Why is it taking so long to give out lifesaving vaccines in Washington state?

A dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is administered at the Spokane Fire Department Training Center. - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
Young Kwak photo
A dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is administered at the Spokane Fire Department Training Center.

On average, 3,000 Americans are dying from the coronavirus every day. A new COVID strain first identified in the United Kingdom has added to California's woes. Hospitals in Los Angeles County have been so overwhelmed that ambulances can't take some heart attack victims to the emergency room.

Washington state, however, has been one of the most successful states in slowing down the spread of the coronavirus. It went from the first state to be hit with the outbreak last March to the state with the fifth-lowest total number of cases today.

Yet, when it comes to the drugs that could end the thing, restart our economy and restore our way of life, Washington has been slow out of the gates.

By Friday, the Seattle Times reported, nearly 468,000 doses had been distributed in Washington, but only a third of those had actually been injected. Despite recent improvements, on Monday Bloomberg's "vaccine tracker" ranked Washington state's ability to get COVID shots into arms among the bottom third of the country.

And while some heap blame upon federal failures of the Trump administration, state House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox (R-Yelm) notes that Gov. Jay Inslee had nine months to plan for efficiently distributing COVID vaccines.

"We should have a top 10 United States plan, not bottom 20," Wilcox says. "We are one of the slowest states rolling this vital thing out at the same time as we are squeezing down parts of the economy."

The stakes, after all, couldn't be more clearly a matter of life and death.

"How would you feel if it was your grandmother who contracted COVID this week because she should have been vaccinated two or three weeks ago?" Wilcox asks.

"We are one of the slowest states rolling this vital thing out at the same time as we are squeezing down parts of the economy."

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The frustration has been bipartisan. Sen. Majority Leader Andy Billig (D-Spokane) indicated that he initially had some of the same concerns as Wilcox.

"I was worried there wasn't a sense of urgency," Billig says. "Once I communicated with the Department of Health, there was absolutely a sense of urgency."

He says he emphasized that the Legislature would provide the department any funding necessary to complete the task.

"Our Senate budget team has met with the Department of Health and conveyed the message that we do not want a lack of resources to be in any way a hindrance for vaccine distribution," Billig says. "This is too important to have us delay in any way that's preventable."

Inslee's administration has rolled out a plan with a series of phases, subphases and tiers within those subphases to determine who gets the vaccine first. Most residents under 70 who aren't working in a high-risk setting likely won't get vaccinated until at least May.

But even the first tier of the very first phase — focused on hospital workers, first responders and nursing home residents — has been rife with delays.

Rep. Joe Schmick, a Republican who represents southeast Washington including the southern tip of Spokane County, set up meetings last week to try to identify the roadblocks.

One problem, he says, was that the distribution was interrupted by the Christmas and New Year's holidays. There were also misunderstandings: While each vaccine recipient is supposed to get another shot a few weeks later, some hospitals and clinics incorrectly thought that they were supposed to reserve that second dose themselves, instead of trusting it would be delivered.

Though serious side effects are rare, Schmick says that enough of those who received vaccines didn't feel well a few days after being vaccinated that it "precluded hospitals from going in and saying we're only doing this floor or this whole wing."

"Hospitals were staggering vaccinations," Schmick says.

Some health care workers didn't want to get vaccinated at all.

"There are health care workers who are on the front lines who are hesitating getting vaccines. That is a significant issue as well," state Secretary of Health Umair Shah says.

Yet, there are millions of people in the state who do want to get vaccinated. But state rules require certain high-risk groups to get vaccinated first before others.

While the state has tweaked the rules to allow for a bit more flexibility, the process of vetting everyone can create a bottleneck, says Kayla Myers, lead of the Spokane Regional Health District COVID-19 Vaccination Task Force.

"We all are trying to make sure we're vaccinating the right people, but we also need to determine if it's time to move on to the next group," Myers says.

Paramedic Nikko Humphry administers a dose of the Moderna vaccine to dispatcher Sara Thomas at the Spokane Fire Department Training Center. - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
Young Kwak photo
Paramedic Nikko Humphry administers a dose of the Moderna vaccine to dispatcher Sara Thomas at the Spokane Fire Department Training Center.

The Trump administration hasn't helped. On Monday, Democratic senators sent a letter, co-authored by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington), to Trump's Health and Human Services secretary, scolding the administration for failing to develop a comprehensive national vaccine plan.

"Jurisdictions and health care providers are not the only ones in the dark," the letter reads. "Members of the public do not know when, where, or how they will be able to be vaccinated."

Confusion has reigned. Last month, Washington state abruptly learned from the federal government that their first batch of COVID vaccines would be cut by 40 percent. Idaho, which has similarly struggled with effective vaccine distribution, saw their first batch cut by 44 percent.

States don't know how many vaccine doses they'll receive until a week beforehand, giving local hospitals and clinics even less time to schedule patients.

"Members of the public do not know when, where, or how they will be able to be vaccinated."

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At a single clinic, says Brent Albertson, director of pharmacy at Providence's hospitals, it's only possible to deliver a limited number of vaccinations a day. Not only is there all the paperwork to fill out, but each vaccinated person has to be monitored for 15 to 30 minutes to ensure they don't have an allergic reaction.

"I wouldn't call that a limiting factor," Albertson says. "I just call it, 'That's kind of the way it is.'"

But there's a solution to that, too: Add more vaccination sites.

Last week, the Spokane Regional Health District launched a large-scale drive-through vaccination clinic at the Fire Training Center for first responders and health care workers. While that clinic will only last 10 days, the health department plans to create smaller vaccination sites at fire stations throughout the county in the future.

In the meantime, thousands of clinics, pharmacies and doctor's offices throughout the state are lining up to become vaccination sites.

Yet before receiving their first vaccine shipment, each health care provider has to get the greenlight from the Department of Health, a process that involves providing everything from the schedule of employees available to receive shipments to extensive documentation about refrigeration and temperature monitoring devices for vaccine storage.

For some, like Providence's hospital pharmacies, the approval from the state came relatively quickly.

But for others, Schmick says, "it's an agonizingly slow process."

Only four providers had been approved to give out vaccines in his district. One of them started the process in October, he says, but it still took four weeks to get approved. A lot of others, he says, are still waiting.

"I've got hospitals in my district, and they've not been approved," Schmick says. "As of last Monday, [the Department of Health] had 2,000 applications sitting on their desk."

Spokane County has been having the same issue.

"We had a local large health care organization that hadn't been approved yet. They're going to become extremely needed in the community once we move through later phases," Myers says. "I reached out to DOH and gave them a list of the names of their clinics, and just said, 'Can we expedite these people?'"

At least 160 providers in Spokane County have notified the Department of Health of their desire to administer vaccines, and as of Monday, less than a third of them had been approved. While most applicants were still working through the application process, 33 providers had completed all their paperwork and were waiting to hear back from the state.

The Washington state Department of Health declined a phone interview request from the Inlander. In an email exchange, a department spokeswoman acknowledged that there were "many providers who have submitted enrollment applications and aren't approved yet," but that it was "hard to determine an exact count because there are many duplicate or accidental applications" and stressed that "staff are working with providers on completing applications and we add new enrollees every day."

Still, Wilcox says even he's been directly contacted by facilities in Eastern Washington who've been frustrated.

"For crying out loud, why the hell can't we approve them. ... I grew up in an industry where I put in a lot of all-nighters," says Wilcox, who'd worked on his family's dairy farms. "For god's sake, that was to get milk out. This is to get lifesaving vaccines out." ♦

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, staff writer Daniel Walters is the Inlander's City Hall reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...