COVID vaccines, flattening curve indicate hope statewide

Positive news has been hard to come by in 2020 with the COVID-19 worldwide pandemic dominating headlines, but officials in Washington state are starting to speak in more optimistic tones, indicating there is a beacon of hope.

Case counts have begun to flatten, hospitalizations have started to stabilize and the first vaccine doses have been distributed. The Department of Health said a minimum of 410 doses of the Pfizer vaccine have been given out as of Wednesday morning. The state has half of its expected shipment of 62,000 doses and the rest is expected to come later this week.

“[It’s] an incredible milestone in the pandemic,” said Michele Roberts, acting DOH assistant secretary.

And there could be more on the way: the Food and Drug Administration is set to meet this week to determine whether to grant approval for emergency use for the Moderna vaccine. If approved, the state expects a shipment of up to 180,000 doses before the end of the year, in addition to the rest of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. A third vaccine, from Johnson & Johnson, may also be as close as a couple of months away.

Roberts said 272 clinics, pharmacies and hospitals have been enrolled with the state to receive the vaccine — the locations cover 37 of Washington’s 39 counties.

The short-term focus is on high-risk workers, and patients in health care settings, along with staff and residents of long-term care facilities. It should still be a few months before vaccines are widely available to everyone; the state is building out the rest of the phases leading up to that time.

“We are glad there was a lot of interest and high demand so far,” Roberts said. “It will take several months to vaccinate everyone who wants one, but we can see a light at the end of the tunnel.”

But as always, officials stressed that the state is not out of the woods yet. Although cases have plateaued, daily case counts remain among the highest of the entire pandemic. Hospitalizations have flattened, but like confirmed cases, they remain very high.

Fortunately, looking at the epidemiological curves, it appears the state has avoided a post-Thanksgiving surge in cases and hospitalizations. Deaths have risen since the beginning of November, but that tends to be a lagging indicator compared with case counts and hospitalizations.

“We’re still at a precarious time and the efforts we believe many people took at Thanksgiving need to continue throughout this month,” Health Secretary Jonathan Wiesman said.

Intensive care units remain near capacity, and although there is some availability in acute care, that had to be achieved by canceling non-urgent procedures, Wiesman said.

“A surge on top of where we are right now will very, very quickly overwhelm our hospitals,” he said.

The drive to vaccinate the population statewide will be a lengthy one, and state officials cautioned residents to continue their vigilance in reducing the spread of the coronavirus.

“We’re not done yet,” said Dr. Kathy Lofy, the state’s health officer. “We need to continue to avoid gathering with people indoors with people outside of our households, we need to continue wearing our face masks, and we need to continue to stay six feet away from others for at least the next few months.”