EVERETT — On Dec. 3, Snohomish Health District staff inspected a dry-ice pod that arrived at the agency’s Rucker Avenue office.
A few trained staff members followed the provided instructions, checked the pod’s temperature monitoring device and opened the package. What was inside the container looked to be an empty pizza box.
Later this week, similar boxes are expected to arrive elsewhere in Snohomish County.
But this time — pending federal approval — they’ll be holding doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, marking a historic milestone in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
The state plans to help distribute more than 62,000 doses across Washington this week. The earliest shipment of about 30,000 doses is expected to go to 17 sites across 13 counties. Snohomish County isn’t one of them.
But the health district still expects doses to reach the county later this week, spokesperson Heather Thomas said.
The Western States Scientific Safety Review Workgroup, a collection of scientists appointed by governors in California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, also approved the vaccine, Gov. Jay Inslee said Sunday.
“This is uplifting news and certainly should give us hope for the future,” he said. “Given this rigorous process, I am confident that Washingtonians can begin receiving the vaccine and have confidence in the safety of it.”
By the end of the month, the state expects to get a total of 220,000 doses from Pfizer, and 180,000 from Moderna.
It’s unclear how many of those will be coming to the county. And public health officials are declining to say which health care providers are getting the vaccine, citing security concerns.
But the first shipment of shots is going to high-risk health care staff, in an effort to protect the health care system from running out of staff as COVID cases surge and hospitalizations rise.
First vaccine doses will be administered as the state’s health care system is at its most stressed in the pandemic, with over 1,000 people hospitalized with COVID, the death toll rising and an “exhausted” health care work force.
Later in the month, doses will go to residents and staff at long-term care homes.
“We really need folks to understand that not everyone’s going to be at the front of the line and this is going to take many, many months to roll out,” county health officer Dr. Chris Spitters said Friday. “So although the next five to 10 days carry a lot of excitement and anticipation around this milestone, we’ve got a long road ahead and it’s going demand concerted effort from us and patience from the community.”
The pizza box exercise was planned by the state Department of Health and federal Centers for Disease Control, which chose the Snohomish Health District to be the state’s test site for the mock vaccine delivery.
“Everything went very smoothly,” Michele Roberts, who leads the Department of Health’s vaccine planning, said during a Wednesday news conference.
Both vaccines require people to receive two shots, separated by three to four weeks.
The doses arriving in December will be the first shots for 400,000 high-risk health care workers and long-term care home residents and staff.
By mid-January, all high-risk health care workers and long-term care residents should have received their first shot, Roberts said.
While that’s good news, the county is still experiencing record-high COVID case rates, and rising hospitalizations and deaths due to the virus.
Countywide, more than 50 long-term care homes are experiencing COVID outbreaks. The largest is at Josephine Caring Community in Stanwood, where more than 170 people have tested positive for the virus since late October, and at least 15 have died.
Local and state officials are asking people to double down on safety measures, wear a mask and avoid unnecessary social gatherings.
“We are far from being out of the woods at this time,” Secretary of Health Dr. John Wiesman said in a news conference Wednesday.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine Sunday. A meeting for the Moderna vaccine is set for Thursday.
The federal Data and Safety Monitoring Board found no serious safety concerns for either Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. The Pfizer vaccine is only for people 16 and older.
The Western States group similarly concluded the vaccine as a safe inoculation, but questions remain about its effects on children, pregnant women or transmission, said Dr. John Dunn with the Western States group.
“While this is a huge step forward, we still need to adhere to the basics we’ve been using for a year now,” he said.
Studies showed “durable immunity” and there isn’t enough data to support any reason to withhold it, said Dr. Ed Marcuse of the workgroup.
Some possible side effects include fatigue, headache and redness at the injection site.
“When you have side effects of a vaccine, it can mimic how it would feel if you were starting to get sick,” state health officer Dr. Kathy Lofy said Wednesday. “Those are all normal side effects for vaccines.”
Additionally, health care providers will tell anyone getting a vaccine about side effects.
To get the Pfizer vaccine, health care providers and long-term care homes must enroll in a program with the state. Then, they place an order to the state Department of Health. That order is then reviewed by the Centers for Disease Control, which passes it on to Pfizer.
If the order is fulfilled, Pfizer ships the dry-ice pod directly to the local provider.
Statewide, nearly 200 hospitals, clinics, pharmacies and others have been approved to receive and administer the vaccine, as it becomes available, Roberts said. Hundreds more are pending.
Because of the limited supply, the vaccine will be distributed in phases, with the most vulnerable populations getting doses first.
After high-risk health care workers and long-term care home residents, the next phase of vaccine distribution will likely include people 65 and older with underlying health conditions, people with multiple underlying health conditions, high-risk first responders and people living in congregate settings like group homes, prisons and homeless shelters.
After that, vaccines could be available to people 65 and over, school teachers and staff, bus drivers, postal workers, elected officials, sanitation and waste management workers and people who work in food supply.
The third batch would make doses available for everyone else.
It will likely take one to three months to vaccinate each phase, Spitters said.
Herald writer Ben Watanabe contributed to this report.