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Bad weather slows COVID-19 vaccination drive, but experts se…

Vaccination stickers

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s V-Safe tracks health status after a shot. (GeekWire Photo)

They say that the second vaccine shot for COVID-19 is rougher than the first one — and we’re not just talking about the side effects.

As a newly double-vaccinated member of the 65-and-older set, I can vouch for the claim that the side effects can be felt more acutely the second time around: Back in late January, my first Pfizer-BioNTech shot gave me nothing more than a sore arm. This week’s second shot gave me body aches the day after, as if I had been shoveling snow for hours. (Which, come to think of it, I was … a couple of days earlier.)

But that’s nothing compared to the headaches I would have given myself if I had tried to schedule a vaccination this week. I would have been hard-pressed to find an appointment, even with the benefit of websites like WA COVID Vaccine Finder, the Washington State Department of Health’s Vaccine Locator and the Washington State COVID-19 Vaccination Sign Up System.

Jeffrey Duchin, health officer for Public Health – Seattle & King County, acknowledged that it’s been a tough slog for some folks. “I wish we had more vaccine, and had vaccine for everyone,” he said today during a news briefing.

Previously: One man’s quest for the COVID-19 vaccine

“Severe winter storms across the nation have led to delays in vaccine shipments, and this has impacted the vaccinations that are taking place here in Washington state and in King County, both those scheduled this week and into the weekend,” he explained.

Hundreds of second-shot appointments have had to be rescheduled, and first-shot appointments are few and far between. Community vaccination sites in Auburn and Kent, which were set up to boost COVID-19 immunization rates in South King County, are being shut down this weekend. (Check the Public Health – Seattle & King County website for updates.)

I could see signs of the vaccine shortage when I headed to the hospital on Monday for my second shot: The line to get in was nearly non-existent, apparently because so many appointments were already in the process of being rescheduled.

That could start changing next week. Vaccine outlets are expected to get a double dose of supplies, as delayed shipments are added to the regular allotment.

“Over the next two weeks there will be very limited opportunities for first doses,” Duchin said. “Most of the vaccine coming in will be for administering second doses.”

Duchin said he’s not worried about being overwhelmed. “We’re not talking about a huge amount of doses to start with,” he said. “I think our experience has been, from working with our providers, that they’ve got the capacity to administer many more vaccines than they’ve been able to, given the limited supply.”

Despite the weather-related delays, Duchin said he’s encouraged by the process that’s been made so far. “Over 400,000 doses have been administered to King County residents, including about 65,000 in the last week,” he said.

Duchin said about 300,000 people, or one out of every six county residents, have gotten at least one vaccine dose. About 119,000 people, or one in 16 county residents, are fully vaccinated.

“We’re making progress also in vaccinating older adults, who are most vulnerable to complications and deaths from COVID-19,” Duchin said. “Fifty-two percent of those 75 and older have received at least one dose. That’s up from 44% last week.”

Duchin said the comparable figure for the 65-to-74 age group is 46%, up from 40%.

After the shot

GeekWire’s Alan Boyle check out his arm after a second COVID-19 vaccination at Overlake Hospital and Medical Center in Bellevue, Wash. (GeekWire Photo)

There are still signs of racial and ethnic inequities. In the 65-and-older category, Duchin listed vaccination rates of 50% for American Indians and Alaska Natives, and 45% for whites — but only 37% for Asians, 37% for Hispanics and 25% for Blacks.

County officials are working with community groups to reach underrepresented populations, as well as home-bound adults. “We now have a total of 17 mobile teams in the field vaccinating high-risk populations across the county, reaching residents at adult family homes and affordable-housing buildings with large senior populations,” Duchin said.

When it comes to vaccine supply, there’s reason for optimism on the national level as well. This week, the Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that vaccination rates could nearly double by the end of March as states work out the kinks in their distribution systems.

Getting as many people as possible vaccinated quickly will be key to avoiding a “fourth wave” of deadly COVID-19 infections. Thankfully, this winter’s third wave is rapidly winding down in Washington state. “We are 80% of the way back to where we were in September, before the fall and winter surge,” Duchin said.

Health officials attribute that decline to closer observance of mask-wearing and social distancing now that the season for holiday gatherings is over. Duchin said there’s also “the potential for the virus to be exhausting certain social networks.”

But Duchin also cautioned that the rise of new variants of coronavirus will add to the urgency. “The proportion of cases due to the more contagious B.1.1.7 variant continues to grow, and that proportion doubles approximately every 10 days,” he said. “That means, sometime in March, most of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that’s circulating will be the variant strain. … It would be reckless not to be more careful and more effective in our prevention measures against a stronger virus.”