‘We’re so desperate’: South Sound county with far more seniors getting far less vaccine

LEWIS COUNTY, Wash. — Lewis County has been known to question and resist COVID-19 safety mandates, but since the vaccines have been rolled out, Lewis county--and it’s higher than average aging population--have been left behind.

Getting older, more vulnerable people access to the vaccine has been the state’s goal, but U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera-Beutler asked the state’s Secretary of Health why statistically, it has not been happening in Lewis County.

“The older population is not receiving an adequate amount of vaccine,” Herrera-Beutler said to Dr. Umair A. Shah in an online meeting this week. “Lewis County is in last place for vaccine distribution, but has the highest population of elderly residents at 21%,” she said.

Shah explained the reasons were multiple and complicated, including that some Lewis County facilities were unable to store the Pfizer vaccine at its mandatory ultracold temperatures.

According to the State Department of Health, Lewis County’s COVID hospitalization rate is more than 300% higher than the state’s average. As of last week, it ranked last in vaccine distribution in the state of Washington, even though the county has a higher than average population of seniors.

“We were so desperate, we drove all the way to Walla-Walla to get the first dose,” said 69-year-old Carolyn Karlstrom, who added that she found no availability in Lewis County.

“I tried to get myself and my husband vaccinated, we’re 69 and 70 years old, and it’s been very difficult in fact,” Karlstrom said. “It’s essentially impossible to get an appointment.”

The Lewis County department of health has been trying to get answers, and so have some Lewis County seniors.

“I’ve been waiting,” said Dave, a hulking silver-bearded senior from Randall, who said the lack of availability was infuriating. “I figured there’s no sense in trying to get it if it’s all going up to King County, Pierce County, Snohomish County, no sense in trying to get it if it’s all going up there!”

Several calls to Lewis County Public Health were not returned Friday. The Washington State Department of Health responded to questions regarding the Lewis County vaccine allotments in writing.

“It has always been a priority to get counties their proportional share of vaccine,” wrote spokesperson Shelby Anderson.

“There are several factors that determine allocation, including data we receive from providers and local health jurisdictions. DOH knew a few counties were experiencing a gap in vaccine allocation largely due to second dose reallocations in recent weeks. In an effort to solve this issue, we reached out to those counties last weekend and offered them the Pfizer vaccine. We followed up with them again Wednesday. This is a complex issue with many moving parts. The good news is, our allocations from the federal government are increasing and our vaccination rates across the state are as well. More than 77% of the 1.8 million doses delivered to Washington have been administered, which helps protect us all by building community immunity.”

Meanwhile, Karlstrom said she’s driving four hours back to Walla Walla to receive the second dose. “I’ll do it gladly,” she said.