WASHINGTON — COVID-19 vaccinations have only just begun, but by the end of this week, Washington will have received more than 300,000 vaccine doses — including 102,000 this week alone — and that has state health officials looking ahead to determine who will be vaccinated next once their first priority group is finished.
Under the state Department of Health's vaccine distribution plan, Washington is in what is called "phase 1a" of distribution, meaning that vaccines have so far been limited to:
High-risk workers in health care settings
High-risk first responders
Residents and staff at nursing homes, or long term care facilities.
However, as more doses of the vaccine have arrived, officials have slightly expanded who is eligible for this first round of vaccinations. At the Department of Health's weekly coronavirus conference Wednesday, top state health officials announced that phase 1a vaccinations now include all workers in health care settings, providing those settings had excess doses and had already vaccinated their high-risk workers and first responders.
"At the ground level, if a provider runs out of 1a people to give vaccine, but they have extra doses, they can use their clinical judgement to give any remaining doses to other health care workers so that we're not wasting any doses," said Michele Roberts, the state's lead vaccine planner.
The state estimates that there were between 300,000 and 500,000 residents eligible for the vaccine in phase 1a under its original definition. It's unclear exactly how many more might benefit from this policy change, but it's a promising sign that some facilities may already have excess vaccine doses.
State health leaders are also preparing to announce which groups will be allowed to receive the vaccine next. DOH officials say they plan to announce more on that second group, "phase 1b," sometime within the next week.
"We're using the broadas a framework, but we're going to need to prioritize within it to match projected vaccine supplies," Roberts said.
Guidance from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends that phase 1b include residents over 75 and essential workers, including first responders like firefighters and police officers, plus others like postal service workers, grocery store employees, teachers and public transit workers. As Roberts noted, however, the state still has to decide if they can provide enough for each of those groups, and which will ultimately take priority.
Before phase 1b vaccinations can begin, Washington will also need to finish vaccinating long term care facilities. The DOH says they've partnered with CVS and Walgreens to vaccinate staff and residents at assisted living facilities across the state. Officials are optimistic that this partnership will speed up vaccinations — despite receiving hundreds of thousands of doses, only about 59,000 vaccinations have been performed so far — and hope to have completed phase 1a in about three weeks.
"We love to see progress like this, and see the partnerships come together quickly so that we can get our high-risk folks protected by this vaccine as quickly as possible," Roberts said.
While the state finalizes plans for phase 1b and finishes vaccinating those eligible under phase 1a, they're also reminding residents to get their yearly flu shots if they haven't already.
"Even though you may not be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine yet, we still need to make sure everybody is getting a flu vaccine this year," Roberts said. "There is plenty of vaccine available, and so we really encourage you, if you have not gotten your flu vaccine yet, now is the time."
Other highlights from Wednesday's update:
Case counts are improving, but remain high.
"We are in a very precarious position, this is the highest rate of cases in Washington state since the beginning, but we're starting to see this downward trend," said state epidemiologist Dr. Scott Lindquist. "This is all very encouraging."
Lindquist credited the improvement to social distancing and stricter coronavirus restrictions. Wednesday, Gov. Jay Inslee extended the state's most recent batch of stricter COVID-19 restrictions through Jan. 11.
Despite the general improvement, Lindquist pointed to worrying hotspots in the state's most populous counties, King, Snohomish and Pierce, as well as in Yakima County, which has struggled to contain transmission in agricultural settings.
Officials are watching Colorado's variant virus closely
On Tuesday, Colorado officials reported the first case of a new coronavirus variant in the United States. The variant had just recently been discovered in the United Kingdom. The Colorado patient, a National Guard member, had not travelled recently, leaving Washington health officials to speculate that the variant is likely spreading undetected in the United States.
"This is a sign that the variant is here, but we don't know the degree to which," Lacy Fehrenbach, deputy secretary of health for COVID-19 response. "As of right now there are no known cases in Washington state or elsewhere in the U.S. but we know that this could change, and likely will change."
The DOH confirmed they will be watching Colorado's situation closely. Washington currently sends positive coronavirus test samples to labs for sequencing, which will identify variants if they appear. The CDC has also mobilized to increase sequencing as well.
The new variant is especially worrying to health officials, because early reports indicate that it spreads more easily.
"We are seeing studies that this variant may spread more easily from person to person, but not yet seeing evidence yet that infections caused by this variant cause more severe disease," Fehrenbach said.