State: Vaccine distribution underway to highest priority groups; plan for others coming next week

Newly appointed Washington Secretary of Health Umair A. Shah hosted the Wednesday briefing.

In a Wednesday press briefing, state officials provided some preliminary answers to the questions on most people’s minds: When will I get the vaccine, and how does this new coronavirus variant change the game.

Comparing the coronavirus pandemic to a football game, the newly appointed Washington Secretary of Health Umair Shah told reporters that we’re now at half time.

“During the first half the pandemic took hold in the state, but we now have the vaccine and inoculations are going to the highest-priority individuals (group 1a, front-line health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities),” he explained.  “In the second half the vaccine will be more widely distributed and ultimately go into the arms of all Washingtonians. In the meantime, we all need to continue taking measures to control the spread including hand washing, not gathering in groups, and wearing masks.”

Shah went on to say that so far, just shy of 60,000 Washingtonians have received their first vaccine dose — most of those residents of long-term care facilities. The state is presently working on a plan to finalize prioritization for groups 1b and 1c, with more details expected next week.

“The number-one question is,who is next,” said Michelle Roberts, Acting Assistant Secretary of Health.

Roberts went on to explain that the state needs to carefully match where the vaccine is most needed with the supplies currently on hand and expected in the days to come. As the plan comes together, the information will be made available on the Department of Health Vaccine Information website and via regular press releases. Bookmark this site and check in regularly for the latest updates.

A review of the latest numbers and statistics provided by State Epidemiologist Scott Lindquist revealed that while Washington state numbers remain high and that several “hot spots” exist (Snohomish County among them), the state is beginning to see a downward trend that he attributes to the re-imposition of restrictions and shutdowns.

“We’re in a very precarious position right now,” Lindquist observed. “Confirmed cases are at more than 229,000, but we are starting to see a downward trend over the past couple of weeks, particularly in long-term care settings.”

The latest charts and graphs from the Department of Health are available here.

Information on the new coronavirus variant was provided by Deputy Health Secretary Lacy Fehrenbach.

“Earlier this week the new variant emerged in Colorado, the first case in the United States,” she said. “So far there are no known cases in Washington or elsewhere in the U.S.” (Update: Later Wednesday, it was announced the variant has also appeared in California)

Explaining that while the new variant spreads more easily, Fehrenbach stressed that there is no evidence that it causes more severe cases or is in any way more resistant to the current vaccines. She added that the new variant is now the predominant form of the virus in the U.K., where it was first detected.

“We are monitoring this closely,” she added. “As people show positive tests, we are sending in samples for genetic fingerprinting to see if it is the new strain.” She went on to explain that Washington state remains on high alert for travelers who have been to places where the new strain already has a foothold, requiring a negative test and quarantining for many travelers. This is in addition to the general travel advisory, requesting all travelers to voluntarily quarantine for 14 days.

In addition to continuing the common-sense practices of wearing masks, watching social distancing, and limiting travel and group gatherings, Fehrenbach strongly advises everyone with a smart phone to sign up for WA Notify, a tool to help you learn quickly if you’ve been exposed.

“This app ensures that your privacy will be protected while sharing your data with public health,” she explained. “Once it is on your device it runs in the background, and you will only hear from it if someone with whom you have interacted has had a positive test or been exposed.”

According to Fehrenback, 1.6 million Washingtonians are currently using the WA Notify tool.

The formal briefing concluded with Shah stressing the overarching goal of getting the vaccine out as quickly and efficiently as possible. He noted that with more than 355,000 doses already delivered to Washington (100,000 more are expected in the third week of distribution) and just shy of 60,000 administered, officials reasonably expect that the number of people vaccinated will increase quickly in the new year. He said that part of the distribution plan includes informing people when they become eligible, and details of this will be forthcoming.

“Don’t put this off,” he advises. “When your name is called don’t hesitate – vaccinate!

The full press briefing has been archived and is available for viewing here.

— By Larry Vogel

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