Vaccine supply issues the key factor delaying larger rollout

Health providers and public health officials say they’re ready to go once vaccine shipments increase

CLARK COUNTY — The boots are on the ground, but efforts to expand access to vaccinations in Clark County and elsewhere are running into one immutable problem: supply.

“We’re ready. We’re poised to deliver vaccine,” said Randy Johnson, a commander with Pacific Northwest Incident Team 3, a Type 1 emergency management team sent to the area last week by FEMA. “Just give it to us, and we’re ready to go.”

Safeway Pharmacist Jennifer Park draws a vaccine dose at the Clark County Fairgrounds vaccination site on Tuesday. Photo by Mike Schultz
Safeway Pharmacist Jennifer Park draws a vaccine dose at the Clark County Fairgrounds vaccination site on Tuesday. Photo by Mike Schultz

Clark County Public Health has referred over 7,000 people to providers since the state moved into Phase 1B, Tier 1, which includes anyone over 65, or those over 50 in multigenerational households. But they still have a waitlist of around 23,000 people and growing.

To date, Clark County providers have received nearly 40,000 total doses of COVID-19 vaccine, including over 23,000 first doses and nearly 15,000 booster shots. An additional 3,725 doses were scheduled to be delivered to Clark County facilities this week.

As of last Saturday, 16,932 people in Clark County had received their first dose, while 3,169 have been fully vaccinated, though reporting delays likely mean those numbers are significantly higher.

Clark County Public Health Officer and Health Director, Dr. Alan Melnick, told the Board of Public Health on Wednesday morning that providers have greatly ramped up their ability to deliver vaccinations in a timely fashion.

“I recently talked to The Vancouver Clinic, and I think they can give 2,500 to 3,000 doses a week,” said Melnick. “So those numbers have gone up.”

The biggest problem, Melnick added, is that vaccine supplies have been sporadic, making it difficult for providers to efficiently schedule people to get a dose.

“One of our providers, Legacy, in week six and seven, if I’m remembering correctly, didn’t receive any vaccine allocation,” said Melnick. “Starting this week, they’re limiting the number of first doses they are giving. And next week, they may stop giving first doses, if they don’t get any new allocation.”

Their primary concern of providers, he added, is that people who’ve received a first dose may have to delay their booster shot if there’s no vaccine available when they need to be scheduled.

That has led to something of a shotgun approach, with many people signing up to be notified both on the county’s website, the state Department of Health page for the Clark County Fairgrounds, and with many providers directly.

“It’s a huge problem,” acknowledged Melnick. “This is one of the reasons why we originally applied to bring a Type 1 team in here … We have to do a much better job of getting the vaccine out there.”

The problem was made worse when it was learned people from Oregon were registering in Clark County, and then coming across state lines to get a vaccine dose.

That prompted a warning from Washington’s Department of Health on Wednesday, urging people not to abuse the system, and warning that a driver’s license, addressed letter, or utility bill may be required going forward to prove the person receiving the vaccine lives in the state.

“All of us recognize the desire to get vaccinated and know that neighboring states also are vaccinating their people,” the agency said in a statement. “If you do not live or work in Washington, please do not make vaccine appointments or travel to these Washington mass vaccination sites for vaccines.”

Johnson said his team had initially focused on the fairgrounds to set up a vaccination site, before learning the state planned to use the location with help from the National Guard.

“We stepped back, shared the information that we had gained in 24-48 hours with the state, to help them be successful with that pod,” said Johnson, “and turned our focus to some other locations.”

Team 3, one of 16 incident management teams for FEMA, was deployed to eastern Washington earlier in the year to help set up the capacity for mass testing for COVID-19 during a major outbreak in Spokane County, though most of their work is in managing responses to wildfires, or helping after natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes.

“One of the skill sets that we bring is that organization, and logistical look on things, operational look on things to help stand this up,” said Johnson.

What they’re working to stand up is a multi-pronged approach to making vaccinations more accessible. A key factor would be mobile “pods” that can take vaccine doses to places where vulnerable populations live, especially the elderly who may not be able to safely get to a mass vaccination site like the fairgrounds.

“We’ve made good progress on that, to include some initial offers from your emergency services here in Clark County, Fire Service and EMF,” said Johnson, “to be a workforce to staff those mobile pods, to go out into their first response areas and deliver the vaccine.”

There’s only one problem at the moment. No vaccine.

“I’m confident that it If we were told on Monday that we received the allocation of vaccine, we’re at a place where reflex time would be fairly short,” Johnson told the board. “24 hours to maybe 48 on the outside to be mobilized with those mobile pods and delivering vaccine.”

Johnson noted the team would likely be in place only until plans are set in motion to make sure the region is ready to quickly roll out vaccinations. That could include coordination with local school districts, the Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency, police and fire, as well as other community groups to get them on the same page.

When those allocations of vaccine might be available, however, is currently anyone’s guess.

Gov. Jay Inslee announced on Tuesday that states had been told by the Biden administration their allotment of vaccines would increase by 16 percent, while new syringes allowed most providers to get an extra dose out of the Pfizer vaccine bottles.

The vaccination clinic at the fairgrounds appears to be working ahead of expectations, but that could come at the expense of local providers who are seeing their shipments redirected. 

Melnick said their hope is the Type 1 team can help to make sure the framework is in place, so that the tri-county area is well situated to ramp up vaccine distribution as soon as supplies are available.