District to start planning, but what role the health district will play in supporting the mass vaccination site is yet to be determined.

Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, said plans at the arena seem to be coming together, but the announcement was pulled together quickly. He said he wants to see a strategic coordinated local plan because “we don’t need any more confusion.”

“It seems like some initial boxes weren’t checked,” Riccelli said. “I don’t know if that lays at the health department’s feet or the state’s.”

‘Simple math’

While expanding current vaccine eligibility to all Washington residents 65 and older was welcome news to many people eager to get vaccinated and hospitals that have been asking the state to move ahead for weeks, not all communities will move at the same pace.

Some rural communities that have been asking to move ahead for a couple of weeks will be able to move faster through vaccine phases than urban ones, as long as their vaccine supplies last.

There is not now enough vaccine in the state to vaccinate all residents older than 65, as well as those over 50 who live in multigenerational households. The governor’s announcement made them all eligible.

Late last week, federal officials with Operation Warp Speed told the state health department that it would distribute the same amount of vaccine in the coming weeks to Washington, about 100,000 doses per week. The governor’s announcement made about 1 million more people eligible overnight, creating an instant backlog.

Dr. Chris Dale, chief quality officer at Swedish hospitals in the Puget Sound, compared the state’s current vaccination status to a story problem from math class.

“It comes down to simple math. If 1.5 million Washingtonians are now eligible, and we get 100,000 vaccines per week, it’s like a high school story problem: how many weeks will it take to vaccinate the entirety of Washington? And the answer isn’t one, so we are going to have to patient,” Dale told reporters Tuesday.

Lee said Inslee wants to do everything the state can to remove any barriers at the state level for vaccine distribution, adding the state can’t wait for full doses to arrive and then prepare. Lee said the state can’t control what the federal government does with doses, but “it was very important to him that we get the infrastructure in place to scale up and open up as much capability as possible, so the state is fully prepared and the doses can be administered to as many people as possible when they arrive.”

According to the new state vaccine dashboard, about 42% of the vaccine doses delivered to the state’s providers have actually been administered. This data is likely not as up-to-date as actual totals, however, with data system lags and challenges some health systems are encountering to upload their data.

While many doses appear to be going unused statewide, some of these doses are being held to vaccinate workers and residents in long-term care facilities that are a part of a federal program, which will continue all throughout this month. The governor installed a legal requirement on Monday to ensure vaccine distributors are using 95% of their doses the first week they receive them.

Leaders ask for patience

Residents who are eligible are encouraged to contact their health care provider to schedule an appointment, or use the Phase Finder tool to find a location where they can be vaccinated. The Department of Health list of vaccine distributors has not been updated, however, and locally, providers are encouraging Spokane County residents to use their tools or call their providers directly to arrange to get vaccinated if they are eligible.

MultiCare in Spokane County is offering vaccines to adults 65 and older and asks patients to enroll using their online tool to schedule an appointment. If there aren’t appointments available, residents are encouraged to continue to check back. Providence Medical Group is planning to open a vaccine center for its established patients over the age of 65 as well. It is potentially set to open by next week.

In Spokane County, however, there are also groups of health care workers who need to get vaccinated. CHAS Health received some vaccine this week from the Spokane Regional Health District to finish vaccinating its staff members. Providence also continues to vaccinate health care workers and first responders.

Ultimately, hospital administrators asked residents to be patient as they work to get people scheduled, as well as wait on enough doses to work through everyone who is now eligible.

“The math is the math,” June Altaras, senior vice president of MultiCare, said Tuesday. “We can only give as much vaccine as we have, and we don’t have enough for everyone who wants it.”

The biggest holdup, from hospital leaders’ perspective, is the federal government’s inability to let the state, and therefore providers, know how many doses it will be receiving in advance.

“Hospitals do not get advance notice about what they’re getting,” said Cassie Sauer, CEO of the Washington Hospital Association. “It’s in the 24- or 48-hour range (of advanced notice), and then people know what they’re getting this week but not next week.”

This makes planning vaccine clinics and appointments incredibly challenging, especially when providers are reluctant to book appointments before they know doses will arrive.

“We’re reluctant to schedule people for appointments when we don’t know how many doses are coming because people are already really impatient, and to make a promise and pull it back is really challenging,” Sauer said.

Here’s a look at local numbers:

The Spokane Regional Health District confirmed 292 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday, as well as six more deaths from the virus. There are now more than 32,000 confirmed cases of the virus in Spokane County, and 450 deaths due to the virus.

There are 103 people in Spokane hospitals being treated for the virus.

The Panhandle Health District confirmed 362 new cases on Tuesday, which included those confirmed over the long weekend. There have been 215 deaths from COVID-19 in the five-county region. There are 71 Panhandle residents hospitalized with the virus.


Arielle Dreher and Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story 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.

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