OLYMPIA — All Washingtonians 16 years and older will become eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine on April 15, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Wednesday.
The announcement is a dramatic expansion of vaccine eligibility, and it comes the same day that roughly two million Washingtonians, including manufacturing and food service workers, first become eligible for doses of their own.
Wednesday’s announcement would make an additional 1.2 million Washingtonians eligible for a dose by April 15, opening vaccines to all 6.3 million state residents aged 16 years and older.
Already, more than a dozen other states were planning to expand vaccine eligibility to all adults starting this week. California officials announced recently that starting April 15, they, too, would open up doses to people 16 years and older.
Wednesday’s announcement by Inslee comes after the federal government has signaled to state officials that Washington will continue to see an increased supply of vaccine doses in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, a flattening of COVID-19 cases across Washington — and a recent rise in King County — has health officials worried about a possible fourth wave of infections.
Inslee’s decision to open vaccines to all is a striking turnaround from last week.
Asked in a March 25 news conference about the possibility of expanding vaccine eligibility to all adults, Inslee said there were no discussions to do so.
“As far as opening up the eligibility, we’re not currently thinking about accelerating that earlier than May 1,” Inslee said in the news conference.
“We want to make sure that the people who are most at risk … have the prioritization,” Inslee added. “We still have people with co-morbidities that are at a higher risk of death, a much higher risk of death than, say, younger, healthy people.”
Cassie Sauer, president and CEO of the Washington State Hospital Association, said Wednesday that supply will continue to be an issue but providers will be able to handle the load as supply increases and eligibility opens.
It’s become a little easier in recent days for those eligible to snag a vaccine appointment. It may get a little tougher as the eligibility flood gates open, but, Sauer said, people should remember the big picture.
“Some people, for sure, will have to wait a couple weeks to get an appointment, but they’re going to get one pretty soon,” she said. It wasn’t so long ago, she said, that officials were predicting everyone could get a vaccine by September, or later.
“It’s really a tight rope to think about how do you do the phases and how do you get as much vaccine out as possible,” Sauer said. “I think the governor has been super smart in terms of how he’s done the phasing, to make sure that people most at risk of hospitalization and death are able to get through the line.”
Nathan Schlicher, president of the Washington State Medical Association, said he was hopeful vaccine supply would allow everyone to get a shot by the end of May.
“Not everybody’s going to be able to get a shot tomorrow just because they’re eligible by the new guidelines,” Schlicher said. “Right now, we’ve got a demand that is beyond our supply and it’s been that way for some time, but we’ve been able to fill out our vaccine clinics and make sure we’re able to use every dose of the vaccine.
He recommended that those searching for vaccine appointments check with their health care providers, county health departments and the state’s vaccine locator website.
Many more people became eligible for doses on Wednesday, as the state opened up vaccine appointments to those considered in Phase 1B, Tiers 3 and 4.
That made all Washingtonians 60 and older eligible, as well as people 16 years and older who have two or more underlying health conditions.
Additionally, food service, restaurant, construction and manufacturing workers in group settings became eligible Wednesday. Likewise, the vaccine became available to people working, volunteering or living in congregate housing. That includes the state’s prisons, group homes and settings where people experiencing homelessness receive services or live.
On Tuesday, a legal-aid group announced a lawsuit against the state Department of Corrections, demanding that doses be made immediately available for everyone incarcerated in the state’s prisons.
Washington’s vaccination efforts early on were hampered by a slow rollout and a lack of focus on basic logistics.
As those issues got resolved and as federal vaccine supply increased, Inslee and state officials repeatedly accelerated the timeline, giving eligibility to wider groups of people ahead of the original planned timeline.