County airport workers got early shot at vaccinations

In January, though they were ineligible, staff booked shots at Paine Field after the airport director’s go-ahead.

EVERETT — Between 40 and 60 Snohomish County airport employees were vaccinated at Paine Field in mid-January, before they were eligible, after the airport director urged them to sign up for the shot, according to interviews with former employees and records obtained by The Daily Herald.

Airport Director Arif Ghouse told staff, many of whom were partly working from home, that they were cleared to register for the vaccine by the county’s Department of Emergency Management. That’s according to emails and text messages provided by the county in response to a records request from The Herald.

On Jan. 11, county Emergency Management Director Jason Biermann forwarded Ghouse an email with a link to an online vaccination reservation system. “Have you(r) staff use this to schedule,” Biermann told Ghouse in the message.

Ghouse then distributed the link among staff members by text message and email, saying they should make an appointment for the vaccination site that opened earlier that month at Paine Field, the records show.

He also sent the vaccine reservation link to the CEO of Propeller Airports, the private company that built and operates the airport’s passenger terminal, as well as Propeller’s terminal director. A few days later, at Ghouse’s request, the CEO agreed to notify two Boeing executives if there were extra shots.

Ghouse said in an interview that emergency management officials advised him to instruct his staff to register because vaccines were at risk of going to waste.

“It was my belief that the system was not working ideally, like it was meant to — it was in its early stages — and that shots were literally at risk of being wasted,” Ghouse said. “We were right there on-site. And we were told, ‘just get your people in and get them vaccinated.’ So that’s the action that we took.”

Biermann recalls providing different direction. He said he told Ghouse to have airport employees ready to sign up in case there were leftover vaccines.

“The direction was just to ensure that there were folks ready who were close by if there was potential we were going to waste vaccine,” Biermann said in an interview, adding that the guidance may have been misinterpreted.

The apparent miscommunication resulted in 40 to 60 airport employees receiving the shot at a time when doses were reserved for first responders, health care workers who were considered high-risk and long-term care home residents.

County officials have provided no explanation as to how those doses that went to airport employees could have been at risk of going to waste.

At the time, the majority of the public, including most seniors and other people vulnerable to the virus, generally couldn’t get the shots.

And when eligibility opened up to those groups, the odds of quickly securing a dose were slim.

Contingency plans

County officials say they were making their best effort to ensure that those who were eligible were getting vaccinated. The work was unprecedented and there was a learning curve, Biermann said.

Emergency management officials were also navigating a flood of guidance and rules issued by the state Department of Health. Those policies required that the vaccines be given to someone who was eligible unless there was a risk of wastage. And doses couldn’t be moved from one location to another, such as an assisted living home.

The Paine Field vaccination site was the first in the state to be organized by a county, less than 10 months after the coronavirus landed in Washington.

It was operated by the county’s vaccine task force, a partnership of the Snohomish Health District, the Department of Emergency Management, first responders and others.

The Seattle Visiting Nurse Association provided the online system to sign up for doses, as well as the nurses who administered shots at the site.

With most of the vaccine task force’s clinics, an emergency management or health district employee on-site would be notified whenever there were extra doses at risk of going to waste.

Vaccine waste can occur if a vial, which contains five to 10 doses, is opened but not used completely. This typically happens at the end of a day, often because people failed to show up for their appointments. Administrators usually have an hour or two to inject the leftovers.

The extra shots first go to any staff or volunteers at a clinic who haven’t yet received a dose.

In case leftover doses outnumbered available staff on site, the task force developed end-of-day-dose lists for its mass vaccination sites around the county. The lists included Edmonds College staff, county parks employees and workers at food processing and manufacturing companies near one of the sites, Arlington Municipal Airport — all of whom were otherwise eligible for shots, based on their age and other factors.

But end-of-day scenarios have been rare, county officials have said.

‘Go ahead and register’

At least 40 airport staff members got the vaccine early after Ghouse distributed the reservation link, former airport employees told The Herald in February. That number doesn’t include any of Paine Field’s firefighters or law enforcement officers, who would have been eligible for the shot.

Most of the early recipients made their appointments a day or two in advance of receiving their shots, according to the former employees.

The registration link was circulated among airport employees by text and email on Jan. 11 and Jan. 12, records show.

The Herald first tried to substantiate the report of the early vaccines during an interview with county officials in February.

The county cannot ask employees to disclose personal vaccine information because of health care privacy laws, said spokesman Kent Patton.

A Feb. 18 request for airport employee communications, partly fulfilled on May 20, supported the former employees’ claims.

“Jason at DEM wants airport workers to go ahead and register to get vaccine jab,” Ghouse told county Economic Development Director Kendee Yamaguchi in a Jan. 11 text message. “I’m starting with frontline staff. Also notifying Propeller.”

In response to Ghouse’s instruction, a deputy airport director questioned whether airport employees were considered part of the eligible “1A group.”

“Let’s talk in the morning,” Ghouse texted the director. “You are authorized to book appointment per DEM.”

Ghouse told The Herald he assumed that Biermann’s guidance applied to both county employees and Propeller employees.

“That’s not as detailed as I wish it had been, in retrospect,” Biermann said, recalling what he told the airport director.

‘Good candidates for the jab’

After initially encouraging employees to sign up, Ghouse got calls from Propeller on days when there were leftover vaccines, he told The Herald.

At 4:12 p.m. on Jan. 13, Ghouse invited the county economic development director to get one extra dose.

“If (you) happen to be close to airport, you can get vaccine shot now — about to throw away 7 leftover vials,” he texted Yamaguchi.

He also emailed Propeller CEO Brett Smith that evening with contact information for the Boeing executives, saying both of the men and their respective spouses lived just 20 minutes from the airport, making them “good candidates to take the jab” if there were again leftover doses at risk of going to waste on future days.

Smith said in an email reply that he “put them down on the list.”

During the vaccine site’s first week or so in the terminal parking lot, leftover vaccines were often available at the end of the day, Smith said in an interview. One day, there were as many as 19, he recalled.

So he spread the word to Propeller employees and others who could come on short notice to get the leftovers, he said.

“To be clear, my only goal was to make sure nothing was thrown away,” Smith said. “I care about this community. I want people vaccinated.”

Smith volunteered the parking lot as a potential vaccination site when he heard that the county was looking to find a suitable location, he said. Propeller also spent about $10,000 to prepare the site and station a trailer where volunteers could break.

Following the Paine Field clinic, the task force took a more hands-on approach with how on-site county staff managed end-of-day doses at future locations, health district spokesperson Kari Bray said.

‘Economic engine’

In addition to security and firefighting positions, the airport has about 65 staff members who work in areas such as operations, finance, administration and maintenance, Ghouse said.

Since the pandemic began, the “vast majority” of them have been able to work remotely, at least in part, he said.

Per the state’s vaccines phase, most employees would likely not have become eligible for shots until months after they received them in January.

Even so, Ghouse argues, they all play essential roles in running the airport, which fuels economic growth. He considers his staff “emergency responders” because they have to be ready to handle aircraft emergencies and provide government assistance during other disasters.

“Everyone is hired because they have essential functions,” he said. “Now, whether they’re at home or at the airport, it doesn’t matter to me. If they get sick, it’s going to hit the economic engine immediately.”

So after receiving direction from the county’s department of emergency management, he felt alerting his staff was the rational choice.

“We were doing what we felt was in the best interest of the airport,” Ghouse said. “It wasn’t about how to protect ourselves.”

Vaccine misinformation

In mid-January, about 14,000 people in the county had received one dose of a COVID vaccine. Today, more than 780,000 doses have been administered here.

The early months of the vaccine rollout saw multiple instances of false information about alleged end-of-day doses stoking the frenzy of people eager to get vaccinated.

The county received reports early this year that some first responders were sending links to friends and family, urging them to sign up for doses at the Evergreen State Fairgrounds site in Monroe, regardless of their eligibility.

“We’ve worked to correct this issue and to tighten the verification process at that site, and if people show up who are ineligible or do not have an appointment, they should be aware that they can be turned away,” Bray, the health district spokeswoman, wrote in an email to county officials on Jan. 14.

And in March, the same thing happened in Arlington, when private second-dose links were spread on social media under the guise that appointments were for end-of-day doses at risk of going to waste.

Staff at the site turned away hundreds of people who showed up for doses, despite not being eligible for one — many of whom had no idea they were doing anything wrong.

But now, the vaccine frenzy is over.

More than 60% of county adults have received at least one shot. And the task force is winding down its mass sites, which combined to administer more than 300,000 doses.

The state is now using a $1 million cash prize to incentivize people to get vaccinated. Months ago, securing an appointment felt like winning a lottery in and of itself.

Joey Thompson: 425-339-3449; jthompson@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @byjoeythompson.

Rachel Riley: 425-339-3465; rriley@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @rachel_m_riley.

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