OLYMPIA — Washington state is opening up COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to all residents age 16 and older starting on April 15, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Wednesday.
The federal government had directed states to make all adults eligible for COVID-19 vaccination by May 1, but most states had earlier plans, with more than a dozen opening eligibility to all adults this week.
Also Wednesday, New Mexico announced it would open vaccine eligibility next week to everyone 16 and older, and Pennsylvania said every adult there will qualify starting April 19.
Inslee had previously resisted expanding eligibility too quickly, saying he wanted to ensure those most at risk were vaccinated first and noting eligibility didn’t guarantee vaccination right away and would depend on supply.
But he said Wednesday the federal government’s assurances of increased allocations, plus concerns about rising cases in many parts of the state, led to the decision to expand eligibility sooner.
“We still don’t have the supply to make this available to everyone today, so many of us are going to have to have continued patience,” Inslee said. “But I’m so happy about the rate of the vaccination we now are obtaining in the state of Washington.”
Inslee’s announcement came the same day 2 million more people, including restaurant workers and those 16 and older with two or more underlying health conditions, became eligible for vaccination in the state. The latest tier builds upon previous tiers that started with vaccinating health care workers, first responders and those in nursing homes in December, and later included the elderly, teachers and those who work in grocery stores.
As of Wednesday, about 5 million of the state’s more than 7.6 million residents are eligible for vaccination. An additional 1.2 million people who are 16 and older will be added to those eligible in just two weeks.
More than 3.3 million doses of vaccine have been administered to date, and nearly 17% of the state’s population has been fully vaccinated, including those vaccinated by the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine. More than 27% have received at least one dose of the vaccines that require two shots, by Pfizer and Moderna.
Inslee and Department of Health Secretary Umair Shah both stressed that they want to see more seniors vaccinated. As of Wednesday, 73% of those over age 65 have received at least one dose of vaccine and more than 55% have been fully vaccinated.
Inslee expressed concern about the 27% of the over 65 population that has not yet received one dose, saying it was “a dangerous situation.”
Inslee and Shah encouraged people to reach out to elders they know and urge them to get vaccinated.
“We want to make sure we do everything we can to get seniors get vaccinated,” Shah said.
The U.S. has recorded more than 30.3 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and over 551,000 deaths. There have been more than 341,000 cases in Washington state, and 5,247 deaths.
For most, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks, although long-term effects are unknown. But for some, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.
While the child care sector in Central Washington and beyond has weathered turbulence in recent decades, targeted programs offer pockets of hope.
Some address growing gaps in child care supply, which impacts both families’ livelihoods and the potential learning opportunities of their young ones. Others tackle learning disparities as a result of these gaps.
The efforts are intended to chip away at some of the underlying issues of the child care sector, even as lawmakers at the state and national level weigh bigger investments that might transform the industry.
Here are just a few of those home-grown programs.
For roughly six years, the state has had a substitute pool run by The Imagine Institute to enable providers to take time off for sick leave or credential training. All training to become a sub is done through the institute and paid for by the state. Rather than having to close their doors and lose a day’s income for training, sick leave or vacation, providers can bring in a substitute who meets state requirements in child care, CPR, health and food handling training.
While smaller-scale substitute pools and private coordinating networks have been around for decades, this was the first state-funded system in the U.S., according to the state Department of Children, Youth and Families. The state pays $15 an hour to subs covering a designated number of days allowed to providers through state law and union bargaining agreements.
State officials say this is a valuable service, since many providers can’t afford to lose a day’s wages to take time away. The long-term goal of the pool is twofold, DCYF officials say: have a substitute pool to support existing industry workers, and support the workforce pipeline by funding training for substitutes who might become full-time providers in the future.
Some providers and officials have said in the past that the pool isn’t yet large enough to support the substitution needs of providers throughout the state. But during the pandemic, The Imagine Institute has “supported a push for substitute recruitment which resulted in an increase (in) the number of qualified substitutes,” said Angela Abrams, a professional development administrator for DCYF. Abrams added that the body has increased options for remote substitute training and has also created new tracking measures to understand how providers are using subs.
Statewide, there were 478 approved substitutes as of late January, compared to 160 to 200 reported in January 2020. More than 600 individuals were pursuing their credentials around that time this year.
Four years ago, the West Valley School District in Yakima recognized a need for more early childhood education experts in the Central Washington region and developed a coursework pathway for students to become credentialed in the field. Using the standard for curriculum at the community college level, the district built a program in which high school students could complete a 12 credit initial early learning certification. From there, students can continue building upon early learning or education credentials post-high school.
About 20 West Valley students a year go through the program, the majority of whom continue in the field of education, said Chris Nesmith, the district’s director of innovation. About a third continue in early childhood education like child care, he said, helping to expand the workforce.
Partnering with the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, Yakima Valley College and others, a toolkit for high schools across the state to mirror the program was created.
While this could be part of the solution to the child care supply gaps, said Nesmith, more schools need to participate to make an impact.
“This program has eased the hiring gap, but not enough school districts across the state have adopted similar models,” he said.
Transitional Kindergarten is a program developed through a loophole in state funding less than a decade ago to bring children who haven’t had access to early learning opportunities into school classrooms prior to their first full year of kindergarten. They might have been on a child care waiting list or unable to afford a preschool program. Rather than spending 40 weeks in a regular kindergarten schedule, these students might get 60, since they get a jump start before their first full year of kindergarten.
The goal is to equip them with skills and classroom behaviors that will help them keep up with their peers and succeed in kindergarten. This might mean developing language and communication skills, learning how to count, or understanding how to behave in or navigate a school building.
Schools report impressive results: These students who would otherwise be behind their peers in development upon entering kindergarten become leaders in their classrooms and show steady academic growth. Schools see a reduction in teacher referrals for counseling, special education and discipline, as well as early intervention programs — meaning a reduction in school spending.
As more schools throughout Central Washington and beyond enthusiastically take on the program, both school administrators and early learning experts express a need for intention and collaboration in student recruitment. It’s a great resource for kids without access to rich learning opportunities prior to K-12, experts say. But schools should partner with existing child care and early learning programs to ensure the students being brought into Transitional Kindergarten are those who don’t have access to early learning — rather than potentially pulling children with access away from existing programs. Otherwise, some worry this program could inadvertently make the child care and early learning system even more fragile.
Meet Stephanie Burrier, a Richland-based mom of 6-year-old Charlotte and 10-year-old Benjamin.
Originally from Oklahoma, the Burrier family moved to the Tri-Cities in 2014 when she was pregnant with her youngest and her eldest was in pre-K. When they first arrived, Burrier worked at a child care facility, making it easy to find care for Benjamin, as well as to secure a position for Charlotte once she was born. Once she had Charlotte, she decided not to return to work at the program, which meant relinquishing her daughter’s care slot. When the family decided a few months later that it was best to have both parents working, she and her husband had to “start the hunt again” for care for both their infant daughter and their son, since it was summer and kindergarten had not begun. Since then, it’s been an ongoing challenge to find and maintain care.
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“Finding a place for an infant is impossible when you have not been on the waiting list since when you were pregnant. So that took a really long time,” Burrier said of the initial hunt for care after Charlotte was born. “Every place had a wait list. I’m pretty sure one said that they had like over 100 people on their list, so by the time they called you to say, ‘You have a spot available,’ your kid is probably 5 years old at that point. It was wild.”
Child care programs need more staff to care for infants, so there are fewer slots and care costs more.
Burrier turned to the Child Care Aware website, online forums and Facebook groups to try to find care after being turned away from program after program. Eventually, she was connected with a teaching student willing to nanny Charlotte in their home, which lasted for almost two years before the woman moved away to continue her credentials. Then, the search was on again. Openings were once again few and far between, and when they did arise, they went fast.
“‘This spot is open today and that’s it and there’s five people that want it, so you better tell us if you want it,’” Burrier recalled being told. “It kind of puts pressure on us to make a split decision really quickly about where to put my kid for the next, you know, two or three years until she started kindergarten. So it’s really high stakes, and you just have to kind of go with your gut or make some sacrifices on your ‘I need this’ list.”
When the Burriers did find a program for Charlotte, they loved it. Except that it was a 45-minute drive each morning and evening to transport her. After a year and a half, they found a new program on Burrier’s way to work. It was the first time their family had the flexibility to tour the center and weigh the option before committing. Charlotte attended there until the statewide stay-at-home order took effect at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last March, creating another transition before she began kindergarten remotely last fall.
The Tri-Cities shortage
The series of transitions Burrier family experienced isn’t uncommon in Richland or the Tri-Cities. That’s because the majority of Benton County is considered a child care desert, meaning there are more children than child care slots. In 2019, for example, there were 4,521 openings available for kids under 13, according to the state Department of Children, Youth and Families. But there were 13,210 kids under the age of 5, according to Child Care Aware of Washington, and estimates indicate that more than half of those children are from families where both parents work.
For the Burrier family, this shortage in child care supply has meant a series of disruptions and transitions in their young daughter’s care setting over the years, as well as Benjamin’s care during school breaks. While Charlotte was able to adapt easily, Burrier said the inconsistencies throughout the years disrupted Benjamin’s routines — which he is more reliant on — and in turn, some development.
Asked what her community needs to fix this struggle, Burrier said more child care facilities.
Although Wednesday marked the official opening of a new federal mass vaccination center at State Fair Park in Yakima, a “soft launch” Tuesday gave staff a chance to see how it would work.
The goal Tuesday was to deliver 300 first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, said Nathan Johnson, local emergency response coordinator for the Yakima Health District and incident commander for Yakima County’s COVID-19 response.
Providers don’t want to waste any doses, so they arranged with nearby Fiesta Foods to deliver doses there if some were left over, Johnson said during the regular Yakima Health District Board of Health meeting Wednesday. Board vice chair Dr. Sean Cleary led the meeting because Yakima County Commissioner Ron Anderson, health board chair, was at the ribbon-cutting for the mass vaccination center.
“We did 244 doses at the site, then we went over to Fiesta Foods as a team and set up at the corner,” Johnson said. “We were able to push 35 doses there.”
Health care officials want to ensure the vaccine is distributed as equitably as possible. With that goal in mind, the Yakima site is one of 23 nationwide selected for a pilot community vaccine center by the federal government, which is placing them in high-risk communities in partnership with state and local officials.
“Candidly, most of these federal sites are positioned in very large communities,” said Andre Fresco, executive director of the health district. He called the mass vaccination center “a tremendous opportunity” for a county of Yakima’s size.
Starting Wednesday, the capacity of Yakima’s new vaccination site increased from 200 to 1,200 vaccine doses a day and operations expanded from five to seven days a week. The goal Wednesday was to distribute 600 vaccine doses, Johnson said, and up to 1,000 doses every day the rest of the week.
It’s an eight-week project that will deliver first dozes of the Pfizer vaccine in the first three weeks and boosters in the second three weeks. What vaccines will be available in the final two weeks is unknown at this point.
“We’re hoping to get Johnson & Johnson” — single-dose vaccines — “for the last two weeks,” Johnson said.
Those could be delivered through mobile vaccination centers to agricultural workers, who move from farm to farm as the growing season progresses, and the homeless population, which can be difficult to reach.
“Part of our negotiations with the state was the recognition those mobile platforms were necessary to reach people throughout the county,” Fresco said. “It’s really reflective of the circumstances we find ourselves in in Yakima County. We are moving into serious growing season here.”
Five to seven people will coordinate the mobile teams, Johnson said. Mobile unit locations and hours will be available soon and updated on the health district’s website, YakimaHealthDistrict.org.
“We understand that our community has some big barriers that prevent some people from coming to get the vaccine. ... or getting online, or even get to an appointment,” Johnson said.
Yakima’s mass vaccination center is primarily set up as a drive-thru site for those who qualify for a vaccine, but individuals also can walk up. Those driving should use Gate 15, and those walking on to the site should use Gate 1. People who need a fare-free ride can call 211.
Hours of operation are 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily, except for Thursday when the hours are noon to 6 p.m. People can register at https://prepmod.doh.wa.gov/ or call 1-800-525-0127.
Health board member Naila Duval asked about the hours of the mass vaccination site. Officials set them to mirror the hours of the community-based COVID-19 testing site, which remains open at State Fair Park. They also wanted to make sure weekends were covered, with at least one evening option.
“These hours are flexible” and may be adjusted to see what will meet the needs of the community, Johnson said.
As Fresco and others noted, the mass vaccination center is a lot of work on the part of many people. It’s also expensive, but it will be fully funded by the federal government.
In his report to the board, senior health district finance manager Chase Porter said the district will see some fluctuations in its cash flow for funding the vaccination site.
“We will most definitely need a budget amendment by the year end, especially with the vaccine site. Most of the expenses will flow through us. The bills will come to us. We will pay those bills, then invoice (the state Department of Health),” he said.
“That’s going to be a very expensive venture that’s going to quote bust the budget,” Porter added.
Usually, those receiving federal money must put up 25%, but during the pandemic, federal funding has been 100%, Fresco said, “and that’s really amazing.” The other positive aspect is the fact that the health district can bill the state for federally funded expenses and thus get reimbursed more quickly. Getting reimbursed by the federal government can take anywhere from a few weeks to months.
With the west side of the state seeing an uptick in COVID-19 cases in the last few weeks, “It’s great to have this vaccine site coming to our county,” said County Health Officer Dr. Larry Jecha. “I think that’s going to be a big help.”
Yakima County is stable right now, he added, but residents can’t let their guard down. Officials have seen some increase in variant strains in Yakima County, Jecha said. The county has had the UK and South Africa variants, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention added two California strains as variants of concern this month.
“We found out that we have quite a few of the variants of California in Yakima,” which is not surprising, Jecha said. He expects they will be predominant over the next few months.
“Vaccines will work on these. We’ll keep our fingers crossed and get people vaccinated before variants start being more of a concern,” he said.