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Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah on vaccine access, some counties reopening

Dr. Umair Shah poses in a dark suit, smiling with his arms folded.
Office of Gov. Jay Inslee
Secretary of Health Dr. Umair A. Shah took on the role in December 2020. Shah was previously the director of public health in Harris County (Houston), Texas.

Washington state's new Secretary of Health says he understands the frustration that many people have regarding COVID-19 vaccinations. But he expects things to start improving soon.

Dr. Umair Shah talked with KNKX Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick about vaccination supply, how the state is dealing with potential disparities and the move by some counties into the next phase of reopening amid the pandemic. Listen to their conversation above or read the transcript below. Both have been edited for length and clarity.

Kirsten Kendrick, KNKX: Vaccination sites have opened up all around the state. You've been visiting those and talking with people; we have as well. There is a lot of frustration from those who qualify for the vaccine but can't get appointments. What's the biggest challenge for the state right now? 

Dr. Umair Shah, Secretary of Health: The real hard part of all of this is that we all want to vaccinate as many Americans, not even people in Washington but across the country, as many Americans as possible, as quickly as possible. And yet, we don't have enough supply. We have set our goal of 45,000 vaccinations a day, and yet we're receiving on first dose allotments about 100,000 vaccines a week. And we have received from our providers a request this last week for 358,000 vaccines. And that translates on the ground with people then being concerned, frustrated, and just feeds into the "oh my gosh, I can't get a vaccine." And that absolutely is understandable. But it's this real conundrum that we have that we're trying to work through as best we can. 

KNKX: Do you expect things to improve regarding the vaccine supply from the federal government? 

Shah: We do. In fact, the new administration, the Biden administration has indicated that they were looking at an increase in vaccine supply and that was one of their top priorities. We've already received notice that there was going to be a 16 percent increase over the last week to this week. And now we're looking at potentially 5 percent increase. So it looks like there is going to be increases. But we also need some additional assistance. We've said to them, look, in order to plan this piece about the federal government telling the state the week before what your allotment is, that doesn't work. We really need you to be able to tell us what the allotment is weeks ahead. And they have indicated that they're going to be giving us some intel and some runway information, I call it, for three weeks. And that's going to help us. Many of our partners on the ground think, well, for some reason the state has all this information and they're not sharing it with the local partners. But the truth is that we're actually getting that information from the federal government the week before. Well, if we can't plan at the state because we're only having a few days, obviously we can't even translate that to our partners on the ground because they can't plan either. So we can now be assured this is how much vaccine we're going to be getting for three weeks at a time. That then helps all of us plan better. 

KNKX: Do you think that will help the situation on the ground at the vaccination sites? A lot of people say it's very confusing. It's difficult to navigate. What is the state doing to help alleviate that? I know the National Guard is helping out. What about the private sector? 

Shah: So on the one hand, we're working with our partners on what's happening on the ground. On the other hand, we put together what we call the "VACCS center." It's the Vaccine Action Command and Control System. And really the VACCS center's job is to bring in, what I call, harness the power of the private sector. To look at our throughput and to see what they could help us with to make that more efficient. And on the other hand, we're this week launching something called the Vaccine Implementation Collaborative. It's really about equity. How do we make sure that we have feedback and dialogue with our communities and our stakeholders, so we can recognize are there folks that we need to really look at to make sure that they are not being left out from the vaccine process? You know, I do think that, from the equity standpoint, COVID-19 did not start health disparities or inequities. But it has certainly made it worse and what we do not want to do is we do not want to further those inequities. 

KNKX: On the issue of your goal of getting the numbers up, of people being vaccinated, how is the health department responding to people who qualify for the vaccine now but are refusing to get it? Does this impact the goal of herd immunity? 

Shah: We're still seeing an incredible surge that was occurring across Washington. And we're also seeing that in this coming several months, we've got to get enough people vaccinated. But that's going to mean not just that we get vaccines available and make them available, but it means that people are going to have to be willing to take those vaccines. 

KNKX: And you've seen enough evidence and research about the vaccines that makes you confident to say when you qualify for it, go ahead and get it? 

Shah: Absolutely. I myself have received the vaccine. So you know, I can't think of any other way to say that any stronger than that. My 80-plus-year-old mother was vaccinated a week and a half ago. And we're so fortunate to have vaccines. It would be a shame if we had that opportunity to end this pandemic and also to have something that is so effective, and yet people just don't take it. We don't want that to happen. 

KNKX: We're having this conversation about vaccines as two regions of the state have moved to Phase 2 of the governor's revised reopening plan this week, including the counties in the central Puget Sound region. But they've only met three of the four metrics. And the reopening is happening at the same time as a more contagious variant of COVID-19 has been found in three of those counties. Some say the state is sending a mixed message here. 

Shah: We all want to see some pathway to how do we reopen, how do we reopen safely? And we laid that out several weeks ago, so people would know what that road map is. We also have been very carefully monitoring what's happening with our data points across the system. At the same time, we're seeing the discovery of and the identification of variant strains. And all of that is a confluence of very difficult decision-making. We're being very methodical, very careful. Even if you look at Phase 2 reopening, still have quite a bit of restrictions in place. But we also recognize that we all are going to have to continue to live with COVID-19 for quite a bit of time to come. We're still going to have to wear our masks, and still have to watch our distance and avoid large gatherings, or make sure we wash our hands and do all those things and get tested. 

KNKX: There has been a call among some groups to have all Washington educators be vaccinated before schools fully reopen for in-person instruction. The state superintendent has said that elementary school kids should be back in school now, and that schools should be fully reopened by the end of spring. As the Secretary of Health, what do you think should happen there? 

Shah: Obviously, we know education is so incredibly important. I've got three kids, an 11-year-old, 6-year-old and 4-year-old. The two that are 11 and 6, they are in school. Virtually, but they're in school. And I will tell you that every day my wife and I are having discussions about what is going on with their education. We know that the virtual education is just not as good as being in person. We know that. But we also have to balance health and safety. What we do know is there are reviews of guidance that are coming from the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) in real time. And this is one thing the new CDC director has made it very clear, that there are a lot of different ways of looking at all sorts of issues across the COVID pandemic, and also what do we do with schools and the school reopening? And we are also hopeful that we're going to be able to get additional science-based guidance that's going to also help us make good decisions.