By Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times
Island County commissioners are sending the governor and the state Department of Health a letter complaining about the placement of disabled people living in group homes in the vaccination distribution phases.
In addition, one of the commissioners criticized officials at the state and a neighboring county for holding up Island County’s vaccination schedule.
Last week, the Board of Commissioners heard a wide-ranging update about COVID-19 impacts and vaccination plans from Don Mason, the COVID response manager.
During a discussion about vaccinations, Commissioner Jill Johnson said it was “discrimination” that people with disabilities who live in group homes were in Tier 4 of the Phase 1B vaccination priority plan set by the state. She pointed out that all people over 70 years old and people over 50 living in multigenerational households were in Tier 1.
Gov. Jay Inslee announced that the age range in Tier 1 is being lowered to 65 years and older in compliance with recent changes in federal guidelines. He also announced that the state had finally entered into Phase 1B.
But he didn’t change the schedule for disabled people.
“You could be 22 and have Down syndrome and have to wait because somehow our system has deemed your life less valuable,” she said.
The other commissioners agreed. Commissioner Janet St. Clair made a motion to direct the board chairperson, Johnson, to write a letter asking that the group be moved up to Tier 2.
“This is a group that not only lives in congregate care and has challenges,” she said, “they also often have co-morbid health conditions.”
The motion passed unanimously.
Johnson was also upset that the state had directed Island County to send some of its vaccine to Skagit County instead of moving forward with vaccinating the Phase 1B population of older people.
She said that Skagit County officials wrote a letter to the state complaining that Island County had more vaccine than they did.
Johnson said Island County planned ahead and was able to get the initial phase of people vaccinated and it wasn’t fair to be held up because leaders in another county failed to get vaccinations done in a timely manner.
“It’s an across-the-board leadership failure at a level higher than us,” Johnson said. She has been consistently critical in the past of the governor’s handling of the COVID-19 response and, earlier in the pandemic, she said she wouldn’t wear a mask at the office as a protest of faulty science. She quickly changed her mind after the pandemic worsened.
About 3,000 people in Phase 1B signed up to get vaccinations at Island Drug, but the appointments had to be postponed earlier this month because the state directed Island County to share vaccine with Skagit County instead of moving into the next sub-phase.
Stressing that it was the state’s decision to send vaccines to another county, Mason explained that state officials had encouraged everyone to think about health care and vaccinations as a regional issue.
The other two commissioners also pointed out that people move back and forth between counties and having people vaccinated in one county impacts other counties as well.
In announcing that the state was moving to Phase 1B for vaccinations, Inslee said in the future there will be more flexibility in vaccinating people in subsequent tiers, so Island County is less likely to face such a roadblock in the future.
It may be awhile before the state moves into Phase 2 of the vaccination plan.
Mason said there could be up to 2 million people who will qualify under the four tiers of Phase 1B.
Mason also told the commissioners that the county likely wouldn’t be able to start doing its own COVID-19 contact tracing and case investigations again until the end of February.
The state took over after the county lost most of its public health nurses, who are required for the more complex case investigations.
The county has a team of contact tracers ready to work, Mason said, but the new nurse candidates are still in the process of being interviewed and then they will have to be trained.
Mason said the state’s workflow requires that state employees do both the contact tracing and case investigations, so the county can’t take over contact tracing without also doing the investigation part.
This story originally appeared in the Whidbey-News-Times, a sister publication to The Herald.