Getting a vaccine is 'kind of like trying to get concert tickets – you just have to be lucky'
South King County is an area of Washington hit especially hard by COVID-19. Positive test rates in this part of the county are very high compared to places like north Seattle and Mercer Island.
This is why Public Health – Seattle & King County has set up two vaccination clinics that will be operating indefinitely. One is located at the ShoWare Center in Kent. The other is located at Auburn’s General Services Administration Complex.
Appointments are required. Both clinics are vaccinating 500 people a day, Monday through Saturday. The health department has been planning the opening of these centers for a month.
One of the people in charge of this is Dr. Mark Del Beccaro, assistant deputy chief for COVID testing and immunization programs at Public Health – Seattle & King County
KNKX’s Jennifer Wing spoke with Del Beccaro from inside the halls of the ShoWare Center. What follows is a lightly edited interview.
Dr. Mark Del Beccaro: Specifically, we are addressing the needs of South King County with these two sites. South King County has the highest rate of COVID infection. That's two to three times higher than Seattle and the north part of the county. And a lot of that is because the population that lives here is poor, more ethnically diverse and lower socioeconomic variables that allow them to, unfortunately, have a higher proportion of disease of the area. So this area also has less in terms of health-care institutions that are distributing vaccine compared to Seattle, just because of the number of hospitals and other kind of large institutions.
So the county health department, working with the county and with funds that the county executive and the county council gave us, is setting up this site as well as the one in Auburn to help address the inequities of both the prevalence of the disease and access to the vaccine.
Jennifer Wing: I imagine you have been planning something like this for a long time. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Del Beccaro: The planning has been about a month. Right now, our biggest problem, just like you've heard anywhere across the nation and the state, is not enough vaccine. We are only able to do 500 people a day, six days a week, at this site and the one in Auburn. Hopefully we'll get a better supply of vaccine because we could do thousands a day here once we have an adequate supply.
Wing: When you say this place is capable of handling thousands, do you have a more specific number of what the what the optimal number of folks who could come through here on a daily basis would be?
Del Beccaro: It could easily do well more than 2,000 a day.
Wing: Here, just here?
Del Beccaro: Just here.
Jennifer Wing: And when does your department become aware of how many doses it's getting on a weekly basis?
Del Beccaro: Well, there's a weekly allocation request process to the Department of Health. And then I actually can't remember the exact date we find out because another part of our group that's highly skilled at that does that part. I think we find out on Monday what we're going to get for the next week. So it's a week-to-week basis. And because the vaccine supply is so small, the Department of Health is kind of shifting around a little bit where they put vaccine just to where they think it will be used the most effectively.
Wing: Moving forward, will this site and the site in Auburn be a go-to place for the foreseeable future?
Del Beccaro: Yeah, our plan is to keep these open for many months. And again, especially because we have so little vaccine, it's all appointment based, so we don't want anybody just showing up. We know people will be disappointed. We wish we could get more people in. Right now, we don't know when we will get enough vaccine to do more than 500 a day. And unfortunately, we opened up the signups just a few days ago, the first couple of weeks of February are already completely booked up, and we don't really even know what will happen with the vaccine supply after that. We're hoping within about a month or so, the vaccine supply from the federal allocations will increase dramatically, and then we will be able to increase the number of people that we see here.
Wing: What are people telling you? What are you hearing as people come and check in? And what are people who are coming in for their first dose, what are they saying?
Del Beccaro: Well, we have a lot of elderly and a lot of people that have different health challenges in this first group, and they are overwhelmingly so happy to start finally getting vaccine. And their family members who have often helped them come in are so relieved to see that they're finally getting help. Over half the people we're seeing in here are probably over age 70, maybe more than that.
Wing: People who hear about these large sites in Kent and in Auburn will wonder if people don't show up for their appointments – and there are extra doses that need to be administered or they'll go bad – is there a system set up to to let the public know about that potential surplus that could go to use?
Del Beccaro: All sites, including ours, we have lists of people that meet the same criteria that I was telling you about who couldn't get an appointment. And so we have them on a standby kind of list, so we're able to make sure that we don't have any doses that are unused. We also have staff members who qualify under those same rules that are working on the vaccine site, and we kind of expect to do a certain number of them every day because we know we'll have some extra doses at the end, but those people all qualify by the criteria. And we're going to just space them out over the the days and weeks that we do this to give them vaccine.
Wing: If you do end up on a wait list, how will you notify a person that they could come in that day or that afternoon?
Del Beccaro: It kind of depends who the group is. Like, we have some folks that were in the 1A, the early group, that just couldn't get a vaccine. We already have them on, so we have ways to contact them. I don't want to give the impression that the general public could just get on the list. These are people that qualify and just haven't been able to get on that we already were trying to get on. We – also with the county executive and the council is enabling us with other money – have mobile vaccine teams that are going out to people that can't even leave the homes that they live in. They're not mobile enough to do that. So they've been out of the community also.
Wing: Do you have any advice for anyone who is currently eligible for a vaccine, who doesn't live in South King County, who is really trying hard to find their first dose?
Del Beccaro: Well, even if you live in South King County, the number of doses versus the number of eligible is unfortunately not even close to the same. So there's 10 times as many people eligible everywhere in the county as there are doses. And so I know it's hard, but it's going to be patience right now. Certainly you want to keep looking at, you know, the Phase Finder and other websites as people, as providers, get doses. It's an unfortunate thing that, you know, it's kind of like trying to get concert tickets, and you just have to be lucky. And we are trying to do other things to help people that are digitally disadvantaged. So we're actually, and some of the people that were signed up here, we had their community navigators and caseworkers actually reach out to them and sign them up because they don't have computers or computer skills because, again, that would disadvantage a certain segment of the population.
Wing: And if you don't have someone in the community who's being that bridge for you, say if you're an elderly person and you're not online and you don't have an email, any advice for those folks or family members of those people?
Del Beccaro: Department of Health does have a 1-800 number. As you can imagine, it's probably hard to get through sometimes. And we are trying to work with other partner organizations to see if we can augment call-in type lines. But right now, I think DOH does have a call-in line, and it's just trying to get through to it.
Wing: And if you are able to get through, they will help you. If you are not connected, they'll help you find a location.
Del Beccaro: They'll try, you know, and again, it's not like they have magic access to a site that has the vaccine. They could just help you.
Wing: Any concerns, or looking toward the future, anything you're excited about or nervous about?
Del Beccaro: These vaccines are very effective, but there's still a percent that it won't work in. And if people get vaccinated and stop wearing that mask and stop hand washing, then it'll just keep spreading, especially with the new variant.
Wing: Speaking of the new variants,* do you think that there is a disconnect right now with opening up King County, including this area of King County, to phase 2 with knowledge that these variants are now here and it's so much more transmissible?
Del Beccaro: Well, I think, you know, if people are doing the right thing and wearing masks and hand washing and keeping distance, the variant can only propagate to the next person if it has a way of doing that. So if you really are strict and really following that, then it'll work. And if people want to, you know, not lose the benefit of being in phase 2 or other phases, it's really up to us to wear masks, hand wash. Keep your distance. Don't go to a Super Bowl party with a bunch of people you don't live with. Those are things we control. And if we do those things, we can keep our numbers down. King County is one of the lowest rates of COVID infection of any county in the country, and it's because people are doing that. We just need to do even better, and then hopefully if people do that, we can keep the virus from going from one person to another.
Wing: What are your thoughts on in-person dining now?
Del Beccaro: You know, I think everybody has to make that choice themselves, and I think if they can see that the establishment is following the distancing rules and they are following the distancing rules, then they can, you know, it could be safe. You know, I think that's an individual choice.
Wing: Would you go out to a Valentine's dinner inside a restaurant?
Del Beccaro: I would do a Valentine's dinner in my house. But that's my personal choice.
Wing: Thank you so much for your time.
*While other variants of COVID-19 from Brazil and South Africa have been detected in the United States, only the U.K. variant, B.1.1.7., has been identified in Washington state.