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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Declaring he's 'joyous,' WA governor announces COVID-19 vaccine distribution begins this week

On Sunday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced the last hurdle has been cleared for the distribution of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. The first shipments should arrive Monday and the first doses could be administered starting Tuesday.

The first doses of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine should start arriving in Washington on Monday, with the first vaccinations of front line health care workers beginning as early as Tuesday.

An upbeat Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced that timeline at a rare Sunday news conference.

“We are ready to go,” Inslee said. “We now know there will be an end to this turmoil and this trauma and this challenge.”

Inslee’s announcement, which he called “joyous,” came on the heels of a safety review by a coalition of four western states, including Washington and Oregon, that unanimously determined Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, which is received in two doses 21 days apart, is “safe and efficacious.”

“Hope is on the way,” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said in a statement accompanying that approval.

Two Washington doctors who served on that multi-state panel joined Inslee for his news conference and expressed their confidence in the safety of the vaccine.

“I think its benefits greatly outweigh any potential risks,” said Dr. John Dunn, a Seattle pediatrician. 

The multi-state review group did caution that a number of unknowns about the vaccine remain, including how long the vaccine will be effective and its safety for pregnant women and children under 16. Nonetheless, Dr. Edgar Marcuse, another pediatrician who served on the review team, said pregnant women can still get the vaccine.

“We don’t simply have enough data yet to have confidence, but there is no reason to withhold the vaccine from a pregnant woman who wishes to receive it,” Marcuse said.

Inslee also addressed the potential reluctance of some communities of color to trust the vaccine, given a history of unethical and racist practices, such as the Tuskegee Study where African American men were unknowingly injected with Syphilis as part of an experiment. 

“We are really hopeful that we have broad scale acceptance of this to save these folks in these communities, to not allow the sins of the past to result in increased rates of fatality in these communities,” Inslee said, noting that people of color have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

The state intends to share information about the vaccine through public service announcements in the coming weeks and months.

Last week, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine received initial emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). On Saturday, a CDC advisory group also voted to recommend the use of the vaccine in people 16 and older. The vaccine has been found to be 95 percent effective. 

Washington expects to receive an initial 62,000 doses of the vaccine with a total of 222,000 by the end of the month. That’s 20,000 more than originally expected. In addition, the state expects to get 183,000 doses of a vaccine being developed by Moderna Therapeutics, presuming it receives FDA approval this week.

The first doses will go to approximately 40 facilities in 29 of Washington’s 39 counties with a focus on health care workers most at risk for contracting the virus, like those who intubate patients, and the highest risk first responders.

Other priority groups in this first tier -- or 1a -- category include people in long-term care facilities. Some of the initial doses will also be distributed to two tribal nations and one urban Indian health facility, according to Michele Roberts, an acting assistant Secretary of Health who is coordinating Washington’s vaccine distribution.

“As Washington continues to get additional allocations from the Centers for Disease Control over the next several weeks, we’ll continue to be able to add more organizations and more counties receiving the vaccine,” Roberts said.

For his part, Inslee said he will receive the vaccine when his turn comes up based on his age and risk category.

The rapid and wide-scale distribution of the COVID vaccine is an unprecedented and Herculean effort that will serve as another test of Washington state’s crisis capacity. State officials say they still need additional resources to carry out the vaccine response. Inslee is likely to include funds for this effort in his proposed budget, which he plans to unveil on Thursday. The state is also pushing for additional federal assistance.

“The bottom line is the state will do whatever it takes to ensure everyone in Washington has access to this vaccine, and if we had additional federal resources to support the work, that would mean we wouldn’t need to stop or delay other important public health services to continue the response,” Roberts said in an email following the news conference.

For now, the Washington National Guard is not helping with the effort. Distribution of the vaccine will be managed by the drug distribution giant McKesson or, in the case of the Pfizer vaccine, which has to be kept at -94 degrees fahrenheit, directly by the manufacturer, according to state officials.

Long-term care facilities will have the option of participating in a federal pharmacy distribution program through Walgreens and CVS. Those that do will begin vaccinations on December 28 following a required two-week planning period. The state of Washington has also allocated vaccine doses to an unnamed pharmacy that also serves long-term care facilities in the state. More details on this effort are expected later this week.

But even as Inslee declared the end of the pandemic in sight, he and the state’s health officer, Dr. Kathy Lofy, cautioned that it will take months for everyone who wants the vaccine to be vaccinated and for the state to achieve herd immunity.

In the meantime, they urged the public to continue to mask-up, wash hands and avoid gatherings, including over the December holidays. Lofy said more than 1,000 people in Washington are hospitalized with COVID-19 and Inslee noted the state is approaching 3,000 COVID deaths.

“We can see the safe harbor, it’s in view with this vaccine, but we’re not in port yet and it is just not the moment to jump ship,” Inslee said.

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."