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State reducing vaccine access barriers with Uber, Lyft rides, new hotline

(Scott Olson/Getty Images)

In a first for the Washington State Department of Health after months of supply challenges, the state had more COVID-19 vaccine doses on-hand this week from the federal government than Washington’s vaccine providers have requested.

“This is the first week where we’re seeing ordering less than what our allocation is,” Michele Roberts, assistant secretary of health, said during the department’s weekly COVID-19 briefing on Wednesday. “There’s probably a lot behind that we still need to work on.”

But Roberts said she is not worried that this is the beginning of a vaccine hesitancy-related slowdown like other parts of the country are seeing.

“Our polling data still says our state has one of the highest people who want to be vaccinated or are open to being vaccinated, … close to 55% of the eligible population has started [at least one dose of the] vaccine,” she said. “Now we need to continue to close that gap.”

Getting from 55% to herd immunity — which health experts estimate to be somewhere above 80% of eligible adults being fully vaccinated — will largely be about making the vaccine easier for people to get, Roberts said.

She noted that more and more vaccine providers are staying open later hours and taking walk-ins to accommodate working people who have trouble fitting the vaccine into their schedule. Each of the four state-run mass vaccination sites remain open until 8 p.m. two days per week.

Roberts added that through pop-up clinics and grocery store pharmacies, they’re getting the vaccine to where people already are, instead of making people go out of their way for the vaccine.

Dan Laster, director of the department’s COVID-19 Vaccine Action Command and Coordination System, explained that for too many Washingtonians — especially those in communities of color and with lower incomes — lack of access is still a major hurdle. He said the state is trying to create a “level playing field” for all residents.

“We are now focusing our effort on making it easy for all Washingtonians, regardless of resources, to get vaccinated — including breaking down barriers relating to transportation,” he said.

To that end, starting Monday, you can take an Uber or Lyft to and from your vaccine appointment — and it won’t cost you one penny.

“Individuals who are resource-constrained can call our call center and obtain codes for Lyft rides and also for Uber rides,” Laster explained.

This is thanks to state partnerships with Uber and Lyft, the United Way and Sea Mar Community Health Centers, as well as community health providers.

For those in the greater Seattle area, Sound Transit and Pierce Transit are already giving free train and bus rides to those traveling to and from their vaccinations.

And if you want to call in to get some of those rideshare coupons, make an appointment, or simply learn more about the vaccine, you can now call a new state hotline: 833-VAX-HELP.

State Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah says the helpline is meant to reach those who may not have internet access and therefore may not be able to reach the state’s online vaccine locator.

“If you have to pick up a phone or you just don’t know who to go to, 833-VAX-HELP will get you into our helpline, will allow you to get information on where vaccines are,” he said.

Laster, who is in charge of the kind of public-private partnerships that make these ease-of-access issues possible, said they are also looking at ways private businesses can help incentivize people to get the vaccine. He said more on that will be coming soon.

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