Seattle Officials Rebuke Preferential Treatment In COVID Vaccine Rollout

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  • Seattle’s City Council passed legislation Tuesday rebuking reports of preferential access being given to top donors in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, the Seattle Times reported.
  • An executive at the Overlake Medical Center & Clinics emailed more than 100 donors an access code to schedule a vaccination appointment “by invite” only while the public appointment system remains fully booked, a Seattle Times investigation found.
  • State legislators have proposed a $10,000 civil penalty for healthcare providers and hospitals offering preferential access to the vaccine.

Seattle’s City Council passed legislation Tuesday rebuking earlier reports of preferential treatment in the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, The Seattle Times reported.

A Jan. 26 Seattle Times investigation revealed an executive at Overlake Medical Center & Clinics had emailed more than 100 donors who had given $10,000 to Eastside hospitals, notifying them that limited coronavirus vaccine slots were available, the Times reported.

“We’re pleased to share that we have 500 new open appointments in the Overlake COVID-19 vaccine clinic, beginning this afternoon and tomorrow (Saturday, Jan. 23) and next week,” Molly Stearns, a chief development officer at the Overlake Medical Center & Clinics said in the email, the Times reported.

Donors were reportedly given an access code to schedule a vaccination appointment “by invite” only, while Overlake’s public registration site has been fully booked since March, creating an appearance of favoritism for high-profile donors over the public-at-large, the Times reported.  Stearns has since admitted the email was a mistake, resulting in the shutdown of Overlake’s exclusive “by invite” clinic.

In response to the scandal, Overlake has said vaccine slots were not solely offered to donors but also board members, employees, a handful of patients, volunteers and retired health providers, amounting to more than 4,000 people, the Times reported. (RELATED: Johnson & Johnson CEO Predicts Annual COVID-19 Vaccines Will Be Necessary For Foreseeable Future)

“We’re under pressure to vaccinate people who are eligible and increase capacity,” Tom DeBord, chief operating officer at Overlake told the Times. “In hindsight, we could certainly look back and say this wasn’t the best way to do it.”

Once news of Overlake’s preferential treatment broke, Gov. Jay Inslee reportedly condemned Overlake’s approach. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan also urged the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) to intervene, the Times reported. On top of widespread condemnation, state legislators have reportedly introduced a bill which seeks to impose a $10,000 civil penalty to punish healthcare providers and hospitals that offer preferential vaccine treatment.

“At a time when low-income and communities of color are already being hit hardest by COVID-19, it is appalling that wealthy individuals are able to cheat the system to get a vaccine. We need to lead with our core value of equity and ensure that vaccine providers in King County prioritize the vulnerable rather than the rich,” King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove, a co-sponsor of Tuesday’s motion, said in a statement, the Times reported.

Seattle Councilmember Lisa Herbold of the 1st District tweeted about her concerns for at-risk residents being passed over for donors.

While city council officials continue to push for action on preferential treatment allegations, Inslee’s office has reportedly claimed that preferential treatment has ended in Washington’s health system, citing several conversations with DOH, state and local affiliates.

Washington state’s vaccine rollout has been marred with difficulties, indicating an overburdened healthcare system with limited vaccine availability in desperate need of federal guidance, the Times reported.

Washington offers a limited number of vaccines to people over 65 and individuals over 50 who cannot live independently. A total of 942,166 vaccine doses have been given as of Sunday, with 331,224 doses issued in King County alone, which includes the city of Seattle, according to DOH data.

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