San Juan County takes the lead in Washington vaccination rates

Vaccine distribution in San Juan County has been a bit more unique than elsewhere, with health department staff members and National Guard traveling on whale-watching boats and school buses to roll out vaccines. Despite the odds, San Juan County is the most vaccinated county in the state.

“San Juan County got off to a great start on the vaccination effort because we got this tremendous support from the Washington National Guard and the State Department of Health to bring up some mass vaccination teams,” said San Juan County Health Department Director Brendan Cowan.

Currently, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 75.1 percent of the island population is vaccinated. This is 15% higher than in the rest of Washington state.

By the end of this week, there will be 6,000 islanders receiving their booster shot, according to Cowan.

“It is important to remember that the vaccination effort is ongoing and the work has never really let up,” he said. “The shifting rules around vaccine eligibility and need for booster shots mean that vaccine clinics are still going strong.”

While San Juan County is currently in the lead for vaccination rates, the road to reaching that goal was rocky.

Without large pharmacies or health care providers able to offer large vaccination clinics, the islands struggled with pulling ahead at first, which some islanders were concerned about. Despite that, Cowan would like to recognize Friday Harbor Drug, Ray’s Pharmacy and Lopez pharmacy for putting in hard work to vaccinate as many people as they could with their small operations.

Once the National Guard came to help in 2021, they gave 10,000 shots throughout the county, which means two-thirds to three-quarters of vaccinations were given by the Nation Guard.

“It was kind of a hurdle but it ended up being a really great thing,” he said.

Cowan said the whole process still had a fair amount of island flair.

“Ivan Rice, who has a whale-watching business, was taking National Guard soldiers from island to island on his boat, then getting on a school bus that we borrowed from the Orcas School District,” he laughed. “Then when we arrived at the Orcas Center, the director there had organized volunteer musicians to play pleasant music in the vaccine clinics. It was just a cool island thing. It was pretty neat.”

Cowan said that despite the issues with winter storms and ferry schedules making it difficult for the National Guard to get out to the islands, they loved interacting with the community, which he thinks also gave them the motivation to return. The community showed appreciation through giving meals, music and verbal support.

“To see it reflected in those folks who’d seen lots of other operations — they were very delighted with the way that things went here. It made me proud to be an islander,” he said.

With still more vaccines and boosters to roll out, Cowan said is confident that the energy of the community will continue to be successful in battling the pandemic as islanders know how to come together to make things happen.

“We’re not out of this yet,” he said. “But just to have come as far as we have is a testament to lots of things but vaccination rate is certainly one of them and maybe the most important one.”