Inslee Says Restaurant Workers and Others Eligible for Vaccine by End of March

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Millions more Washingtonians are set to become eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine at the end of the month as Gov. Jay Inslee announced a new tier of state residents who will become eligible for doses March 31.

During a press conference March 18, Inslee announced the upcoming increase in eligibility, which includes workers in a number of industries, including restaurants. The new tier of eligibility was announced faster than initially anticipated by the state. Inslee said the change was due to acceleration of vaccine production authorized by President Joe Biden.

On March 31, those older than 60, critical workers in congregate settings such as restaurants and food service workers, manufacturing and construction, as well as people living in congregate settings and those experiencing homelessness who access services in congregate settings, will all become eligible for the vaccine. Inslee explained the congregate settings included correctional facilities and group homes.

Eligibility will also be granted to individuals over 16 years old with two or more comorbidities come March 31. The state’s definition of comorbidities is based off of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention list, which has cancer, type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart conditions like heart failure, immunodeficiencies, chronic kidney disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, among others.

Inslee’s external affairs executive director Nick Streuli said restaurant workers were included in the upcoming tier of eligibility as restaurants were the number-one non-healthcare setting for outbreaks in the state. The restaurant and food service industry has been pushing hard for their workers to become eligible, though the governor said the decision to include that business sector was based more on other factors such as the outbreak data than industry lobbying.

The addition at the end of the month would make nearly 2 million more Washingtonians eligible for the vaccine, Inslee said. He noted that on March 17 an additional 600,000 Washingtonians became eligible for vaccination as part of the addition of another phase of the state’s plan announced the week prior.

Inslee said that the current timeline for vaccine eligibility was moving faster than what was predicted a month ago. He said the quicker pace was thanks to Biden’s administration, which he said was doing “tremendous work” for “dramatically increasing” vaccine production, including utilization of the federal Defense Production Act to ramp up resources. Inslee noted he had advocated for use of the act since Washington was first in a state of emergency.

Inslee also pointed to state and local public health workers for helping in the vaccine effort, as well as the Vaccine Action Command and Coordination System Center, a public-private partnership between the state and a number of different companies intended to help in distribution and administration of doses.

“I don’t think any other state has undertaken such a scale of public-private partnership in their vaccine response,” Inslee said.

Vaccine Action Command and Coordination System Center Director Dan Laster said the amount of work the center was able to accomplish in two months was “simply incredible,” noting increases in call center capacity and the recent rollout of a vaccine locator tool (vaccinelocator.doh.wa.gov) to help those eligible receive doses.

Laster said he hoped that the vaccination pace would continue, adding the center welcomed feedback on how individuals’ experiences with seeking and receiving a vaccine went. 

“Ultimately, if we’re not serving you, we’re not doing our job,” Laster said.

Inslee also announced the allowance of indoor visitation at long-term care facilities if either the guest or the resident is vaccinated. Though outdoor visitation was still preferred, the governor said the new allowance came from a belief that vaccination also helped to prevent transmission, as well as preventing life-threatening symptoms in the individual vaccinated.

Vaccinated residents at long-term care facilities will no longer have to quarantine following admission or after a high-risk community visit, Inslee added, unless the individual had known exposure to a confirmed COVID-19 case.

While Biden has given a directive that eligibility would be expanded to everyone before May 1 nationwide, some states’ governors have picked sooner targets, such as Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, who announced full eligibility in his state before April. Inslee said he was “not as impressed” with the more ambitious statements from other state leaders, explaining that saying the eligibility was coming was different than being able to administer doses to everyone.

“Governors look great when they just say everybody is eligible for the vaccine,” Inslee remarked. “It’s one thing to be eligible for the vaccine, and it’s another to actually get it.”

Inslee said it was unlikely that full eligibility would be “substantially” available before the May 1 deadline, though he noted if the state’s vaccination rate increased dramatically the state may be able to move up its schedule.

Alongside the vaccine announcements, Inslee also announced extensions on the state’s eviction moratorium through June 30. The governor said hundreds of millions of dollars in rental assistance is on its way through the federal American Rescue Plan Act, noting that the assistance provided from both state and federal funds benefitted both renters and landlords.

The governor also announced the extension of the state’s utility shutoff moratorium through July 31. Inslee mentioned that he also updated his consumer debt garnishment proclamation to protect any federal payments an individual receives in response to the pandemic, not just those labeled as stimulus payments.

“People need these supports right now,” Inslee remarked.

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