All Whatcom County residents ages 16 and older are now eligible to receive their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine.
Since December, the vaccine has slowly become available to community members based on their health risk for contracting COVID-19. This included health care and essential workers, people 65 years and older and those with underlying conditions.
In March, as part of the Washington Department of Health’s ongoing effort to reopen the state, Gov. Jay Inslee announced that on April 15 the vaccine would become universally available.
Now, medical providers continue to distribute the county’s vaccine supply while accounting for the community’s persistently growing demand according to Jennifer Moon, public information officer for the Whatcom County Health Department.
The vaccine is being administered at a variety of locations throughout Whatcom County including chain pharmacies like Rite Aid and Walgreens, clinics hosted by the Nooksack Tribe and at the Community Vaccination Center at Bellingham Technical College.
As of April 10, more than one in three Whatcom County residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine according to a progress report released by the Whatcom County Health Department.
Moon said the county is equipped to administer about 20,000 doses per week, but the actual amount of doses distributed will rely heavily on how much the state is able to supply. Last week, 12,480 first doses were allocated to Whatcom County providers.
“In the past, the number of vaccines in each weekly shipment has varied wildly,” Moon said. “But in recent weeks, shipment numbers have stabilized considerably.”
The age eligibility expansion comes two days after the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration jointly paused the authorization of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. On Tuesday morning, the agencies disclosed that six Johnson & Johnson recipients, all women under 50, developed blood clots within weeks after their inoculations.
In Whatcom County, providers received a total of 6,440 first doses of vaccine for the week of April 11 including 400 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine which will no longer be administered.
On Tuesday, the Whatcom Health Department announced that the Community Vaccination Center will be hosting two vaccination clinics this weekend that will run from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday, April 17 and Sunday, April 18. Both clinics will offer opportunities for eligible recipients to receive either their first or second dose of the Moderna vaccine. Because only the Pfizer vaccine has been authorized for individuals under 18, 16- and 17-year-olds will not be able to receive their first dose during these times.
Jessica Sankey, executive officer of operations for Bellingham Public Schools, said the school district is working with partners in the community to schedule vaccine appointments for students ages 16 to 18.
“If somebody wants a vaccine, we really, really want to make sure that we do everything we can to help make that accessible for them,” Sankey said.
In the past few months, both the Nooksack Tribe Health Clinic and Hoagland Pharmacy have been frontrunners in distributing the vaccine to school staff. Sankey said that the school district is hoping to partner with these providers again to begin administering vaccines to eligible students.
For some essential workers like Lewis Barbe and Ashley Halazon, the eligibility expansion also comes as a shining opportunity to get vaccinated if they haven’t already been able to do so.
Lewis Barbe, a student at Western and line cook at a Bellingham restaurant, Café Rumba, has not received his first vaccine dose yet but is planning to get it after it becomes available on April 15.
Barbe said he’s concerned about accidentally picking up COVID-19 from someone who is asymptomatic and then passing it to another coworker.
Ashley Halazon, a bartender at Slo Pitch Sports Grill and Casino, said that when she was first hired in September, it was difficult for her to work while taking the necessary precautions to minimize the spread of the virus.
“Especially at the beginning, it was stressful trying to have good service toward all of the customers while only having like two of us there at a time,” Halazon said.
Over the last month and a half, Halazon has been put on the vaccine waitlist but has not been able to receive the vaccine until now. She said she expects to receive her first dose on Friday.
For Bridget Reeves, associate executive director of Lighthouse Mission Ministries, vaccine eligibility expansion raises concerns about how some unhoused populations in Whatcom County will be able to receive their vaccines.
Since March 31, vaccines became eligible for staff and guests in congregate living settings. At Base Camp, part of Bellingham’s Lighthouse Mission Ministries sheltering programs for people experiencing houselessness, the staff is already helping people get vaccinated by scheduling appointments and driving guests to primary care providers according to Reeves.
“That’s not necessarily the same story for folks that are still on the street,” said Reeves. She said that she hopes to see drop-in appointments become more widely available for Bellingham’s houseless population as vaccine distribution begins to ramp up in the county.
For now, community members remain hopeful that the state’s new expanded vaccine eligibility will help speed up the process of returning life closer to normal.
“We feel like we’re making progress,” said Jessica Sankey. “Mostly we’re in a place of starting to see some daylight at the end of the tunnel.”
Cameron Bairdis a second-year visual journalism student and a city news reporter for The Front. His work primarily focuses on the COVID-19 pandemic in Whatcom County. When he’s not reporting, he enjoys going on hikes, camping and listening to music. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.