Hospital, county prepping for COVID vaccine

Island County may be near the front of the line for new vaccines.

Island County will likely be near the front of the line when the first batch of COVID-19 vaccine is distributed, which is expected to occur in mid-December.

Officials from WhidbeyHealth and Island County say they planned early to get ultra-cold storage and other infrastructure in place for the vaccines and have advocated at the state level to bring the vaccine here as soon as possible.

The first round will likely go to first responders and “at risk” healthcare workers, who are doctors, nurses and medical professionals at higher danger of coming into contact with COVID-19 contagious people and who play a vital role during the pandemic.

People who live in congregate settings, such as jails and homeless shelters, are also in phase 1.

Don Mason, COVID response manager, explained to the county commissioners this week that the distribution will be based on a tiered system that the state is in the process of refining.

“The estimates are that our community, Island County, will get only enough initial vaccine doses to cover the first tier and maybe not all of that,” he said Wednesday.

On Thursday, however, vaccine-maker Pfizer announced that the initial COVID rollout target would be cut in half because of supply-chain problems.

Dr. Nicholas Perera, medical director of the emergency department and chief of medicine at WhidbeyHealth, said the crucial herd immunity stage will not be reached until about 70 percent of the population is immune to the disease through a vaccine or natural infection. He anticipates it won’t happen with COVID until early summer.

Chief Nursing Officer Erin Wooley said there are significant logistical challenges related to the unprecedented immunization effort, but the hospital is prepared. The vaccine will be free of charge from the federal government, although organizations can charge an administrative fee to insurance companies.

Both the hospital and the county were ahead of the game in purchasing ultra-cold storage; there currently is a shortage across the country.

The officials said it’s expected that the first vaccine to reach the island will be the one created by Pfizer. It has to be kept at a temperature of -70 degrees Celsius, which is 94 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. The Moderna vaccine can be stored at regular freezer temperatures.

Wooley said the hospital has two ultra-cold freezers, which can store thousands of vaccinations. The recent power outage gave the hospital the chance to test how its generators work; they were able to maintain the deep freeze, she said.

Hospital officials plan on conducting the first phase of the vaccinations at the hospital. With 70,000 people on Whidbey Island, Wooley said the hospital is enlisting healthcare volunteers to help administer the vaccine. She hopes more people will volunteer.

After the initial phase, officials anticipate that the vaccine will become available at doctor’s offices and pharmacies.

In another wrinkle, the vaccines require a second dose. Nic Wildeman, with community relations at the hospital, pointed out that they have to be taken on exactly the right number of days after the initial shot.

Mason said the county’s main role is to facilitate the distribution of the vaccine, although the county will vaccinate people who can’t receive them from other organizations. He said the county purchased two ultra-cold storage units and three regular freezer units.

The county also got data loggers, he said, which are used to monitor the temperature of the freezers.

In addition, the units are all connected to back-up generators.

Mason said the commissioners are considering proposals to hire temporary workers to help with the vaccine.

The county and hospital have been planning for vaccine distribution since Sept. 1. An interdisciplinary advisory team was formed. It has participation from the county, hospital, Navy, jail, public health, EMS, Pediatric Associates, pharmacies and nonprofit organizations.

While there is light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, Perera and other medical professionals stress the importance of continuing to wear masks, social distance and other measures.

With the current exponential increase in cases across the nation and on Whidbey Island, these strategies are more important than ever.

“It would truly be a tragedy if we let out guard down before we get herd immunity,” he said.