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Why is Washington's distribution of COVID vaccine so slow?

The Associated Press

The demand for COVID vaccines is great - but the rollout here in Washington is slow going. It's been a month since the first shipment of vaccines arrived, and the state has only used a quarter of its doses.

The federal government is partnering with pharmacies Walgreens and CVS to vaccinate people in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. 


Front-line health-care workers are also at the top of the list to get vaccinated.


In a recent story, the Seattle Times looked into why the rollout is lagging and at who is being affected. KNKX’s Paula Wissel talks with Seattle Times investigative reporter Mike Reicher about what the holdup is. 


This interview has been lightly edited. 

KNKX: So what were you hearing from people who have relatives in nursing homes or assisted-living facilities or people who work there? What kind of stories were you hearing?

Reicher: We were hearing about people that had a lot of hope when they first heard about the vaccine dates. And this was, you know, early December. They were getting emails saying your, you know, your mother, your grandmother is scheduled to get her vaccine on December 17th, and then it would come really close to that date. The vaccines arrived in Washington on December 14th, and then they would get an email saying, "Oh, it's been delayed," and it may or may not have a reason given. And then they would get another email saying that it's been delayed, like, five more days. And then finally they're on the calendar for the end of January.

And so that's, as you can imagine, that would be so frustrating. And, you know, I believe it's about half the deaths in the state have been in these facilities. And we're getting emails from people telling us that they feel like any day their mother or their father could die in one of these facilities if they contract the virus.

It's really stressful for these people because they know how risky it is for their loved ones in these facilities. And it could just be a matter of days or a week that would save their life if they got the vaccine earlier. It's a serious situation.

KNKX: So are long-term care facilities able to find doses outside of Walgreens and CVS?


Reicher: Some of them are. We talked to some facilities who had their dates pushed back with Walgreens and CVS and dropped out of the program and looked around for another pharmacy to give the vaccines. We talked to one that signed up with a regional chain of pharmacies that was vaccinating long-term care facilities. And they were able to get it a week earlier than their scheduled date. And the official there at the nursing home said this probably saved some lives.

KNKX: So how about health-care workers, you know, who don't work in hospitals? In reading your article, that's another thing you found, is that if you're not in the hospital system, even though you're qualified because you're a health-care worker, it's hard to find where to go to get vaccine.

Reicher: You know, the ones on the front lines of fighting COVID were the top priority. And then the state has opened it up to people working in health-care settings more broadly. And we're talking about dental hygienists and other people that don't work within big hospital systems. And these people have really struggled to find a place to get vaccinated. The state gives them a list of pharmacies that do have the vaccine and instructs them to call around, you know, go to one in your county. And there may be two in your county or three, depending on where you are in the state. And they're calling around and finding that these places don't have vaccines available, or for the hospitals that are on the list, that they're still trying to vaccinate their staff.

And so it's a really, really frustrating experience for a lot of health-care workers.

KNKX: Mike, did that surprise you, that the health-care workers, you know, on the front lines are having trouble? They're kind of on their own. They have to call around and see if you can find vaccine.  

Reicher: Yeah, that's right. One group of people that we talked with were home-health aides there. We talked to their union officials and a few of them themselves. And that group is really, really struggling here. I believe it's 40,000 of them in the state or thereabouts. And the union official at SEIU 775 said that he believes about 1 percent of those home-health aides have been vaccinated in this state as of the end of last week. And so, you know, it's a big workforce that's dealing with very vulnerable patients. And they just can't find a place right now to to get vaccines.  

KNKX: What do you think are the main roadblocks that our vaccination rollout is facing?

Reicher: Well, the main roadblocks -- I'm sorry to say, we really don't know at this point -- that this state is releasing such limited data on where the vaccines are going that you can't really say, "They are going to long-term care, but they're not going to outside health-care workers."

And, you know, it's this scheduling at CVS, or it's really hard to pinpoint what the problem is in an absence of data. And the state is planning to release an online dashboard where we'll be able to see more clearly what's going on. Some other states are well ahead of us on that. Michigan, for instance, you can go and see exactly how many doses were delivered to individual sites on a given day. And you can really get down into the details to figure out what the holdup is. 

And it's interesting that those other states are partnering with Microsoft to produce this dashboard and so is our Department of Health. And of course, Microsoft's here in the state, but for some reason it's been postponed and delayed weeks.

They were saying that they were going to have this dashboard app at the end of December, but it still is not live.

KNKX: So did you reach out to the Department of Health?

Reicher: We asked them a lot of questions for this story, and we continue to do so. Their responses have been lacking, especially when it comes to the numbers. We hope that will get better. And they say it's going to get better as they release this data dashboard this week. But in the meantime, it leaves us all guessing.


The Department of Health says it will launch its new dashboard next week. They say it will have detailed information about where COVID vaccines are being administered as well as breakdowns by county and by demographics. 


Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.