How, where, when: The COVID-19 vaccine in Washington state

Next phase of vaccine distribution begins in Washington state, with everyone 65 or older.

Boxes containing the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine are prepared to be shipped at the McKesson distribution center in Olive Branch, Mississippi, Dec. 20, 2020. (Paul Sancya/AP)

The most popular question this holiday season will not be: What did you get for Christmas? Instead, people will be asking: When can I get the coronavirus vaccine? And what should I know before they stick that needle into my arm? 

Because communication about vaccines has been confusing, at best, and vaccine protocols seem to change daily, we’ll do our best to answer the questions our readers have asked here. But the answer to most can be summed up in this way: Nobody knows for certain.

We can’t provide detailed answers that apply to your particular situation, but if your question isn’t answered here and you think others probably have the same concerns, please fill out the form at the end of this story.

The best person to ask for information would be your own doctor. But be warned, I asked my doctor the other day when I would be in line to get a vaccine and her answer: Nobody knows for certain, but it’s going to be a while.

Who is getting the vaccine first in Washington?

The first people getting the vaccine in Washington state are doctors, nurses and other medical workers in high-risk health care settings, which means they could be exposed to the virus at work. At the same time, the vaccine is being distributed to residents and staff of long-term care facilities, which includes mostly elderly residents of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. The Washington Department of Health estimates these first groups include between 300,000 and 500,000 people.

Officials estimate that by the end of December the state could receive up to 400,000 doses of the two vaccines that have been approved, and the number of shots required are estimates at this point. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses weeks apart, so the December stockpile likely will not be enough to fully vaccinate everyone in the first group.

Who comes next?

Updated Jan. 19 at 2:30 p.m.

State health officials began the next stage of vaccinations on Jan. 18. While the previous plan for this group was to offer the vaccine to everyone 70 and older, the plan has changed to people who are 65 and older. The order of precedence will be as follows, in these groups:

Phase 1B, Tier 1

• All people 65 years and older.

• People 50 years and older who live in multi-generational households.

Phase IB, Tier 2

• High risk critical workers 50 years and older who work in certain industries including agriculture, food processing, grocery stores, teachers and school staff, childcare, corrections, prisons, jails and other detention facilities, public transit, fire departments and law enforcement.

Phase IB, Tier 3

• People age 16 and older with two or more co-morbidities or underlying conditions.

Phase IB, TIer 4

• High-risk critical workers in certain congregate settings, who are younger than 50.

• People, staff and volunteers of all ages in congregate living settings, such as group homes for people with disabilities and homeless shelters.

For more information on the phases see this phase chart on the Department of Health website.

How will we know when it's our turn?

Updated Jan. 19 at 2:30 p.m.

Many people are quite anxious, understandably so, to learn when it will be their turn to get the vaccine and how they can get in line. Washington Department of Health officials say they will announce when the state is ready to move into future phases on their vaccine website. They are updating eligibility information every Wednesday at this site.

The state has launched a tool that will help people figure out what phase they are in. That same tool will be used to notify people when their phase is open and when and where they can sign up to get vaccinated.

Is this the same order the CDC is recommending?

Not exactly but this is in flux as well. State health officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are clearly sharing the same research. The differences probably won’t be big enough to encourage anyone to move to another state in order to get a vaccine earlier.

In mid-December, a CDC advisory board clarified that it thinks the next groups that should get the vaccine after medical workers and nursing homes are people age 75 and older and frontline essential workers such as emergency responders, teachers and grocery workers. These are both very big groups, but not as broad as the list in Washington’s planning document, which was written months earlier.

The CDC says it’s reasoning for this new guidance focuses on who would be at highest risk from the virus. That’s why the panel gave priority to older adults over a wider group of workers or people in congregant settings such as prisoners.

How states distribute the vaccines is still up to state officials to determine, but as we get closer to the mass vaccination stage, it should be clearer how to get in line, no matter where you live.

But I’ve heard …

A lot of rumors are floating around about vaccine distribution — from being able to pay for a place in line to hospitals vaccinating everyone who shows up — and some of them are even true. But mostly, it seems, anything that differs from the information above is an error that can be blamed on the newness of this process.

For example, because of a mistake in communication over how some vaccine doses were being stored at Swedish Medical Center, some of the first people vaccinated were not the doctors and nurses caring for COVID-19 patients, according to this report on KNKX.

Want to check out a rumor before sharing it on social media? Try the very informative CDC and Washington Department of Health websites.

So when will the rest of us get the vaccine?

Nobody knows. Anyone who tells you otherwise is making stuff up. There are too many variables, including the following: how many different vaccines will be approved, how fast doses will be distributed to the states, how many people fit in each category, how many agree to get a vaccine when it’s their turn and how the plan will change as health officials continue to track the virus and the vaccine?

What if my spouse is 75 and I'm 74 or what if...?

Added Dec. 29 at 4 p.m.

A lot of readers have been writing to Crosscut asking about specific situations and how the vaccination plan will affect them. If you and your spouse share a doctor and one of you is 75 and the other is 74, can you get the vaccine at the same time? I do not know the answer to this or any other specific question. I wish I did because so many people are stressed out and anxious. The best advice I have read (repeatedly) is to keep doing what you're doing to keep your potential exposure as limited as possible: stay home, wear a mask when spending time indoors with others outside of your household, keep exposure to others to a minimum.

Does it matter which vaccine you get?

So far, it doesn’t seem to matter, plus you won’t likely have a choice. When your number comes up, you will be given a yes-or-no question: Sign up to get the vaccine at this location or not. The first two vaccines were developed using similar approaches; others in the pipeline take different tacks. To learn more about vaccine development and technology, read this summary on the CDC website.

Who shouldn’t or can’t get the vaccine?

The first two vaccines are not yet approved for children, because they have not been tested on kids younger than 16 and dosages have to be calibrated for their bodies. Tests on vaccines for children are set to begin soon.

The CDC and other reputable health and medical organizations offer whole pages exploring many of the other questions people have on vaccine safety. For example: Should pregnant women get the vaccine? What if someone has a compromised immune system, perhaps because of cancer treatment?

How can I get in line for the vaccine?

Updated Dec. 29 at 4 p.m.

This part of the process isn’t clear yet. People who belong to the first vaccine groups — doctors, nurses and other medical professionals — are being notified by their employers about how to sign up for the vaccine. Some pharmacy chains have been employed to visit nursing homes and assisted living centers to vaccinate workers and residents who sign up at their location.

People who are 75 and older will eventually be able to call their doctor or their local pharmacy to get in line or they will be notified by the Department of Health. By the time we get to this stage in 2021, I expect we’ll have a lot more information.

If you expect to get a vaccine because of your job, your employer will likely follow the path of local hospitals and set up an internal way to sign up for a vaccine. In some cases, someone from a local pharmacy will come to your workplace, as they do for flu shots.

Why do the experts say we need to get a vaccine?

The CDC believes the only way coronavirus will stop spreading and killing people is when enough people become immune to the virus. The safest way to build immunity is through vaccination. People have talked on social media about herd immunity since the virus arrived in this country. Spreading naturally is one way to achieve herd immunity, but before the United States would achieve herd immunity, a lot more people would likely die.

One estimate, in the journal Nature, says as many as 2 million people would die in the United States before the population would effectively be immune to COVID. That’s six times as many as have already died from the virus. Epidemiologists agree that vaccine induced immunity is a much safer route.

How long will your immunity last after you’ve been vaccinated?

The CDC says we won’t know the answer to this question until a lot more people get the vaccine, and then we will wait and see what happens. These kinds of answers make people wonder if the vaccines were thoroughly tested in such a short development stage. But even vaccines developed over years and then used for decades afterward may have questions about how long they last. For example, some people born in the 1960s or earlier did not receive two doses of the measles vaccine and are now advised to get another dose as an adult, especially if they plan to travel somewhere measles is more common.

Will my life go back to normal after the vaccine?

Updated Dec. 29 at 4 p.m.

The science behind vaccines — especially these vaccines — and immunity is very complex. So far, health officials advise everyone to keep following physical distancing guidelines and continue to wear a mask, even after they have received both doses of the vaccine.

Vaccine developers feel confident people who get the vaccine have a 95% chance of not experiencing the severe effects of coronavirus if they are exposed, after their bodies have build up an immunity. That generally happens about two weeks after the second shot. But they are not as certain someone who gets the vaccine won’t be able to get the virus and spread it to others.

This is true because of the nature of these particular vaccines. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines inhibit the translation of the virus (SARS-CoV-2) into the diseases (COVID-19), so people are less likely to get very sick. The vaccine will boost your ability to fight the virus but it will not kill it. So you could still spread it to others, who have not received the vaccine and who could still get very sick.

Until coronavirus cases go down significantly, we will likely be advised to continue to stay home and stay away from other people outside of our households. 

About the Authors & Contributors