With COVID-19 cases still as high as ever in Southwest Washington, health officials say the process of distributing the first batches of vaccines has been slow out of the gate.
“We’re still in, essentially, the worst kind of spike we’ve had,” Dr. Steven Krager, deputy health officer for five counties near the Washington-Oregon border, said in an interview. “It’s honestly been kind of tough.”
The numbers bear that out. In Clark County, hospitals delivered about 5,000 out of 22,000 vaccine doses in the last four weeks. In Cowlitz County, health workers have given approximately 2,700 shots out of 3,900, Krager said.
Krager pointed to a bottleneck in distribution. Clark County’s largest hospital, PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center, landed the first doses in mid-December. Only recently have other distributors like The Vancouver Clinic and the county’s other hospital, Legacy Salmon Creek, started to vaccinate. He also pointed to the virus itself restricting staff levels.
“At first everything was kind of funneled through PeaceHealth and that’s one health system — and they have limited staffing,” Krager said. “Every health system is getting strained by workers with COVID-19 or workers exposed with COVID-19, so staffing is an issue.”
Those vaccines are being delivered to high-risk workers. Vaccines being delivered to long-term care facilities are not included, as the federal government runs that process separately.
But the hamstrung pace to start has health officials reaching out to the state for assistance, especially as more people are set to become eligible.
On Wednesday, the Washington State Department of Health announced anyone who is older than 70 will soon become eligible for the vaccine, as well as anyone 50-plus who lives in a multigenerational household. Agency officials said that the new phase could start in mid-January.
Krager said hospitals like PeaceHealth Southwest and Legacy Salmon Creek have done “an admirable job.”
“They are working on increasing their capacity, they know they have to vaccinate faster,” Krager said. He noted that the new eligibility could make tens of thousands of people eligible in Clark County alone. “Obviously, the speed needs to be ramped up quite a bit.”
Meanwhile, PeaceHealth has had 19 patients and 11 staff contract the virus in the past week – with another 59 workers in quarantine. But PeaceHealth spokesperson Debra Carnes said the outbreak hasn’t impacted its vaccination efforts.
“Those caregivers that are in quarantine were linked to patient care, and those individuals were not the ones staffing the vaccine clinics,” Carnes said. “What does impact our ability is the need to be socially distanced and follow all safety protocols as a result of COVID.”
Carnes added the hospital had to build a system on the fly. “We are doing our best to follow state guidelines in a highly uncertain environment,” she said.
Krager said he and other health officials have approached state health officials about how to speed up. He said there are talks of vaccinating at a large site, like the county fairgrounds or taking vaccinations directly to high-risk workplaces.
“Everyone’s kind of frustrated right now and we’re trying to work on solutions together,” he said. “It’s been tough for sure.”
The local shortfall mirrors the state at large. On Wednesday, Secretary of Health Umair Shah said about 125,000 of the state’s 522,500 vaccine doses have been administered.
More sparsely populated areas are faring better, Krager said. Wahkiakum delivered 230 doses out of 500, while Skamania delivered 86 out of 600. He said Skamania, with a population of about 12,000 and no hospitals of its own, has very high-risk workers.
In coastal Pacific County, officials say the state has even oversupplied them with vaccines. The health department gave 500 of its 1,475 vaccines to Pierce County.
Katie Lindstrom, director of Pacific County Public Health, said their experience is almost inverse that of larger counties. Most of their highest-risk workers are vaccinated now. They’re ready for the next batch of eligible recipients.
“We’re kind of antsy to move onto the next phase,” Lindstrom said. “We have the structure for it. We have staff for it. So it’s a little frustrating to have to wait, I guess, for the greenlight. I wish we could just move forward.”