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National Guard and private companies like Starbucks, Microsoft to help speed vaccinations in WA

Nurse Elizabeth Vadnais administers the COVID-19 vaccine to fellow nurse Ashlynn Strode of Providence Southwest Washington.
Courtesy Providence SW Washington
Nurse Elizabeth Vadnais administers the COVID-19 vaccine to fellow nurse Ashlynn Strode of Providence Southwest Washington.

The state of Washington, hamstrung as many states have been by a slow distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, will deploy the National Guard, set up mass vaccination sites and create a new public-private partnership to lead a renewed effort to get the vaccine into the arms of people.

The move comes as the state prepares to immediately advance to the next phase of people eligible for a vaccination beyond health care workers, first responders and those living and working in nursing homes.

Gov. Jay Inslee announced the new Washington State Vaccine Command and Coordination Center at a news conference on Monday afternoon. The private partners include Microsoft, Starbucks, Costco and Kaiser Permanente.

“This is a massive effort, unlike any we have undertaken in modern history,” Inslee said in prepared remarks released to the media in advance of the news conference.

The goal, Inslee said, is to ramp up to 45,000 vaccinations per day in Washington as soon as federal vaccine supply allows. Currently, the state is vaccinating about 14,000 people a day, according to Washington's Secretary of Health, Dr. Umair Shah.

As of January 15, Washington had administered 35 percent of the vaccine doses it had received -- or a total of 242,606 shots -- according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Shah said the rate is higher than what the CDC data show; he said the state has administered at least 42 percent of its vaccine supply.

Until now, Washington has relied on hospitals and approved providers to administer the COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna. Under the new approach, the National Guard will help set up mass vaccination sites across the state and the Department of Health will deploy “volunteer vaccinators” into areas where the administration of doses is lagging.

Washington joins at least 16 other states, including Oregon, that are using National Guard members to help with vaccine distribution, according to reporting by The New York Times

Mass vaccination sites

The initial vaccination sites will be at the Spokane Arena, Benton County Fairgrounds, Clark County Fairgrounds and Town Toyota Center in Wenatchee, according to Inslee’s office. The goal is to begin vaccinations at those locations next week. Other vaccination sites already exist in King, Snohomish and Pierce Counties.

Besides the National Guard, the state of Washington will rely on the private sector to help speed the distribution of vaccines. Kaiser Permanente will help with the planning and delivery of vaccinations, Starbucks will assist with logistics and communications, Costco will aid delivery of vaccines by pharmacies and Microsoft will lend its technological expertise and support.

In addition, Service Employees International Union 1199 NW, representing health care workers, will coordinate the volunteer vaccinators and United Food and Commercial Workers Union 21 will help with staffing and training coordination.

The Washington State Nurses Association will consult on health and safety issues.

Inslee was joined at the news conference by Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson, Microsoft President Brad Smith, Kaiser Permanente President Susan Mullaney, SeaMar Community Health Centers President and CEO Rogelio Riojas and Jane Hopkins the executive vice president of SEIU 1199 NW.

Expanded eligibility

On Monday, Inslee also announced the state of Washington is ready to begin a much-anticipated second phase of vaccinations with newly defined and expanded eligibility requirements. Effective immediately, people who are 65 and older will be eligible to receive a vaccine. Inslee noted that 80 percent of COVID deaths have been in those 65 and older. Previously, the first tier of the B1 phase was limited to people 70 and older.

“Our vaccine prioritization reflects the need to protect these individuals quickly,” Inslee said in his prepared remarks.

People 50 and older who live in multi-generational housing will also qualify under Phase B1, as they did under the previous eligibility guidelines. 

Eligibility for the second, third and fourth tiers of Phase B1 will remain the same, however those groups will begin to get access to the vaccine once half of the B1 group has been vaccinated.

The B2 group includes high-risk critical workers age 50 and older who work in certain congregate settings like grocery stores, schools and jails. The B3 group is people 16 and older with two or more underlying conditions. The B4 group is high-risk critical workers under 50 who work in certain congregate settings, as well as residents, staff and volunteers in places like group homes for the developmentally disabled.

According to Inslee, going forward the state’s allocation of vaccines will be split between the large-scale sites, pharmacies and local clinics.

New metrics

Along with the new vaccine distribution infrastructure, Inslee will require that 95 percent of future vaccine allocations be administered within a week of them arriving in Washington. For vaccines previously received, Inslee is giving providers until this Sunday to administer all remaining doses.

“There are simply too many people who need access to COVID vaccines for this process to lag any further,” Inslee’s remarks said.

Even as Inslee moves to jumpstart vaccinations in Washington, uncertainty remains about how many doses the state can expect to receive and when.

On Sunday, The New York Times reported that states were scrambling after the Trump administration urged them to expand eligibility, but then announced that all extra doses of the vaccines had already been distributed. 

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, called the situation “disturbing” and announced a two-week delay in beginning vaccines for Oregonians 65 and older. 

On MSNBC on Monday, Inslee said the lack of a federal reserve of vaccines “has certainly set us back” and indicated that his plan to speed up vaccinations could be imperiled before it launches.

“We would like to accelerate the vaccination dramatically, but it’s hard to do that when somebody cuts your doses in half, which essentially is what they did when they revealed to us this stunning deception,” Inslee said in the MSNBC interview.

Inslee voiced optimism that the bottleneck could be addressed by the new administration, which takes office on Wednesday. President-elect Joe Biden has set an ambitious goal of 100 million vaccinations in his first 100 days in office.

Washington is currently receiving about 100,000 doses of vaccine a week, according to the Department of Health.

This story has been updated.

Copyright 2021 Northwest News Network

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."