At a press conference on Friday, Public Health Seattle and King County health officer Dr. Jeff Duchin said he hadn't seen the disease modeling that showed Washington on track to vaccinate its most vulnerable population (i.e., people over 65) by March, and so he didn't know if the county was on track to meet that goal by that date.
Based partly on the strength of that modeling, on Thursday Gov. Inslee loosened restrictions on his weeks-old regional reopening scheme despite the presence in the region of B.1.1.7., a faster-moving and more deadly strain of COVD-19.
"About nine out of ten of the people who might lose their life because of this variant or the old variant we now have the ability to protect. Nine out of ten. These are people over the age of 65...And when we’ve looked at the potential rate of increase, we’re going to get those people vaccinated before this variant becomes dominant [March], and before it would cause exponential growth," Inslee said.
As a result of his decision, King County is allowed to proceed to Phase 2 on Monday, which will let gyms, restaurants, and indoor entertainment venues open in limited capacities, all while health officials admit they know very little about the proliferation of the new strain, and all while Duchin doesn't know for sure if we'll be able to hit the vaccination rates Inslee said we'd hit in a month.
As Duchin put it today, "We’re skating forward into Phase 2 and not knowing how thick the ice is."
Nevertheless, Duchin said moving forward is "understandable" given the fact that we're "heading in the right direction" and that we lack evidence of major spreading caused by the new variants.
Two weeks into the start of the aged-based part of the vaccine rollout, and over a month after the first vaccine doses arrived in Washington, so far only 25% of King County residents over 75 have received at least one dose, and only about 20% people between 65 and 75 have received at least one dose, Duchin said.
Duchin said it was "possible" to increase our current vaccination rates among people over 65, but he said he didn't think we were on track "locally or nationally to vaccinate our way out of the threat of the variants... particularly the B.1.1.7 variant."
"There simply are not enough doses being produced nationally to get enough people vaccinated to have herd immunity as quickly as March, which is when these variants are expected to become predominant," Duchin added.
Weekly deliveries of the vaccine have ranged between 12,000 doses on the low end and 73,000 doses on the high end, and so far the county has administered 80% of its vaccines, Duchin said. This week—when we have more than 300,000 King County residents eligible to receive the vaccine—we only received 38,000 more doses.
Meanwhile, Duchin noted, our state is only getting 1/3 of the number of first doses that our health care providers have requested, and "we’re not expecting much increase" in the coming months.
Though limited vaccine supply has made scheduling vaccine appointments "challenging," Duchin said, on Monday the county will launch two vaccine sites in Kent and Auburn, where COVID has hit particularly hard. Those sites will "initially offer 500 free vaccinations per day," and aim to reach people 75 and over, plus those over 50 who can't live independently.
Though Inslee cited decreasing COVID case numbers as yet another reason to make structural changes to the new reopening plan, Duchin said those numbers "shouldn’t be misunderstood as a safe level [of transmission], and certainly not as a 'we got this'" moment. The Centers for Disease Control still considers Washington's current case rates to be “very high,” Duchin said, noting that current case numbers in King County are nearly four times higher than they were in late September and seven times higher than they were in June.
If shit goes south real quick with the new strain, Duchin said porous borders in the regional system mean "success will come from working together," but individual counties do have the authority to act independently of other counties in the region. So if Duchin wants to move us back to Phase 1 "or even further, depending on how far we let it go," he could.
As an example of how much farther back a county could really go, Duchin pointed to the chaos in European countries, which have had to impose strict lockdowns and set curfews to handle the new strain's virulence. He hoped such a step wouldn't be so controversial here if case rates and hospitalizations really started skyrocketing.