Rantz: Seattle sex workers jump line for COVID vaccines? Misunderstanding sparks rumor

Feb 7, 2021, 8:54 AM | Updated: Feb 8, 2021, 7:08 am
Sex workers on Aurora, vaccine...
(KIRO 7)
(KIRO 7)

A sex worker claimed that Public Health — Seattle & King County would allow them to qualify for early access to COVID vaccines under the next phase of vaccinations: 1B, tier 2.

The claim came after a misunderstanding between the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) and Public Health — Seattle & King County. But it is just that: a misunderstanding. But how did it all unfold? There are some implications on the state’s confusing vaccine multi-phased allocation plan.

The rumor exploded online. The sex worker even recommended people falsely list themselves as “first responders” to jump the line. Now, she is falsely claiming “conservative media” is responsible for dashing the plans to vaccinate sex workers.

Rumor: Sex workers jumping the line in priority

Solana Sparks is an area sex worker. She claimed that other sex workers would qualify in the next phase of vaccinations. Sparks said she was given the information by a “King County vaccination coordinator” she was working with.

The rumor was met with excitement online — and many questions.

Some followers asked how they could get these vaccinations. Others wondered how they could prove they qualify. Sparks did her best to answer.

“They can’t verify any of it. That is why workers can sign up now as first responders if we wanted (I did). It is all an honor-based system,” Sparks said in a since-deleted tweet.

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Rumor based in misunderstanding of a very confusing plan

Sparks did, in fact, get the information from a King County staffer and passed it along in good faith.

“In response to a question from a community member, our staff reached out to get clarity from DOH regarding eligibility from sex workers,” a spokesperson for Public Health — Seattle & King County tells the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH. “A contact at DOH responded in good faith with guidance to our staff that sex workers were included in phase 1. Our staff member passed that information on to the community member, who then posted a tweet on it.”

Public Health also may have used a document detailing guidance on COVID-19 vaccine allocation and prioritization, too. It recommends vaccine priority for those considered critical workers who have a significantly high risk of exposure and transmission due to a congregant settings. Sex workers are listed as being at “increased risk” of COVID exposure and transmission.

“Sex workers are at risk when seeing clients, which disproportionately impacts queer and trans Black, Indigenous, and other people of color,” the document says on page 15.

Making things more confusing is Governor Jay Inslee’s exceptionally convoluted multi-phased, multi-tiered vaccine rollout plan. The same document outlines who qualifies for vaccines in Phase 1B, Tier 4. In it, it mentions “high-risk critical workers under 50 years who work in certain congregate settings” similar to the ones listed around sex workers on page 15.

It’s easy to see how one could be confused.

DOH clears up confusion

In a Friday morning email to King County’s Public Health department, sent after inquiries from the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH, Deputy Secretary of COVID Response Lacy Fehrenbach emailed clarified the situation.

“While sex workers are described as increased risk, they are not eligible in 1B2 or 1B4. … We will make sure our whole team here at DOH is clear about this,” she wrote.

A separate email from Fehrenbach, forwarded to Public Health — Seattle & King County, references the document on vaccine allocation and prioritization.

“… everyone who is at increased risk and mentioned in the paragraph from page 15 is NOT eligible in 1B2 and 1B4,” she wrote. “Some of the groups listed in the paragraph [Public Health employee] mentions are actually eligible in 1A (healthcare, LTCF), some are eligible in 1b2 or 1b4, and others are not eligible until a later phase (2,3, or 4).”

LTCF means long-term care facility.

While Public Health — Seattle & King County got updated information, and responded quickly to my inquiries, it did take a few hours to get to public health staff and it caused some confusion.

Sex workers eligible in Phase 2?

I called King County’s COVID call center to see what guidance they were providing, after Sparks was maintaining that her claim was true, even after the county was calling it a misunderstanding.

I was told by the staffer, who checked twice with a supervisor, that sex workers would be prioritized for a vaccine because they are “high-risk critical workers,” and that, while not explicitly listed, qualify under working “in industries essential to the functioning of society.”

But she didn’t mention Phase 1 fast-tracking. Instead, she told me it would happen in Phase 2. Is that accurate? I don’t know. I’m told that Phase 2 decisions haven’t yet been finalized. The DOH didn’t respond to this specific issue by publication.

Clearing up the misunderstanding, but a new lie

As of now, everyone should be on the same page.

Public Health — Seattle & King County informed the call center operators of the accurate information. I was the only person to call and receive the erroneous information, according to a spokesperson.

Sparks received an update. But she decided to spread a lie. She now claims that the county caved to “conservative media” pressure to stop plans to vaccinate sex workers. There was no pressure.

Everyone should get the vaccine and it should be free. But it’s reasonable to acknowledge sex workers are not “first responders” and they shouldn’t jump the line when there is limited supply and vulnerable populations in need.

A significant concern

The state’s vaccine rollout plan is confusing. There are too many phases, too many tiers, too many sub-tiers. It’s not user friendly, and even county officials are struggling to follow along.

This was an issue that impacted a very small group of people (sex workers). I also thought — despite having to pull some teeth to get a couple answers from King County Public Health — the DOH and Public Health handled this quickly. But what if it was a miscommunication impacting more than a small demographic?

The COVID call center didn’t get many questions because we don’t have many sex workers. If the miscommunication impacted seniors, pregnant women, children, or teachers, this could have caused some significant issues.

They did not act in bad-faith. But that doesn’t always matter. I hope the DOH and the Inslee administration take this relatively small issue and consider ways to make their plan (based on CDC phases) easier to understand, both internally and externally. Because it’s pretty easy to see how a confusing plan could cause some big problems if there’s another misunderstanding.

Listen to the Jason Rantz Show weekday afternoons from 3-6 p.m. on KTTH 770 AM (or HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast here. Follow @JasonRantz on Twitter, and Instagram and like me on Facebook.

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Rantz: Seattle sex workers jump line for COVID vaccines? Misunderstanding sparks rumor