At the tail end of 2020, San Juan County began holding its first COVID-19 vaccine clinics.
Now, heading into spring, nearly 22 percent of the islands’ residents are fully vaccinated (including those who received shots off island) and 40 percent have received the first dose and are waiting for the second. This is the second-highest rate in the state.
“I want to acknowledge the incredible work being put in by so many people and organizations to support the vaccine effort: our local healthcare providers and pharmacies who have stepped up to vaccinate the islands are so critical to this undertaking; volunteers and staff have been working tirelessly; our fire and EMS agencies, community center and fairgrounds staff and leadership,” said Ellen Wilcox, manager of San Juan County Health and Community Services. “They and many others have all contributed time and effort and resources and have helped us get to where we are today.”
While the public health departments in most Washington counties are relying on local healthcare providers to deliver all of the vaccines, San Juan County Health and Community Services has delivered the majority of it for the islands. In February and March, the National Guard helped to deliver thousands of doses to residents.
“Local providers and pharmacies have played a critical role, but without larger healthcare systems or pharmacies playing a major role, the bulk of the work has fallen on smaller organizations,” said Brendan Cowan, director of San Juan County Department of Emergency Management.
Friday Harbor Drug, Eventide Health (patients only), Peace Health (patients only), Orcas Family Health Center, Ray’s Pharmacy and Lopez Island Pharmacy are currently offering vaccine clinics.
Initially, the shots were for those in Phase 1A: healthcare providers and long-term care facility residents and staff. Last week, Phase 1B Tier 3 and 4 opened, and there are expected to be 2,000-plus county residents in that group. For a full list of who is included in the phases as well as up-to-date vaccine data, visit https://www.sanjuanco.com/1737/COVID-Vaccine-Info.
On March 31, Governor Jay Inslee announced that all Washington residents 16 years and older can receive a vaccine starting April 15. According to the Seattle Times, it will make an additional 1.2 million Washingtonians eligible for a dose.
“In a news conference, Inslee said state officials are confident in taking the step in part because federal vaccine allocations continue to increase and more people are getting vaccinated,” according to the story. “At the same time, in what the governor called a ‘dangerous situation,’ many older people who have been eligible for months are not getting vaccinated. About 27% of state residents 65 and older have not received any doses, according to Inslee’s office.”
Demand for the vaccine is far exceeding supply. On average, the county is receiving 200 doses of it per week, and there are 5,000 residents currently eligible. On Monday of each week, the county places an order with the state department of health, and shipments are received by Friday. To date, only a fraction of the requested amount has been sent. Cowan says the process has been “challenging but encouraging.”
“Lack of available doses has been the major obstacle to broader rollout,” he said. “The county and other island vaccine providers have the ability to deliver far more vaccine than we are currently receiving. Hopefully, that bottleneck will loosen in the weeks to come. An incredible array of volunteers, agencies, providers, and facility managers have all coordinated to support the effort. The behind-the-scenes work required to keep the effort on-track is complex and demanding.”
Early on, San Juan County struggled with offering vaccine registration online. The lack of a coordinated nationwide tool forced each vaccine provider in the country to develop their own system.
“Fortunately, the state of Washington rolled out a system by early February that allowed for a more coordinated approach. There were still challenges early on, but at this point the system is working well,” Cowan said.
He is most heartened by the positive community energy present at vaccine clinics.
”Our National Guard team gave nearly 4,000 shots while here, and they raved about the kindness and warm support they felt while working in San Juan County,” he said. “Islanders shared everything from homemade rhubarb muffins to live music and made the service members who came here to help us feel incredibly welcome and appreciated. I’m so grateful to be working in this community where people take the time to express their gratitude. It makes the difficult job at hand infinitely easier.”