At Snohomish County town hall: Vaccine capacity expected to increase soon but challenges remain, officials say

Snohomish County Council Chair Stephanie Wright — second row, far right — speaks at the virtual March 2 town hall.

Ongoing vaccination efforts in Snohomish County are in the process of ramping up, but there is still the need for people to exercise caution and continue taking preventive measures. Members of the county’s vaccination task force provided an update on those endeavors during a March 2 online town hall.

Shawn Frederick, Snohomish Health District administrative officer, said that approximately 130,000 total vaccine doses have been administered so far with close to 30,000 people having been completely vaccinated with two doses. About 76% of the total vaccine supply “has actually been fully distributed out into the community – which also means shots in arms,” he said. That number is based on the number of people in the county who are eligible to receive the shots.

The biggest challenge with distribution to date has been vaccine supply. “Supply drives the number of appointments that are ultimately available” and drives “the strategies that we can employ at any given time,” he said.

Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers said he understood people are frustrated with the process for obtaining the vaccine. “We know it’s not been easy to find an appointment and that’s even for folks who have internet access and the ability to drive to one of our mass vaccination sites. We recognize those difficulties that many people have and are working just as quickly as we can to alleviate those problems.”

Snohomish Health District Administrative Officer Shawn Frederick talks about the county’s vaccine progress.

Additional challenges have included technology for registering and scheduling appointments to get vaccination doses administered. County leaders are working to improve any technology gaps that may exist. Fredericks pointed to the county’s call center and coordination it provides as one method of dealing with this. They’ve also been working with partners in the community to focus on help providing equitable distribution.

The county’s response during the pandemic and subsequent vaccination efforts have involved a collaboration with many partners, including the county council, the Snohomish Health District, and local, state, federal and tribal leaders.

“It’s easy to feel like we’re on the other side of this and we’re all tired of COVID and the decreasing numbers are cause for optimism and hope as are the vaccines that are arriving daily,” said Dr. Chris Spitters, Snohomish Health District health officer. “We cannot let up on the prevention measures that are the backbone of our effort to curb this epidemic.” He reiterated the importance of continuing to follow recommended public health measures for handwashing, mask wearing, and distancing during outings and social gatherings with people from different households.

Spitters said those guidelines still apply even to those who have been vaccinated. “Think of the vaccine like your bicycle helmet or seatbelt, it doesn’t eliminate the risk of injury, or in this case of getting sick, but it does significantly reduce it. All of this is incredibly important when we look at the potential impact of variants spreading in the county.”

The county hasn’t received any of the recently approved Johnson and Johnson vaccine that only requires one dose. Speakers said they anticipate getting it soon. All of the vaccines currently approved for use are only for adults or adolescents 16 years of age or older.

Dr. Chris Spitters outlines the various vaccines now available.

While some people may have an individual preference for which vaccine they receive, Spitters recommended not waiting for a preferred brand — unless after consulting with a doctor it is determined a medical reason exists to avoid a particular type of the vaccine. “In general, the best vaccine is the one you are able to get. They all are safe, effective and authorized and endorsed by independent bodies that review the data and advise the FDA and CDC,” Spitters said.

Jason Biermann, director of emergency management for Snohomish County, said the county’s vaccine task force had an initial goal to be able to vaccinate 50,000 residents per week and believes “we have that capacity now if we have enough vaccine to actually utilize in our existing sites and the sites we have planned.”

The county’s vaccine task force has focused since last July on working with partners in the community for coordinating vaccination sites, prioritizing those populations most at-risk, supporting health care providers and providing information and resources in a timely manner. “We recognize that the mass vaccination sites and the mobile capability that we’re developing is just part of an overall puzzle,” Biermann said. That work has involved a lot of cooperation, collaboration and coordination between the government and the private sector.

That task force has also been working closely with the county executive’s office of social justice to create and launch a community advocate program, similar to what was done during last year’s census work. It aims to help reach and serve marginalized populations. The program includes expanded call center capability, language support, transportation resources and assistance obtaining vaccination appointments.

There are currently four active mass vaccination sites in the county with more planned to be opened later this month for increased capacity. The vaccination sites in Lynnwood (at Edmonds College), Monroe and Arlington are drive-thru locations and the one at Boeing in Everett is the only fixed facility.

Distribution is also reliant on primary health care providers, long-term care facilities, hospitals, pharmacies and community organizations. Frederick said that having agile vaccination capabilies to get doses to people where they are located has been particularly important for helping those in adult family homes, long-term care facilities and other community partners working with at-risk or traditionally underserved people. These efforts have helped to “be able to bring the vaccine to the community in a meaningful way,” he said.

“We are certainly looking forward to additional vaccine arriving and with the President’s announcement today are hopeful that it will start arriving in much larger quantities fairly soon,” Biermann said. He said he’s heard the frustrations people have expressed with the process and hopes they will understand “we are working in a pretty dynamic environment” involving changes that require pivoting quickly with the available capacity of vaccine doses.

 

Chief Health Officer Dr. Chris Spitters discusses the state Health Department’s vaccine prioritization.

Vaccinations are currently being made available to those people eligible for Phase 1A and 1B1. Spitters said it’s “important to understand that where people currently land in the prioritization and the phases is not a reflection of their value in the community. If we had unlimited vaccine supply and clinical capacity to administer all the vaccine prioritization would not be necessary.”

The phases and tiers in the vaccine prioritization scheme reflect the input of multidisciplinary teams at state and federal levels including medical and social scientists, ethicists, and outreach to community stakeholders. These are meant “to maximize societal benefits, support essential functions of society and address inequities in access to services,” he said.

Spitters estimated that roughly half of the vaccine doses given so far have gone to people ages 65 and over. He said approximately 200,000 people in the county are currently eligible under Phase 1A and 1B1; most people in the first phase have been vaccinated and believed that approximately 80,000 people in the second phase were still trying to get an appointment. He said that with so many people still needing to get vaccinated, it will be several more weeks before they would look at advancing to the next Phase 1B2.

But the vaccine supply available remains a problem. As a result, currently the “capacity is not necessarily directed at those who are at higher risk of acquiring Covid, but rather for those who are most likely to become severely ill and require hospitalization or die,” Spitters said. He pointed out that during the first and third waves of the virus it was the hospitals filling up, and “that really spin things into an emergency.”

Biermann pointed to Gov. Inslee’s announcement that education and child care workers will now also be given priority for access to the vaccines. “We’ll do everything we can within our power and our utmost to make sure that all those folks who are now able to get vaccinated, that we can incorporate them into this,” he said. “But quite honestly our biggest challenge is that we simply don’t have enough vaccine right now for all of our sites.”

Related to that announcement, the president of the Edmonds Education Association — which represents Edmonds School District teachers — said Wednesday that the union is pleased President Joe Biden is prioritizing school employees for vaccinations — and hopes that the supply will increase to meet the demand. “The plan is only as solid as vaccine availability,” said EEA President Andi Nofziger.

Another major challenge facing the task force has been combating misinformation and rumors. “One of the biggest causes of frustration for the community is a lot of information that’s being put on social media that’s either purposefully inaccurate, misleading or in some cases incomplete,” Frederick said. This can then lead to people spending an inordinate amount of time trying to get appointments and, in some cases, sharing vouchers or what they believe to be appointment slots that ultimately won’t be supplied because there isn’t enough vaccine available. Work combating misinformation continues to be actively ongoing.”

Speakers said they understand that people are tired of the pandemic and health measures taken to combat its spread but advised further patience and caution is still needed while vaccination efforts are ramping up.

Somers said, “I know it’s been a long hard year for many in our community.” He mentioned that 540 people in the county have died from the virus and 30,000 have been ill with it. “I know in addition to the direct trauma and sickness we’ve seen extraordinary suffering because of the economic consequences of the pandemic, people are out of work, going hungry and fear losing their homes and we know that’s been the reality for the last year.”

He said he believes there is finally a light at the end of the tunnel due to the scientific work that’s been done, resulting in three vaccines now approved for use. “We’ve got some hard work that remains,” Somers said. “We’re going to stay focused on quickly and safely vaccinating everyone in the county who wants to be vaccinated.”

“I know people are anxious to see their loved ones and give them hugs and get together again but we’re not out of the woods yet,” Spitter said. “We need the vaccine supply to pick up more so that we can get a larger proportion of the population immunized and when we have 70-80% immune that will probably be enough to where the virus will bump into too many people that are immune and stop spreading. Until then we need to do all that face masking, hand washing, distancing and keep our social bubbles small and remember when gathering outdoors is best and keep it short.”

The Snohomish Health District’s webpage with vaccine information resources including locations, availability and a data dashboard can be viewed here.

In addition to website resources, the health district also has a call center set up at 425-339-5278 to help people navigate the vaccination process. It has operators and interpreters to help walk residents through the steps necessary to obtain an appointment.

— By Nathan Blackwell

 

 

  1. I listened to 1st hour of above meeting. Snohomish County handling of vaccine distribution has been terrible. I keep hearing about shortage, but post-snowstorm should have produced a restocking of vaccine. Trying to get an appointment at pharmacies is maddening while mass injection sites sit idle. I finally registered with VIrginia Mason, got an email saying I could book appointment online which I easily did, though it is in Seattle. Now that educators are eligible, how are seniors going to get shots In Snohomish?

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