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Yakima vaccine effort gets a big boost Wednesday; officials urge people to get vaccinated
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A massive effort will increase the number of COVID-19 vaccine doses and operating days at the drive-thru vaccination site at State Fair Park in Yakima.

Starting Wednesday, the capacity of the recently opened site will increase from 200 to 1,200 vaccines each day and operation will expand from five to seven days a week.

The effort will also involve locally staffed mobile vaccination clinics that may be on Yakima County roads as soon as next week.

“We’re building our teams out and hope to start being able to have mobile sites live by the end of next week,” said Nathan Johnson, local emergency response coordinator for the Yakima Health District and incident commander for the countywide COVID-19 response.

“We’re going to find every opportunity to maximize these mobile teams and get them out as quickly as we can,” he added.

Johnson and other local, state and federal health and emergency response officials spoke Friday morning at a media briefing about their efforts to establish the community vaccination center, the first of its kind in the Pacific Northwest.

Though a schedule for the mobile clinics hasn’t been set, they will head to Selah, Naches, Toppenish, Grandview, Zillah and other communities, along with farms where owners have given permission for workers to be vaccinated, Johnson said.

“It will be up to that employer. We will not come on site and just set up shop. It’s really in partnership with all employers. We’ll be looking at the (agriculture) community basically, but also our homebound community,” along with focusing on other populations “to ensure that everyone has the equal opportunity to get vaccinated,” he said.

Reaching more people

Outreach is also important.

“We plan to use our community health worker program, our promotoras program, in working with our Latinx community and advocacy groups, our agricultural advocacy groups, to get good outreach to the community on just basic information about the vaccine, the safety of it, and how you get an appointment,” Johnson said.

Equitable distribution of vaccines was a key theme of officials’ comments Friday morning. Officials looked at social vulnerability in choosing Yakima for the locally led, state coordinated and federally supported community vaccination center. The effort is designed to expand equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines. At the request of FEMA, approximately 100 military medical and support personnel are coming to Yakima to help with it.

Andy Slavitt, acting administrator of the Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services, mentioned the Yakima community vaccination center Monday at a White House COVID-19 Response Team briefing. It’s the 22nd federally supported vaccination site.

“All of the sites are in areas defined by the CDC as having a high social vulnerability rating. In fact, against the backdrop of inequity in vaccine distribution generally, and the severe toll taken by the virus on people of color, in federal vaccination centers, over 60% of the shots have gone to people of color,” Slavitt said.

During a state Department of Health news conference Thursday, officials said they are looking at some different strategies for critical workers, especially agricultural workers in Eastern Washington. Those employees can’t just show up at a clinic during the day if they are working. And some might not register online for an appointment, but will walk up to get a shot. State officials said they were making adjustments for that.

Acting Assistant Secretary of Health Michele Roberts also mentioned that next week is the first time Washington is getting a substantial amount of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine — 42,000 doses divided evenly among the counties. Many counties are planning to use those vaccines for hard-to-reach populations such as the homeless and some critical worker groups.

Robert Ezelle, director of the Washington Emergency Management Division, said the state has made it a priority to ensure equity as it administers the COVID-19 vaccine “and this program helps us to do that.”

He also stressed the importance of getting vaccinated, another key message at Friday’s media briefing.

“Please get vaccinated. Tell your friends. Tell your neighbors. Spread the word at your church and business. It’s safe and this is a safe place to get it,” Ezelle said.

Yakima School District high schools to have outdoor, in-person graduation ceremonies
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The Yakima School District is planning outdoor, in-person graduation ceremonies at Eisenhower High School’s Zaepfel Stadium for its high schools.

Eisenhower and Davis will have ceremonies at Zaepfel with COVID-19 safety precautions. Details for Stanton Academy are still being made, said district communications director Kirsten Fitterer.

Superintendent Trevor Greene said he was glad to be able to offer a ceremony to students.

“We’re excited to be able to recognize our graduating class, especially knowing that last year when we shut down, it was hard for our community, our parents and our students to not be able to recognize the class of 2020 the way that they deserved,” he said.

Last year, the more than 900 graduates from the three schools celebrated commencement with a prerecorded virtual ceremony specific to their school. School-specific celebrations and a district-wide procession of cars through town on graduation day were called off because of coronavirus stay-at-home orders. Yakima County was in Phase 1 of the state’s four-part reopening plan. Around that same time, the county had the highest rate of COVID cases per capita on the West Coast.

This year, the state is allowing for in-person celebrations following a set of safety guidelines, dependent on which phase of reopening a county is in. While counties statewide have progressed to Phase 3 of reopening, the state warned that districts should be prepared to move backward if cases in their respective community rise.

During a Thursday morning virtual news conference, state Deputy Secretary of Health Lacy Fehrenbach offered guidance for districts hosting in-person celebrations. Among them, she said venues would be required to have plans for staggered entry and exit of graduates and guests to prevent bottle-necking. The state recommends that people not shake hands with graduates and encourages no social gatherings or parties before and after the events.

Yakima prosecutor, police chief say juvenile reform bill will expose more kids to gang activity

If a Tacoma senator’s bill passes, children under 13 in Washington will be officially deemed incapable of committing almost any crime.

Senate Bill 5122 would raise the age under which children can be prosecuted in the juvenile justice system, a move Sen. Jeannie Darneille said reflects the latest finding that human brains are not fully developed until the early- to mid-20s.

“When children exhibit problematic behavior, the correct intervention is found outside the involvement of the criminal legal system,” said Darneille, a Democrat. “Establishing a court record that follows them throughout their lives would be counterproductive to a goal to move children away from criminal behavior.”

But two of Yakima County’s top law enforcement officials say the bill could put youth at risk of becoming gang foot soldiers at ever-younger ages — a trend they say is already well under way.

“What we’re seeing in Yakima is pushing down the youthfulness of the offenders because the punishment is not as severe,” Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney Joe Brusic said.

Yakima police Chief Matt Murray said the juvenile justice system, while not perfect, is a way to identify kids getting sucked into gang life and provide an opportunity to reform them.

Under current law, juvenile courts have jurisdiction over children from 8 to 17. Children who are between 8 and 12 can only be tried, however, if prosecutors can demonstrate that they child was mature enough to understand the nature of the crime, knew that what they did was wrong or tried to cover it up.

But neurological researchers argue that children’s and adolescent’s brains are not fully formed, with the parts of the brain that provide impulse control among the last features to develop.

Recent court decisions have reflected this research, with prohibitions on sentencing juveniles to life without parole.

In its original form, SB5122 would have extended juvenile court jurisdiction to age 19, a move Lael Chester, with Columbia University’s Justice Lab, said was “right-sizing” the juvenile court system, shifting its emphasis to adolescents and young adults who would benefit most from rehabilitation.

But the bill was amended to have a task force review extending the court’s jurisdiction to young adults instead.

Chester testified at a January hearing of the Senate Human Services, Reentry and Rehabilitation Committee, along with Murray and Yakima Mayor Patricia Byers.

The bill passed in the Senate on a 27-21 vote, with Sens. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, Curtis King, R-Yakima, Judith Warnick, R-Moses Lake, and Perry Dozier, R-Waitsburg, voting against it. It is now in the House Appropriations Committee.

While the bill raises the age for juvenile jurisdiction to 13, it would allow prosecutors to try a 12-year-old for either first- or second-degree murder if it’s proven the child understood the ramifications of their actions.

But Brusic said that would still leave space where some 12-year-olds and under could commit serious crime, such as assaults, and not risk prosecution.

“I’ve seen it personally and professionally, and they can do some very bad things,” said Brusic, who had worked as a juvenile prosecutor early in his law career. “It will push individuals of those years into committing more crimes because they cannot be punished.

Brusic and Murray said it will also lead street gangs to recruit younger members, knowing that the courts will either go easier on them or not prosecute them because of their age.

Murray and Yakima police Capt. Jay Seely said that is already happening.

“We know from intelligence and interviews that gang members watch for runaway posters of young girls,” Murray told the Senate committee. “But young boys are also trafficked. They’re used to commit violent acts to further the interests of their street gang, which furthers the interest of the prison gang, which often furthers the interest of international organizations like Mexican cartels.”

Seely said some kids start hanging around gangs at ages 10 through 12. Charlie Taylor, a 14-year-old Norteño gang member who was shot and killed in September 2020, had joined the gang when he was 12, Seely said.

And the juvenile justice system, Murray said, is one of the best ways to get them out of gangs and into drug treatment, education and other rehabilitative services.

“Children who are being exploited don’t show up at the police station or Child Protective Services to ask for help,” Murray said.

That intervention, he said, can start with picking up a juvenile on a runaway warrant.

Byers, who has worked as a mental health professional, understands the brain science behind the bill’s objectives, but she agrees with Murray that the juvenile court system is a tool to rescue kids from gang life and get them help.

“Yakima has been and is working hard to combat its reputation as a center for violent crime,” Byers said. “To do that, we need all of the tools that are available, including our juvenile justice system.”

But Darneille said treating children like criminals is not the way to save them, and that it would only cause more trauma in someone who’s brain has not fully developed its decision-making and impulse-control skills.

“If law enforcement believes criminal gangs are using children to commit crimes, the answer is not to prosecute the child on criminal charges,” Darneille said. “These children are victims of these criminal gangs and should elicit our compassion and effective interventions. The focus should be on those who prey on and harm children by using them as pawns in their criminal activities, not prosecuting the victims of these crimes as adults.”

Unlike the adult court system, which focuses on punishment, Brusic said the juvenile justice system also has a strong rehabilitation component aimed at ensuring youths do not become repeat offenders and wind up in the adult system.

Increasing the age at which a juvenile can enter the juvenile justice system won’t do that, Brusic said.

“We want juveniles to learn quickly that they can’t do that, that they have to have punishment and rehabilitation,” Brusic said.

Darneille believes a better approach is to get children that help through programs that do not involve the justice system and can address behavioral problems and poverty, among other issues.

Rocket debris lights up skies over the Pacific Northwest

SEATTLE — Burning debris from a rocket lit up Pacific Northwest skies Thursday night, the National Weather Service in Seattle said.

“The widely reported bright objects in the sky were debris from a Falcon 9 rocket 2nd stage that did not successfully have a deorbit burn,” the service said in a tweet about the astral occurrence that The Seattle Times reported was seen shortly after 9 p.m.

There were no reports of damage or other impacts on the ground.

The rocket delivered Starlink satellites, built in Redmond, Wash., into orbit earlier this week, The Seattle Times reported.

SpaceX said Wednesday that the Falcon 9’s first stage returned to Earth and landed as planned on its ocean-going barge off the coast of Florida.