Maria Ysenia Rivera, a 49-year-old in-home child care provider in Mabton in Yakima County, said as soon as she found out that child care workers were eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19, she called at least five local vaccine providers to try to secure an appointment. She was told by each that there were no available appointments. She wasn’t able to get on a wait list, either, she said.

The mother of one of the kids she cares for works in health care, and alerted her to openings at a Sunnyside clinic. Ysenia Rivera, and her 67-year-old mom were both able to get in for a vaccine. Her mother, eligible to be vaccinated since late January because she is over 65, previously had had no luck scheduling an appointment.

If it weren’t for the connection she has to a health care worker, “I would probably be on the waiting list,” Ysenia Rivera said.

It’s a problem that a lot of child care providers face, since child care programs are run as independent businesses. Unlike school staff, who in many cases can turn to district mass-vaccine sites, providers haven’t seen organized vaccination opportunities, said Mary Curry, state representative of in-home providers for the state’s union, SEIU Local 925. State and local officials said there were no upcoming organized vaccine sites for child care providers outside of community sites.

The state Department of Children, Youth and Families, which oversees child care in the state, encourages providers to access vaccines through the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, a partnership between the government and select pharmacies to disseminate vaccines to certain individuals.

Even then, some communities have few local partners to visit. Even as providers’ new eligibility for the COVID-19 vaccine is seen as a turning point for the struggling sector, barriers remain.

Securing an appointment

Last week, Gov. Jay Inslee moved all teachers, preschool-grade 12 school staff and child care providers to the state’s Phase 1B-1 of COVID-19 vaccine prioritization. The change came in response to a call by President Joe Biden for states to deliver at least one vaccine dose to educators by the end of the month.

Statewide, there are roughly 90,000 individuals who make up the child care workforce and now qualify to receive a vaccine, according to Nancy Gutierrez, deputy director of communications for the state Department of Children, Youth and Families, which oversees child care in the state.

Of those, it’s unclear how many are yet to be vaccinated. The state doesn’t have a record.

But of staff at in-home programs, more are over the age of 60 than are not, Curry said. That means a good portion of them are considered high-risk to the virus, she said.

“Were happy to know they bumped us up the list for vaccination,” Curry said.

Now, representatives are fielding calls from providers struggling to find open appointments — something eligible individuals throughout the state have faced since the vaccine rollout due to low or inconsistent vaccine supply.

Guadelupe Magallan, a SEIU Local 925 union representative and mentor for providers in the Tri-Cities, said providers in Pasco were struggling to find appointments in Franklin County. They were instead driving to nearby Benton County, which has a variety of sites offering vaccines. The Department of Health website lists just one site in Franklin County, Tri-Cities Community Health, which as of Tuesday morning said it was offering vaccines and had appointment availability. Appointments can be scheduled at their Pasco location by calling 509-543-1412.

Magallan also said the providers in Kennewick and Richland were mostly getting appointments or wait-list spots at their respective Fred Meyer pharmacies.

“There’s quite a waiting list. If you’re lucky, you can get in. If not, it may be a while to get an appointment to get in,” she said.

Having the time to make calls in search of an appointment or to travel long distances isn’t a luxury many providers have, Curry said. She has limited time in the day to get a vaccine and is yet to find a vaccine appointment.

For many providers, there’s also a language barrier. The initial information sent out to providers was available in English, to be translated into Somali and Spanish later, it said.

English is the second language for 46% of the child care providers Curry’s portion of SEIU Local 925. She hopes to see future messaging available in all the languages that DCYF supports.

A turning point

Still, providers are glad to be on the list of qualified individuals.

Magallan sees getting vaccinated as something that is crucial to her own safety, the safety of the kids and families she cares for, and her broader community.

“It’s my duty to do that,” she said.

In Yakima County, Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic has been the primary source child care providers are turning to for appointments, said Lorena Miranda, a local union representative and in-home provider. It’s already been a long year — a small wait is manageable, she said.

For Ysenia Rivera of Mabton, getting vaccinated is a turning point. Once she gets her second shot and is fully vaccinated, she expects parents to feel safer returning their kids to care. That will help with attendance, and in turn, income. Meanwhile, costs of operation due to increased sanitation and social distancing have gone up. For nearly 12 months, Ysenia Rivera was caring for just four kids instead of her usual 12. Last week, another two returned to care.

The next big change will be seeing agriculture and grocery workers get vaccinated, said Ysenia Rivera. Many of the kids in her care have parents working in agriculture. Once they are vaccinated — which they become eligible to do starting March 22 — she expects more to feel safe returning their kids to care.

“I can’t wait to have more kids and … be more involved and feel that normal life again,” she said.

If this is the turning point Ysenia Rivera expects, it could be a significant step to recovery for the struggling child care sector in Central Washington and beyond. As of March 1, 76 licensed child care programs across Benton, Columbia, Franklin, Grant, Kittitas, Walla Walla and Yakima counties were closed, according to Child Care Aware of Washington, the organization charged by the state with orchestrating care for parents and providers during the pandemic. These closures include in-home, center-based and school-aged programs. Of those, 35 were in Yakima County alone.

While many hope these closures are temporary, research indicates that many will be permanent without intervention.

Of those that remain open, there’s another struggle — the low attendance Ysenia Rivera faces. Across the same seven counties in Central Washington, Child Care Aware recorded 3,215 vacancies as of March 1, significantly impacting providers’ incomes.

Reach Janelle Retka at jretka@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @janelleretka