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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Gov. Inslee announces new vaccine priority groups; next phase to start March 22

By Arielle Dreher and Laurel Demkovich The Spokesman-Review

OLYMPIA – Grocery store employees, agriculture workers, firefighters, public transit workers and law enforcement officers are among those in the next round of COVID-19 vaccine eligibility, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Thursday.

The latest vaccination eligibility comes shortly after Inslee said teachers could get immunized, a statement that followed President Joe Biden’s directive to prioritize educators for shots as he announced there would be enough supply for all American adults to get vaccinated by the end of May.

In an updated distribution timeline, the state is expecting to move into the next phase of vaccination eligibility by March 22, assuming vaccine supply continues to increase. The next three phases, spread out through the end of April, will include critical workers, people with comorbidities that put them at risk from COVID and people living in congregate settings.

Moving forward will still depend on progress in early groups, Inslee told reporters, adding he is “thrilled” with the progress the federal government’s been making.

“I have high confidence that these supplies will continue to increase,” he said.

The updated eligibility timeline will look like this:

  • March 22: critical workers
  • April 12: people who are 50 or older with two or more comorbidities
  • April 26: people who are 16 or older with two or more comorbidities and people living in congregate settings

The critical workers phase includes those in agriculture, food processing, grocery stores, public transit, firefighters law enforcement, corrections, prisons, jails and detention centers. It will also include people over the age of 16 who are pregnant or have a disability putting them at high risk, though it wasn’t immediately clear which disabilities.

The phases in mid-April include those with two or more underlying medical conditions that put them at higher risk for COVID-19, including heart disease, cancer or diabetes. Those in congregate settings include people in correctional facilities or group homes for people with disabilities, and people experiencing homelessness who live in or access services in congregate settings.

These groups will join health care and front-line workers, residents 65 and older or 50 and older in a multigenerational household, as well as teachers and child care workers, who became eligible Tuesday.

The dates are based on federal allocation projections, Inslee said. While those numbers have been unsteady in the past, he said he is confident the supply chain will remain as estimated.

The new eligibility guidelines will depend largely on vaccine supply.

Half of Washington residents 65 and older have received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. That leaves more than 600,000 eligible residents in that tier. The added group of teachers and child care workers is estimated to be 260,000 residents, according to state health officials.

The state is receiving about 300,000 doses per week of Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, which are two-dose vaccines. By the end of March, state officials expect to receive 330,000 doses per week. Those will not be enough to vaccinate all currently eligible residents, which means the Johnson & Johnson doses and federal vaccine programs will be relied on to distribute doses in the coming weeks.

Washington has been allocated 60,900 Johnson & Johnson doses for the next several weeks and will not receive more until the end of the month, due to federal supply constraints.

“We will not receive additional doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for the next three weeks,” Lacy Fehrenbach, deputy health secretary, said Thursday, noting that additional allocations will likely begin at the end of March.

Providers in Pierce, Snohomish, Whatcom and Thurston counties will receive 12,300 Johnson & Johnson doses this week, and the remaining doses are scheduled to be distributed to providers in counties that have not received proportional shares of the vaccine.

State health officials are still discussing how best to use the single-dose shots.

Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah encouraged providers to continue ensuring appointments are available to seniors, who are the most at-risk for hospitalization or death due to the virus.

Anyone who is eligible should still sign up to get an appointment, he said.

“As we’re advancing, we are not leaving anyone behind,” he said. “If you’re already eligible for the vaccine, you remain eligible.”

Shah said the reason the state is waiting about three weeks to move to the next phase of vaccinations is because it wants to ensure those who are currently eligible have access. He said Thursday that local health jurisdictions are reporting a high demand for vaccine from residents 65 and older.

Some seniors have had difficulty getting appointments because most are offered through an online scheduling tool. Shah said the Department of Health is continuing to work with local groups to get the word out to seniors through town halls, Facebook groups and the department’s COVID-19 information hotline.

This week’s announcement that teachers and child care workers in the state could begin receiving vaccinations came after Biden shared Tuesday the country will have enough vaccines by the end of May for every adult. Biden also directed states to prioritize teachers and child care workers, expecting them to get one dose by the end of March.

Inslee, who had previously said he did not think teachers needed to be vaccinated before returning to school, said Biden’s directive was a legal one and he was “constitutionally bound” to follow it.

He said that while allowing teachers to be vaccinated right now was a different decision than he would have made, he hopes doing so will encourage more districts to return to in-person learning.

Biden’s directive included guidance that states use the federal pharmacy program to vaccinate teachers. Shah said Thursday that the state will lean on that program for educator vaccinations, but will also have to use its own sites and doses. He did not specify how teachers can use the pharmacy program for setting up their shot.

State health officials encouraged teachers and child care workers to get vaccinated through the federal pharmacy program. Fehrenbach said pharmacies that are a part of the program received 65,000 doses this week and are scheduled to receive 72,000 doses next week. These doses are not included in the state’s dose allocation.

Albertsons, Safeway, Costco, Health Mart, Rite Aid, Fred Meyer and Walmart pharmacies are a part of the federal pharmacy programs, and most are offering appointments online.

While case counts and hospitalizations have declined, the number of variant cases detected in the state has doubled. There are 70 confirmed cases of the B.1.1.7 variant, which originated in the United Kingdom, and five cases of the B.1.351 variant, which has been traced to South Africa.

“These variants are believed to be more infectious and easier to spread, which makes our race to vaccinate even more important,” Shah said.

The variants have been detected only in Western Washington, predominantly in the northwest Puget Sound region, as well as in Clark County.

Finding a first-dose appointment this week could still be a challenge, as the state has prioritized providers who need second doses again this week.

“Statewide, we’re needing to take Moderna first doses and use them as second doses to balance an allocation challenge that followed the four-week period from late January, when a large volume of Moderna doses came into the state and most providers used their first and second doses as first doses,” Fehrenbach told reporters Thursday.

She said the state should be “turning a corner” on that issue soon, however, and the Spokane Arena should be opening more first-dose appointments.

A look at local numbers

On Thursday, the Spokane Regional Health District confirmed 88 new COVID-19 cases and one additional death.

There have been 586 deaths in Spokane County in residents due to COVID-19.

There are 48 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in Spokane hospitals.

The Panhandle Health District confirmed 36 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday and no additional deaths.

There are 24 Panhandle residents hospitalized with COVID-19.

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.

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.