Coronavirus Chronicles

Washington's Coronavirus Vaccine Distribution Needs a Shot in the Arm

Updates on the rollout.

By Benjamin Cassidy January 11, 2021

Workers carrying in coronavirus vaccine

Workers may not be, but doses are idling.

Dr. Umair A. Shah's having one hell of an onboarding.

In late December, just after the first doses of coronavirus vaccines arrived in Washington, Shah replaced Dr. John Wiesman as the state's secretary of health. Wiesman announced in May that he'd be leaving Washington's top health post to join the faculty at the University of North Carolina. Shah moved north from Texas's Harris County (home to Houston), where he'd led the health authority. In his opening presser, he was noticeably bundled up.

But our cooler clime is hardly his biggest adjustment as he assumes a new role. While most would still be asking for the Wi-Fi password, Shah has had to oversee the state's most pressing public health project, and perhaps its greatest logistical challenge, in a century: vaccine distribution.

It's not going great so far. As of last Friday, the state had administered just 151,856 doses of the 466,775 it had received, though a three-day lag in reporting means the amount of vaccine jabs could be underrepresented. The Seattle Times reported this weekend that the state's department of health "can’t answer basic questions, like how many long-term care residents have been vaccinated or how much vaccine has been wasted." And Seattle Public Schools superintendent Denise Juneau has asked the state to reconsider its vaccine line in order for SPS to start classes on March 1. Currently, only teachers and staff over 50 would have a chance to receive doses in the state's "Phase 1B," which is projected to last through April. Juneau wants other workers at the schools to be eligible in the phase's initial tier so that pre-K, kindergarten, first grade, and special education in-person instruction can resume on March 1.

In fairness, states across the country have struggled with the rollout, especially on the West Coast. Shah and company have also had to contend with more turnover: In October, state health officer Dr. Kathy Lofy announced her resignation "to focus on being a mom, improving my health and reconnecting with friends and family." As of this writing, that role has not been filled.

On a local level, King County's trying to give the state's response a shot in the arm by opening two vaccination centers in the coming weeks. Similar to testing locations, the walk-up and drive-up sites will be high-volume (they'll likely pop up in the southern part of the county, a news release says). Additionally five mobile teams will help "reach those who are not able to visit a healthcare provider or vaccination center," such as folks in homeless shelters. Large companies like Amazon may also lend their resources to the rollout.

This corporate call to arms is less than ideal, many in Seattle might vociferously note. But at this point, it's clear we could use the help.

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