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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."

Grocery workers on deck: Vaccines for critical workers to begin March 22, says Inslee

On Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee announced the state will start vaccinating essential workers on March 22 provided there is sufficient vaccine supply.

Grocery store employees and other essential workers in Washington, regardless of age, will be eligible to begin getting the COVID-19 vaccine later this month, followed in April by people who have two or more medical conditions and those living in congregate settings.

Gov. Jay Inslee announced the target dates, along with revised guidelines on who’s eligible, during a news conference Thursday.

Under the revised plan, Washington's vaccine distribution plan will advance to Phase 1B Tier 2on March 22 and 1B Tier 3 on April 12, presuming vaccine supplies continue to increase.

Previously, Tier 2 was defined as high-risk, critical workers 50 years of age and older who work in certain congregate settings. Now the age restriction and term “high-risk” have been eliminated.

However, the categories of which industries are considered critical remains the same: agriculture, food processing, grocery stores, public transit, firefighters, law enforcement and corrections workers.

K-12 employees and childcare workers had also been on that list, but earlier this week Inslee gave them the green light to get the vaccine following a directive from President Joe Biden.

In the wake of that announcement, the Washington State Labor Council (WSLC) called on Inslee to immediately make all essential workers who work in congregate settings eligible for the vaccine.

“The best way to protect the most people quickly is to increase vaccination rates in settings where people have no choice but to congregate together,” said WSLC President Larry Brown in a statement. “And that means allowing all public-facing essential workers to get vaccinated as soon as possible.”

On Thursday, Inslee said he disagreed with Biden's directive, but complied because it was legally binding. 

"I thought it was imperative that we keep access to these vaccines to the group that's in the most dangerous category and that's older folks," Inslee said. "The President made a different decision and he issued a directive and we followed it as we should." 

Also eligible beginning March 22 under the revised Phase 1B Tier 2 will be people 16 and older who have a disability that puts them at high-risk for COVID complications, along with pregnant women.

On Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee laid out a tentative timeline for expanding the universe of people eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines in Washington. The timeline is tentative because it is dependent on sufficient vaccine supply.

Inslee’s office said Thursday that it’s not yet clear when restaurant workers will be able to get vaccinated.

In a statement following Inslee's announcement, the Washington Hospitality Association said it was disappointed by the absence of hospitality workers from the vaccination plan. 

"The state's vaccination program has a glaring hole without hospitality workers -- 40 percent of whom are Black, Indigenous and people of color -- included in the next phase," the statement said. 

Come April, Phase 1B Tier 3 will kick in. By April 12, people 50 and older with two or more comorbidities, like heart disease or diabetes, should be eligible for the vaccine. Then on April 26, that category will open up to people 16 and older.

Also on April 26, the state plans to begin vaccinating people who live in congregate settings like prisons and jails, homes for the developmentally disabled and people experiencing homelessness. These individuals are part of Phase 1B Tier 4.

Currently, Washington is vaccinating all people 65 and older and those 50 and older who live in multi-generational housing. The latest COVID-19 vaccination update from the Washington State Department of Health indicates that about half of seniors have gotten at least their first dose of protection.

In announcing the new timelines, Inslee’s office emphasized that the dates and expanded list of who’s eligible are tentative and depend on the availability of vaccine doses.

Since the first vaccines were authorized in January, Washington has seen its weekly allocations steadily increase from about 100,000 doses a week to more than 300,000 doses. That number is expected to continue to go up, especially now that Johnson and Johnson’s single dose vaccine has been authorized.

This week, President Biden predicted there should be enough vaccines by the end of May for every American who wants one. But Washington’s Secretary of Health won’t guarantee that timeline.

“I do think that every American will have an opportunity by summer, that’s the timeline I’m using,” said Dr. Umair Shah in an interview on TVW’s “Inside Olympia” program. “Now if we can accelerate that to end of May, let’s go for it. But I want to make sure that I see proof in the pudding with all the additional pieces before I say we’re ready to roll with that.”

Separately on Thursday, minority Republicans in the Washington House and Senate unveiled what they are calling their “Open Safe, Open Now” plan. It calls for immediately moving all counties in the state to a new Phase 3 whereby restaurants and other businesses could operate at 50 percent capacity. Additionally all schools would be required to resume in-person learning.

After three weeks, if hospitalizations hadn’t spiked, all counties would then move to Phase 4 with no COVID restrictions in place.

“I trust the people of Washington to demonstrate personal responsibility and do what is necessary to get children back in school, people back to work and our businesses reopened completely,” said Republican state Sen. Sharon Brown, the architect of the plan.

Asked about the Republican plan on Thursday, Inslee dismissed it out of hand: "We are not following the leadership of Texas on this," a reference to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's decision this week to lift COVID restrictions. 

Separately, Dr. Shah, the state's health secretary, who until recently headed public health in the Houston area, warned Thursday against a rapid reopening. He said that Washington is still in a "precarious" situation because of the presence of more contagious COVID-19 variants and the fact that most people have not yet been vaccinated.

“We want to make sure that we do this methodically and correctly before we get to a point where you have to dial forward and now you dial back,” Shah said on TVW.

Currently, all regions of the state are paused in Phase 2 with restaurants and other businesses allowed to operate at 25 percent capacity. Inslee has not yet said what the state’s official next phase of reopening will entail or when regions might be able to advance.

This story has been updated. 

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."