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Yakima Valley Memorial is pictured on Saturday, June 20, 2020 in Yakima, Wash.

Local health officials implore people not to line up at Yakima-area hospitals and health clinics for COVID-19 vaccines after Yakima Valley Memorial was met with a line of people outside its emergency room over the weekend.

Memorial opted to give out vaccines on Saturday and Sunday after a crowd materialized based on what local health officials said was misinformation on social media and through email.

“It came as a bit of surprise when we came in on Saturday and people were lining up outside the ER,” said Dr. Marty Brueggemann, chief medical officer at Memorial.

With people waiting outside, the hospital gave about 600 doses Saturday and Sunday, and its last 30 available doses early Monday. Brueggemann said the hospital didn’t advertise and wasn’t set up for a mass vaccine distribution, but did bring in extra staff to give the doses once they saw people lined up.

“This was a really tough decision for this weekend in terms of whether to vaccinate or turn people away,” he said.

Staff thought about waiting a couple of days, but decided it was better just to get “the vaccinations into people’s arms.” He apologized for creating any confusion.

The hospital has no more vaccines available to the public at the moment. In the future, as doses are available, Memorial will set up a vaccine clinic with a scheduling system. People will not be able to just show up, he said.

Social media

Officials from Memorial and from the Yakima Health District encouraged people to make sure they are getting information about local vaccine distribution directly from the health district’s website or their provider, not from non-official social media channels.

“They need to look at our website, health district website,” said Lori Green, chief nursing officer at Memorial. “We absolutely want to vaccinate everyone. The No. 1 thing is we need vaccine. There have been no limitations on our part whatsoever in not being able to staff this clinic.”

Anyone who is vaccinated needs to come for their second dose and still needs to wear a mask, she added.

Nathan Johnson, local emergency response coordinator for the Yakima Health District, said vaccines won’t just be given by the hospital. The health district is working with a variety of providers and clinics around the county. And just because a facility has doses, doesn’t mean they are available that moment, he said. They might be set aside for people with appointments, he said.

The situation over the weekend “has sparked a lot of confusion, frustration and it’s unfortunate that it happened due to misinformation, but it did happen and Memorial had to make a real-time decision in whether they were going to turn people away or have some back in a couple of days,” Johnson said. “It’s not the normal process. We want to community to know the idea is not line up in front of the hospital or clinics.”

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The social media discussion was prior to the governor’s announcement Monday that the state was moving immediately to Phase B1. The state is now vaccinating everyone 65 and up and those 50 and up in multigeneration households. Early word went to the state’s hospital association to do a “soft start of 1B,” Brueggemann said. But the hospital wasn’t anticipating the reaction on local social media or for people to line up outside, he added.

COVID at the hospital

Memorial has given about 3,000 COVID-19 vaccines, including those this weekend, and is well into its second doses for staff. Brueggemann said those doses are already helping with staffing, with fewer people out for COVID-related reasons.

“We have about half as many people out as we did three weeks ago,” he said. “I think you are seeing a direct benefit of our staff getting further into vaccinations.”

The hospital had 39 COVID patients Monday, down from a patient count in the 60s just a couple of weeks ago. COVID case counts per capita in Yakima County continue to be the highest in the state, though new case numbers eased some last week.

Mass vaccination

Gov. Jay Inslee on Monday announced the state was setting up mass vaccination clinics at the Toyota Town Center in Wenatchee and the Benton County Fairgrounds in Kennewick with support from the National Guard and other partners. There’s no mass vaccination clinic in Yakima at the moment, but planning is underway.

As more vaccine is available, Johnson said people in Yakima County will be able to get it from a variety of places, similar to COVID-19 testing. The health district is looking at altering drive-thru testing sites to accommodate vaccines.

“The biggest thing is we need to get the doses in locally,” he said. “That’s an important thing for the community to know — patience is going to be key.

“As much as we want to push out that vaccine we can only push out what we have.”

Both Inslee and Secretary of Health Umair Shah emphasized Monday they don’t want any vaccine wasted.

“If it’s the end of the day and you’ve got a couple of doses left, we do not want to you waste that vaccine,” Shah said. “We want to get that into the arms of Washingtonians.”