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Washington State -- Like Oregon -- Is At Crossroads In The Pandemic

More than half of Washington’s eligible population has received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, but that's much less than is needed to block the virus through herd immunity.
The University of Washington is vaccinating frontline health care staff against COVID-19. | COURTESY UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON SCHOOL OF MEDICINE
May 12, 2021

Like Oregon, Washington state has reached a crucial crossroads in its fight against COVID-19: The hundreds of thousands of people who’ve been eager to get vaccinated have largely been served.

Now, the state must reach the rest.

“The challenge right now is that we are at that pivot point where we don’t have enough people vaccinated, and so we still are seeing outbreaks and we still are seeing surges and other concerning trends,” Umair Shah, secretary of health in Washington state, said at a news conference on Wednesday.  “We have plenty of vaccine throughout the state of Washington. Now is the time for everyone to get their vaccine.”

The state has four mass vaccination sites -- including one in Ridgefield at the Clark County Fairgrounds. Though most of the similar sites in Oregon are winding down, Washington state plans to keep its big sites open for now. Vaccine shots are also available in pharmacies and through health clinics and hospital systems -- as they are in Oregon. And since January, mobile units around the country have targeted people who are homebound, live on the streets or reside in group homes that weren’t served by the federal vaccine program for long-term care facilities.

Washington just set up a hotline -- 833-VAX-HELP -- that’s in English and Spanish and has interpreters who can speak 240 other languages. It’s vaccine locator page on its website is also multilingual with translations in 30 languages.

Shah said efforts like that will help achieve equity in vaccinations and appeal to people who can’t speak English or fear they would not be able to express their concerns in English.

More efforts like that will be needed to edge the state toward higher vaccination rates, officials say.

But at the news conference, Washington health officials struck an optimistic tone.

“Most people are choosing to get vaccinated,” said Michele Roberts, acting assistant health secretary in Washington state. “We are well on our way to protecting our community.”

About 57% of all eligible Washingtonians have had at least one dose, compared with 60% in Oregon. But neither state is close to herd immunity when enough people are inoculated against the virus that it has nowhere to go.

That goal -- which would end the pandemic -- is far off in both states. Some experts say that 70% to 90% of the entire population would need to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to completely end the pandemic.

Only 34% of Oregon’s population has been fully vaccinated, according to Oregon Health Authority data. Washington state health officials estimate that 35% of its residents are inoculated against the virus.

But the benefits of the vaccines are starting to show.

The state is no longer seeing an upward trend in cases and hospitalizations like it did between November and February when its seven-day rolling average of daily cases was about 3,000. Now they’re under an average of 800 cases a day.

“We’re seeing a plateauing in hospitalizations -- and we’re seeing a continual flattening in cases,” Shah said.  “We do recognize that these are trends that are hopeful, but again we have to continue to see those trends permeate, if you will, as we move forward.”

The approval of the Pfizer vaccine for 12 to 15 year olds gives Washington -- like Oregon -- another group of people to vaccinate. There are 368,000 children in that age range in Washington state. Roberts urged parents to have their children vaccinated.

“It’s the best step to ensure our kids are healthy, remain in the classroom and can spend time with their friends and take part in extracurricular activities,” she said. “Every vaccine that goes into the arm is good for everyone and helps protect us all.”

Like Oregon, variants are on the rise in Washington state, with the British variant, B.1.1.7., dominating the pack. Dr. Scott Lindquist, the state’s acting state health officer, said that nearly 50% of the samples analyzed for their DNA were B.1.1.7. Another worrying variant, P.1 from Brazil, is also on the rise, accounting for 11% of the samples tested. 

“We do see an increase in these variants, but we have not noticed any trends in hospitalizations or deaths that are significant at this point,” Lindquist said. “(There has been) a little bit of an increase in hospitalizations with the P.1 but not any significant increase in death in the state of Washington.”

The vaccines are less effective against the P.1 variant, according to a study by Oregon Health & Science University, but they’re still an effective tool against COVID-19, health officials say.

Nevertheless, demand for shots has slowed in Washington state -- just as it has in Oregon.

“We still have high rates of disease in our community,” Roberts said. “The sooner we are vaccinated and protected the sooner we can get back to doing the things we love to do.”

You can reach Lynne Terry at [email protected] or on Twitter @LynnePDX.