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May 16, 2021

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COVID vaccine demand softens in some parts of Washington state as variants, cases rise

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Washington state is doubling down on its COVID-19 vaccine ambitions as case counts rise and concerning coronavirus variants spread.

“We are setting a new goal for the state of Washington for 90,000 vaccines per day,” said Dr. Umair Shah, the state’s health secretary, in a Wednesday morning briefing.

Earlier this winter, the state was striving for 45,000 shots each day, but progress has come faster than anticipated and Shah said the state’s vaccine infrastructure is ready to handle more if the federal government can provide enough supply.

Reaching 90,000 shots a day could be a stiff challenge for vaccine providers across the state. Everyone 16 and older is now eligible for vaccination, and more than a third of Washingtonians have received at least one dose. In some parts of the state, demand is softening.

“We are seeing some concerns over demand and the willingness of Washingtonians to seek vaccines,” Shah said, adding that the state had heard many scheduled appointments were going unfilled.

And the state continues to struggle with equitable administration of vaccines in some groups. Latinos represent about 13% of Washington’s population but have received only 8% of the vaccine doses administered. Black Washingtonians make up 4% of the state population and have received only 3% of total vaccines.

“It’s absolutely critical for us to recognize we have populations with gaps,” Shah said.

Gender gaps have opened up nationwide and in Washington state. More than 57% of those fully vaccinated in Washington are women. Men represent just over 42%.

Next week, the state expects to receive more than 377,000 doses of Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.

State officials said they’re hoping to hear more from federal regulators this week about the pause in Johnson & Johnson vaccinations. An advisory committee for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will meet on Friday to discuss the vaccine and review concerns about blood clots in the brain associated with the vaccine.

Meantime, concerning transmission trends continue here.

“We are close to turning the corner in the state of Washington, but we are seeing the beginning of a fourth wave,” Shah said.

Since early March, case counts have nearly doubled in Washington state, with the rolling seven-day average of new coronavirus cases now approaching 1,300 each day. Hospitalizations are also on the rise.

“Our disease levels are where they were in early November,” said Lacy Fehrenbach, deputy secretary for the state’s COVID-19 Response. “The good news is the slope of the increase is not as steep as it was in November.”

Young people make up an increasing proportion of cases.

“Our case rates are increasing in all age groups except for those 70 and above,” Shah said. “Our sharpest increase is in teens age 10 and above.”

Concerning variants continue to grow in significance, said acting state health officer Scott Lindquist.

“The B.1.1.7 or UK variant has now become the dominant variant in Washington state,” Lindquist said. Scientists believe that variant spreads about 50% more effectively, according to the CDC.

State officials saw a recent jump in cases of the P.1 variant first identified in Brazil, too. This variant could evade antibodies that fight the virus and could be more transmissible.

So far, the state’s data dashboard does not reflect a significant rise in deaths from COVID-19. Trends in death data tend to trail patterns in case and hospitalization data by about a month. Vaccination in older populations could keep deaths low, even as cases rise.

Many of those most at risk for COVID-19, including those over the age of 65, are now protected with vaccine. Nearly three-quarters of people 65 and above have received at least one dose and two-thirds are fully vaccinated.

“We know vaccines are making a difference. Our data are showing that, but we need people to hang on,” Shah said.

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