As the story of the COVID-19 vaccine in the Pacific Northwest changes from scarcity to surplus, one northwestern Washington community says it is in a unique position to extend a helping hand across the border.
Point Roberts, USA, is attached to British Columbia and doesn’t connect by land to the rest of Washington state. Inoculation shots are scarcer in Canada. So, Point Roberts officials want to offer surplus vaccines to their northern neighbors. But bureaucratic hurdles stand in the way.
"We have hundreds to thousands of people -- maybe tens of thousands of people -- that could be vaccinated here in Point Roberts if Point Roberts was seen as a neutral location during this pandemic," said Fire Chief Christopher Carleton, standing in an empty parking lot along the northern border that he envisions turning into a drive-thru vaccination clinic.
Carleton said the geographical isolation of Point Roberts makes it an ideal place to safely welcome Canadians and Americans living abroad. The five square mile U.S. territory is surrounded on three sides by water. The single road in and out connects to the Vancouver suburbs.
"It shouldn't be about the geopolitical lines that are drawn on a map," Carleton said in an interview. "It should be about saving lives."
Carleton said the idea for a cross-border vax clinic came to him in the past month after demand from local residents waned. He estimated the Point Roberts population is around 75%-80% fully vaccinated.
"Any type of surplus when it comes to vaccines should be utilized to help all people in this world, not just those living in our specific communities," Carleton reasoned. "I don't want to see vaccine go to waste."
There are a number of hitches to overcome. Point Roberts, currently home to fewer than 1,000 people, would need a bigger vaccine supply. So far, the county health department is cool to the idea.
Also, the U.S. and Canadian federal governments would need to relax pandemic border crossing restrictions. The Canadian Press reported Tuesday that the Public Health Agency of Canada took that very step. The agency said Canadians can make cross-border trips specifically to get an inoculation and then promptly return without needing to self-quarantine for 14 days afterwards, as otherwise required.
However, shot seeking is not a valid reason for cross-border travel during the pandemic as far as U.S. Customs and Border Protection is concerned.
"Travel for the sole purpose of obtaining a vaccination is not permissible under current travel restrictions," said a statement emailed by a CBP spokesperson late Tuesday. "The border remains restricted to essential travel only."
Carleton takes hope from the fact that he is not the only one pursuing the idea of international vaccine sharing. Alaska's governor recently extended an invitation to people in British Columbia and the Yukon to come visit and get a shot. North Dakota is giving shots to Canadian truckers when they cross over from Manitoba. In late April and again this week, Montana's Blackfeet Nation administered surplus vaccines to Canadian First Nations relatives and neighbors who came to an Alberta-Montana border crossing.
Point Roberts Chamber of Commerce President Brian Calder endorsed the cross-border vaccination idea and said he even favors expanding it, for example, by encouraging Canadian second home owners to take a vaccine vacation while they are here.
"I would even say if you come from Australia or India or wherever, come here to get the vaccination," Calder added. "We don't want you here without the vaccination and we're prepared to give it to you. What's wrong with that?"
Washington State Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah spoke last week with his British Columbia counterpart, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry. Shah said afterwards that he is open to helping Canada if asked.
"We did talk about COVID vaccines," Shah said. "The good news is that she shared that they're actually getting more supply now. So, there was not a formal request at all. In fact, she felt now the supply was at least to the point where she was comfortable with where they were."
Henry elaborated during her regular COVID-19 update briefing on Monday.
"We went from paucity to plenty in a short amount of time," Henry said. "It's available to all of us right now."
As of Monday, British Columbia's health ministry reported 56% of adults (age 18+) in the province have gotten their first shot of COVID vaccine. That is just a few percentage points behind Oregon (59% of those age 16+) and Washington state (also 59%, age 16+).
The big difference is in the availability of second doses. Around 47% of Washingtonians and 46% of Oregonians age 16+ are fully vaccinated, versus fewer than 4% of British Columbians. The province is prioritizing its vaccine supply for first doses at the expense of delaying second doses by up to four months.
Fire chief Carleton said Point Roberts could serve the role of speeding up the administration of second doses for British Columbia residents who got the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine as their first dose. Carleton pitched his idea by letter to B.C. Premier John Horgan, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and to Washington state's congressional delegation but said he has heard nothing back from those leaders. However, he said he has been inundated by hundreds of phone calls, texts and emails from average folks in the greater Vancouver region expressing interest since he publicly floated the cross-border vax clinic idea.
The Washington State Department of Health recently changed its residency guidelines so that now people from anywhere in the world who manage to enter the U.S. can seek a COVID vaccine locally. Assistant Health Secretary Michele Roberts said in a briefing last week that she was aware some Canadians were getting their shots in border communities and that this was OK.
President Biden on Monday announced his intention to ship surplus doses of the vaccine to needy nations abroad. The majority of the planned shipments will be of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which does not yet have authorization for use in the United States.
"We need to help fight the disease around the world," Biden told reporters at a briefing covered by NPR. "It's the right thing to do, it's the smart thing to do, it's the strong thing to do."
The president said he plans to have some 80 million doses of the vaccine distributed overseas by the end of June, by which point Biden says the United States will have produced enough doses of vaccine to cover its own citizens.
The shipments will include the U.S. total reserve of the AstraZeneca vaccine to the tune of some 60 million doses. The remaining 20 million doses will be of the Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.
The U.S. will work with COVAX — the World Health Organization's COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access program — to make sure vaccines are distributed fairly. It is unlikely Canada would receive any of these surplus U.S.-produced vaccines through COVAX because the international aid collective focuses on poorer nations in the developing world.
NPR's Washington Desk contributed to this report. This story has been updated.