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Mile-long line of cars as drive-thru vaccination clinic opens for seniors in Sequim

Hundreds of elderly drivers put their cars in line way before dawn for the opening day of a first come, first serve drive-thru COVID vaccination clinic in Sequim, Washington. The scene provided a dramatic illustration of eagerness among many seniors to get the coveted shots. Hospitals in other medium-sized and smaller Washington communities that have opened vaccination appointment lines to all seniors in recent days report being swamped as well.

At sunrise Thursday, a line of cars stretched well over a mile from a Sequim city park, through the town, and out onto U.S. Highway 101. Sequim police officers started turning people away and telling them to come back another day even before the first of 600 vaccine doses was injected.

Celebratory honking broke out, accompanied by applause from nurses, when traffic control volunteers in yellow vests directed the initial group of vehicles into parallel lanes under an awning where the occupants would receive the jab in the arm through their open car windows. Sequim area resident Beverly Teal said she and her husband got in line at 1:30 a.m.

"It's a big relief," Teal said. "Even just getting the first shot I feel, 'Wow, there is another part to life after this.'"

Teal got her first of two shots of the Moderna vaccine on the first day all people age 70 and older qualified for the free inoculation in this popular retirement haven. The Washington Department of Health says to expect this next phase in the vaccine rollout to begin statewide in the next few days.

The Sequim area got a head start on mass vaccination because the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe got a sizable allocation of COVID vaccine. Tribal health director Brent Simcosky said the Jamestown Family Health Clinic set up the drive-thru site to provide vaccines to the wider community at high volume. Everyplace should do this, he recommended.

"For us it's, 'Let’s get out there and vaccinate people,'" Simcosky said in an interview beside the vaccination tent. "We’re tired of talking about it. We're tired of hearing about all the rules whether you've got to be 70 or 65 or on a full moon, you know, this or that. It’s like, just get over here, roll up your sleeve, and we’re going to start vaccinating."

After an hours-long wait, drivers pull up under a vaccination tent to get their first dose of the Moderna COVID vaccine.
Credit Tom Banse / NW News Network
NW News Network
After an hours-long wait, drivers pull up under a vaccination tent to get their first dose of the Moderna COVID vaccine.

Simcosky said all interested tribal elders and citizens had been vaccinated previously as well as health clinic workers, city emergency personnel and volunteers before the door opened wide to the community. As sovereign nations, tribes have latitude to set their own prioritization rules for the COVID vaccines.

Simcosky said the drive-up site in Carrie Blake Park would operate two or three days a week for at least the next few weeks.

Across Washington state, progress vaccinating the initial priority group of health care workers, first responders and nursing homes varies from place to place. In Bellingham, Whatcom County Health Department director Erika Lautenbach estimated it could be a few weeks yet before people age 70-plus get their turn in her county.

"This is not for lack of administration," Lautenbach said during a media briefing Wednesday. "It’s not for lack of health care providers that are ready and able to provide vaccine. We are moving at the pace we are based on the supply."

In Central Washington's Kittitas County, the public health department has been ready to expand vaccination to the next eligible groups for nearly a week, but said it is hampered by a lack of doses to give out.

"Hurry up and wait seems to be the name of the game right now," said the agency's public information officer, Kasey Knutson, by phone from Ellensburg on Friday.

Appointments for the first mass vaccination clinics open to all seniors in the Port Angeles area filled up in a matter of hours on Wednesday. The Peninsula Daily News reported that the number of people attempting to schedule appointments for the weekend clinics crashed the Clallam County health department's website on Wednesday morning.

Hospitals in Port Townsend and the northeast Washington communities of Republic and Newport have also begun taking COVID vaccination appointments from seniors age 70 and higher ahead of the statewide expansion of inoculations. In the case of Jefferson Healthcare in Port Townsend, the age cutoff was reset to 85 and over because of scare vaccine supply.

Seniors in Sequim didn't seem to mind their hours-long waits in the drive-through vaccination line once they got their shot in the arm.

"Even though you still have got to go through a second dose and you gotta wait two weeks, you finally sense there is hope," Simcosky said Thursday. "There is light at the end of the tunnel. This is a very happy bunch right now."

"I mean, even the last car in line -- I walked up there -- is very happy," he continued. "I said, 'You’re going to be waiting here for four hours.' They said, 'No (problem), I've already been waiting for two hours, hah.'"

Gary Martin, 76, camped overnight in his van to secure a place at the head of the drive-through vaccination line for himself and his wife. He said he never did that in his younger years for Rolling Stones or sports playoff tickets, but this COVID vaccine is one hot ticket.

"We’ll still continue to be cautious, but I think it will make me relax a little bit more going out even to Costco or Safeway. It's made me nervous," Sheila Martin said from the front passenger seat. "It will be wonderful to get a little bit more back to normal."

Martin said she can't wait to travel again and give normal, long hugs to her grandchildren now that she's vaccinated. At the same time, she said she recognizes that mask wearing, social distancing and all the rest will be with us for months more until virus transmission goes way down and the region approaches some level of herd immunity.

Vaccine makers and federal health officials say research is ongoing to determine whether vaccinated people can still become infected and unknowingly spread the coronavirus. The risk of asymptomatic transmission accounts for the estimate from the nation's top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, that around 80 percent of the U.S. population needs to have immunity to COVID-19 before infection control measures can be widely lifted.

Tom Banse / NW News Network
NW News Network
Tom Banse / NW News Network
NW News Network

Copyright 2021 Northwest News Network

Tom Banse covers national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reports from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events are unfolding. Tom's stories can be found online and heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.