By Isabel Ashley
As flu season begins and vaccine clinics roll out for children across the county, there is still limited accessibility to COVID-19 vaccines on San Juan Island. Although updated COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna were approved and released in mid-september, there are a few reasons why these vaccines have yet to be made available to a majority of residents on the island. Representatives from SJC Health and Community Services, Peace Health and Friday Harbor Drug elaborated on the reasons for these challenges and provided information on who should get the vaccine and where.
On May 11, 2023, when the public health emergency declaration ended, the COVID-19 response began its shift from a public health effort to a privatized model, leading to the commercialization of the COVID-19 vaccine the following September. Meaning, the vaccine is no longer provided free of charge by the Federal government to vaccine providers. Private vaccine providers such as pharmacies and primary care facilities are now responsible for purchasing the vaccine and seeking reimbursement through insurance companies. The privatization of the COVID-19 vaccine has had a profound effect on the ability to receive and distribute the vaccine for different vaccine providers, especially for out-of-network providers like San Juan County Health and Community Services.
Although the county has held COVID-19 vaccination clinics before, they are unable to bill insurance as an out-of-network provider and therefore would be expected to pay out of pocket for the vaccine, costing roughly $120 per dose. The department’s original plan was to execute mass vaccination clinics in the fall utilizing grant funds. Unfortunately, they learned that they were not permitted to use their funding from the Washington State Department of Health to purchase the vaccine, halting their vaccination clinics indefinitely.
“Right now, COVID is really different than before,” said Dr. Frank James, Health Officer for SJC Health and Community Services. “Throughout the pandemic, we’ve been the safest county in the state. We’ve done really well, and people kind of get used to that. Even though the emergency is over, they still have an expectation for the county to do something.”
After persistent negotiation efforts, the department recently learned that this policy might change, allowing them to purchase around 4,500 doses if the appeal is successful. According to SJC Health and Community Services, “This would be a massive investment by the Health Department and could not be done in future years.”
While the department continues to explore options for providing the COVID-19 vaccine to vulnerable individuals living within San Juan County, they do receive free doses of the vaccine for children six months to 18 years old and uninsured adults through the Vaccines for Children program and the Adult Vaccine Program, respectively.
PeaceHealth Peace Island Medical Center in Friday Harbor is currently not offering the COVID-19 vaccine, according to Jack Estrada, chief administrative officer at PeaceHealth Peace Island. While some other PeaceHealth locations are providing the vaccine to pediatric patients, that need is being met locally through San Juan County.
“As supplies have allowed, we have provided the previous vaccines to both children and adults [in the past],” said Estrada. “The primary driver behind the decision not to offer the latest updated vaccine this fall was its availability at pharmacies in most communities.”
He added that PeaceHealth is continuously monitoring availability and access in all its local communities and may opt for a different approach to the COVID vaccine in the future.
So, who should receive the vaccine? According to Dr. James, immunocompromised individuals and those over the age of 60 should highly consider getting the COVID-19 vaccine, being that they are more vulnerable to hospitalization and adverse effects. They also comprise a large part of this community; over 35 percent of San Juan County residents are over the age of 60, as opposed to the average – 15 percent.
For the most up-to-date information on COVID-19, you can visit https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/index.html or ttps://doh.wa.gov/. Additionally, call SJC Health and Community services at 360-378-4474.