A new range of Washington seniors will be eligible for priority COVID-19 vaccinations as new cases continue to climb, the state health officials announced on Wednesday.
Washington is currently in the middle of Tier A1 and A2 of its first phase of COVID-19 vaccinations, which include health care workers and long-term care residents and staff.
Tier B1, according to the Washington Department of Health (DOH), will include people 70 years or older and will begin later in January. Those 50 years or older living in multigenerational households will also be eligible for vaccinations.
By Monday, at least 201,660 doses of the vaccine had been administered, or about 32% of the 624,975 doses Washington has received to date, DOH reports.
DOH Secretary of Health Umair Shah said at a Wednesday press conference that Washington's weekly case averages put the state in a concerning situation.
During the first week of January, the state saw a weekly case average of 2,557— or 19% greater than the previous weekly average of 2,132 cases and 16% more than the 2,190 weekly case average before then.
“We remain at a critical point with respect to COVID-19 response, not just in the state of Washington, but throughout the country,” Shah said. “The fight against this virus means that we have a fight against the clock to get shots out, vaccines out to as many people as possible. While we are making progress every single day, I recognize that it has not been enough.”
Shah stressed on Wednesday that cases will likely continue spiking as Christmas grows smaller and smaller in the state's rearview mirror.
As a result, the state will have more to announce in “upcoming days” about how soon it plans on accelerating the latter tiers of its vaccine rollout, according to Shah.
The state's vaccine rollout shakeup comes days after the federal government's impromptu announcement that all COVID-19 vaccines it has in reserve would be released to the states as soon as possible.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee was one of nine governors requesting exactly that in a January 8 letter to U.S. Health and Human Services.
Inslee's office reported receiving no advance notice of the change in vaccine distribution this week, however.
By February, the state's Tier B2 is slated to include people 50 years or older working in high-risk congregate settings like grocery stores, schools, prisons, and food processing. The DOH has set its start date for February.
Tier B3 in March will apply to Washingtonians 16 years and up with two or more comorbidities or underlying conditions.
Washington's Tier B4 applies to people 50 years or older working in congregate living facilities like prisons, homeless shelters, and group homes for the disabled. It is planned to begin by April.
Start dates for Washington's Phases 2, 3, and 4 are undetermined. They do not currently have criteria for eligibility.
Earlier this week, Oregon announced it would be including Oregonians 65 years and older as well as teachers for its upcoming Phase 1b of vaccinations.
Seattle Public Schools (SPS) is among the largest school districts in Washington set to begin reopening classrooms for some 10,000 students as soon as March 1.
SPS Superintendent Denise Juneau has pushed for the state to prioritize even more school personnel for vaccinations before the school year ends.
“Prioritizing vaccinations for public educators and critical support staff will send a strong message of the state’s commitment to public education and care for our public educators in a time when so much is uncertain,” Juneau wrote. “This action will help build trust in our collective commitment to recovery.”
In a statement, the Washington Education Association (WEA) has called on the state to approach in-person learning with caution until vaccinations for school staff and students are more widespread.
“Lastly, however effective, and widely used COVID-19 vaccines are, mitigation measures to reduce the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 will continue to be crucial while the efficacy and safety of the COVID-19 vaccine for use in children is studied,” WEA officials wrote. “In addition, the full effect of vaccines on transmission and reinfection is not yet clear. Therefore, ensuring the health and safety of the entire school community means that strict adherence to current workplace health and safety requirements must remain a top priority.”
Washington's children will have to wait before they are eligible for vaccinations.
The COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna were approved by the FDA in December for those 16 or older, and 18 or older, respectively.
Both vaccines are estimated to be about 95% effective against the virus based on human trial data submitted by the companies to the federal government.
Pfizer's vaccine must be taken via two doses three weeks apart and Moderna's must be taken about four weeks apart. Neither vaccine is known to stop transmission of the disease and the length of protection is unclear.
Scientists have pegged the number of vaccinated people needed to help the nation reach herd immunity to the pandemic as low as 70% or as high as 90%.
The DOH has since set up a “Phase Finder” online tool to help Washingtonians determine their eligibility for vaccination.
Some 23 million people in the U.S. have contracted COVID-19, based on data from John Hopkins University. Another 385,000 have died from the virus.
Washington has seen 269,201 confirmed cases of COVID-19 to date, according to the DOH, along with 3,838 deaths from the virus as of Thursday.
DOH data shows that 51% of the state's death toll includes people ages 80 and up while about 40% of reported cases include people ages 20 through 39.
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