Coronavirus Chronicles

Our Vaccine Mobilization Races Against a Coronavirus Mutant

The variant has arrived in Western Washington just as our big companies try to help. Is it too late?

By Benjamin Cassidy January 25, 2021

A new variant might complicate things.

During World War II, Washington played an outsize role in the country’s mobilization and the Allies’ ultimate triumph. Boeing produced bombers. Kaiser Shipyards in Vancouver churned out vessels. Washington, then a nascent state, secured as many war contracts per capita as nearly any other, according to a HistoryLink article by James R. Warren. The industrial call to arms lifted the state’s economy for years.

These days, Washington’s greatest export isn’t manufactured goods but “knowledge”—work that capitalizes more on brain power than physical might. Companies like Amazon and Microsoft summon some of the world’s top minds to our region. Pre-pandemic, the state’s economy ranked among the best in the U.S. It wasn’t in need of a jolt. 

But our coronavirus vaccine distribution effort has sure needed one. The state has struggled to administer all of the doses it's received from the federal government since the Pfizer-BioNTech and NIH-Moderna vaccines arrived here in mid-December. Some clunky state software contributed to the sluggish start, The Seattle Times reported. Governor Jay Inslee blamed providers (pharmacies, clinics, hospitals) for only booking appointments after doses arrived at their facilities. “We need to reverse that,” he said in a Monday press conference. (Cassie Sauer, president/CEO of the Washington State Hospital Association, said that strategy would lead to canceled appointments and thus “undermine the confidence in our vaccine delivery system.”) On the video call, the state health department’s acting assistant secretary, Michele Roberts, said that there had only been “minimal” vaccine waste, which, of course, is still maximally frustrating.

So last week, governor Jay Inslee announced that Washington would once again call on its private sector to help the state mobilize to defeat a common foe. “This is what won World War II,” he said. Microsoft president Brad Smith, Starbucks president and CEO Kevin Johnson, and Kaiser Permanente Washington president Susan Mullaney all joined for the announcement of a public-private partnership aimed at expediting the vaccine rollout. Mullaney appreciated Inslee’s analogy. “It’s clear we’re at war with Covid,” she said.

They won’t be building ships and planes, mind you. The Washington State Vaccine Command and Coordination Center will essentially call on our big companies’ logistical savvy—that brain power—to get us closer to herd immunity. Kaiser Permanente will help plan mass vaccination clinics and the distribution of doses to health care providers across the state. Starbucks will lend operational support, calling on years of efficiently administering PSLs to sleepy commuters. Microsoft brings tech expertise and a sprawling, empty campus that it hopes to use as a vaccination site. None of these companies will profit off their involvement. “You will get your reward in the afterlife,” Inslee quipped.

Noticeably absent at that Monday presser was our state’s largest employer. But Amazon would join a different Inslee call later in the week. One year after we all learned about the first Covid-19 case in our state, the governor announced a popup vaccination site at Amazon's headquarters in South Lake Union. Jay Carney, Amazon's head of PR, was on the line to unveil the collaboration with Virginia Mason. Still chuffed about Joe Biden's inauguration, the former White House press secretary expressed the company's support for the state without making too many promises. His careful backing evoked a letter sent to the Biden administration earlier in the week that mentioned the company is ready to vaccinate its hundreds of thousands of employees on his word. Inslee hopes the site, which delivered more than 2,000 doses on Sunday, is a down payment on more Amazon assistance to come.

It can't come soon enough. Over the weekend, the state's department of health confirmed the inevitable: the B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant, the one that first circulated in the United Kingdom, had arrived in Western Washington (two Snohomish County residents have it). While there's still a lot we don't know about any of the coronavirus variants, this one is believed to spread more quickly than earlier forms of the virus, which would lead to more cases and deaths. Public Health—Seattle and King County health officer Dr. Jeff Duchin says we need to prepare for a "Mount St. Helens-like eruption" of Covid cases soon.

Can the vaccine mobilization outrace our own breaths? Will the current shots protect against this mutation and others? It's clear we can't wait to find out.

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