Tom and Gretchen Lawson became eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine in late January, when appointments opened to residents 65 and older statewide.
They were able to get appointments through their health care provider, Kaiser Permanente, but those appointments weren’t until March 6.
With the variability in supplies and with more Washington residents becoming eligible for shots this week, the Lawsons took advantage of an opportunity to get vaccinated even sooner when it popped up .
Both of them received their first doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at a local Safeway pharmacy on Wednesday, thanks to Meals on Wheels’ partnership with the grocery store.
The Lawsons are volunteers with Meals on Wheels of Greater Spokane County, and the couple drives the same route each Thursday, delivering meals to about a dozen clients.
With vaccine appointments hard to come by locally, community organizations have turned to forming partnerships with vaccine distributors directly.
Meals on Wheels of Greater Spokane County has partnered with local Safeway and Albertsons pharmacies to get vaccines to their volunteers and clients who are eligible.
About half of the organization’s volunteers are eligible for the vaccine, as well as the majority of the clients the group serves, said Janet Dixon, director of communications and development.
Meals on Wheels of Greater Spokane County served 2,691 seniors in 2020, many of whom were homebound and all of whom were over the age of 60.
Dixon said she has heard from both clients and volunteers that they are less receptive to the idea of a mass vaccination site, especially homebound people who have been isolating for nearly a year.
Ideally, people want to get the vaccine at their own doctor’s office, she said. The grocery store, where many have to take essential trips anyway, was a good second option.
“Our volunteers and clients are receptive to the idea of coming to their hometown Safeway; while they are getting groceries, they can get a shot,” she said.
Safeway and Meals on Wheels have worked together previously, both on food donations and other work. Dixon said Safeway has donated the Greater Spokane County Meals on Wheels program an industrial mixer to help with food preparation.
The new partnership is fairly simple. Every week, Meals on Wheels can tell the pharmacies how many people are available to get vaccinated that week, and Safeway will earmark and set aside those doses. This week, Safeway set aside eight doses, but that number will likely increase in the coming weeks.
Dixon said the partnership will start by offering doses to volunteers who deliver meals, currently with no contact, to eligible seniors over 60 . She said about half of the 365 volunteers qualify for the vaccine under Washington eligibility requirements for age.
Some residents who get Meals on Wheels meals delivered to them are mobile enough that they can receive their vaccine at the local Safeway; however, Dixon said there is a concern for the homebound seniors who do not have transportation or supervision after they are vaccinated.
“We’re working on a way to monitor them,” she said.
The Lawsons said the clients they serve probably aren’t accessing vaccines currently, underscoring the need to find a way to get doses to them directly.
“A lot of them aren’t online, and they don’t get out,” Tom Lawson said. “And they aren’t driving to places to get it. Even though they are eligible, they probably aren’t accessing this.”
Robert Queen, Safeway pharmacy services manager for the Inland Northwest region, said the grocery-based pharmacies are open to more partnerships with community organizations.
“We are committed to vaccinating as many people as we can,” he said.
He acknowledged that some seniors might have challenges with technology and making appointments online. With Meals on Wheels, those appointments are set aside directly by the organization, eliminating the need to enroll online.
The Lawsons felt a bit under the weather the day after their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine .
“It’s affecting us both a little bit today, but it’s like a mild cold,” Tom Lawson said.
While they were at Safeway, they were able to sign up for their second dose appointment in three weeks, eliminating the need for booking appointments online.
Safeway pharmacies have the ability to do mobile clinics in addition to vaccinating people in their stores , an option that might be explored down the road for the Meals on Wheels clients who can’t get out of their homes to get the vaccine.
Safeway and Albertsons pharmacies receiving doses average about 200 doses per week .
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