Anesthesiologist Raymond Pla, one of the first D.C. healthcare workers to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Credit: Amanda Michelle Gomez

Locals are fixated on how many D.C. residents are vaccinated. How could they not? The nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, has said the U.S. could return to “some form of normality” once we achieve herd immunity—the point at which the virus stops spreading because so many people are protected that it cannot make it to people who are still susceptible.  

The exact threshold for herd immunity is unknown, but Fauci estimates it ranges from 70 to 80 percent. Herd immunity through vaccination is the path forward, setting aside complications like that scientists don’t know yet how long immunity lasts. New York Times modeling estimates herd immunity through vaccination and infection could happen as early as July. So looking at how many D.C. residents are vaccinated makes sense. It’s the data point that the D.C. health department is looking at. “That’s the number that’s going to match eventually to that 80 percent,” said an optimistic Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt, the DC Health director, during a press conference on Thursday.

As of Feb. 20, 3.1 percent of D.C. residents have been fully vaccinated, according to the D.C. government tracker. That so few D.C. residents have gotten vaccinated is agitating some. Vaccine providers in the District have fully vaccinated 22,073 D.C. residents and 24,838 non-D.C. residents. 

Why is D.C. vaccinating so many non-D.C. residents? D.C., like every other state across the country, started vaccinating its health care workforce, which is 85,000 people. Perhaps unlike most other states, 75 percent of D.C.’s health care workers do not live in D.C. Vaccine providers are continuing to give shots to essential workers who are not D.C. residents like teachers, firefighters, and grocery store workers. (Of the 1,850 members with the DC Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department, a spokesperson says 864 have received at least one shot. Of those, 202 of them are D.C. residents.) In late December, Maryland and Virginia each sent D.C. 8,000 of their own doses because the city had been vaccinating so many of their residents. D.C. has since asked those neighboring states for additional doses, but they “nicely declined,” said Dr. Ankoor Shah, DC Health’s vaccine program lead. The national supply shortage means there are more people who want the vaccine than there are doses. 

Mayor Muriel Bowser acknowledged how frustrating it can be for D.C. residents to see our data when they compare it to other states who are fully vaccinating more of their own residents. She basically said the virus knows no borders, so she is not going to deny D.C.’s essential workers vaccines based on their residency. “We are so interconnected … It’s not enough to have us be there and not have Maryland and Virginia,” said Bowser during the Thursday presser. “I would tell residents to look at our numbers, but also look at what’s happening in the region because that impacts our health, that impacts our hospitalizations and the function of our capacity in the city.” 

Note: D.C. is prioritizing its own residents because a majority of doses are being directed to D.C.’s seniors and then to residents with specific medical conditions, said Shah in an interview with City Paper

In addition to looking at D.C. residents who are fully vaccinated, DC Health is looking at how many first doses providers have administered to determine success of the roll out. “We focus a lot on first doses because first doses equal people,” said Nesbitt. As of Feb. 20, vaccine providers have administered 92,605 first doses of the 105,575 first doses delivered from the federal government, or 88 percent.

Nesbitt sounded skeptical of some other vaccine trackers she’s seen online because those focused on total doses administered and total doses delivered. “When you look at total doses administered, you have to know the context,” she said. “What breakdown of those total doses are first doses and second doses? Total doses don’t equal people.” (Nesbitt has previously said some doses delivered aren’t administered yet because they are reserved for an appointment at the time of reporting. Shah has said D.C. has gotten second doses delivered a week or two before they were due.) Vaccine trackers like Bloomberg’s have D.C. at the bottom of the list for supply used, and seem to measure this by total doses administered over total doses delivered. (That tracker also has 7.5 of the local population fully vaccinated, which doesn’t match DC Health’s.) Bloomberg’s tracker appears to pull vaccine data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

What’s unclear is how many doses D.C.’s vaccine providers have wasted. DC Health has not provided any data on vaccine wastage, citing reporting issues on the part of providers. (Of note, DC Health published incomplete race and ethnicity data, citing the same issues.) What’s also unclear is adherence to the second dose. In a Feb. 17 call with the Council, Shah said DC Health is working with providers to improve that data because right now it’s not really accurate. DC Health is seeing some attrition among the first group it prioritized, namely health care workers, however it’s not immediately clear how many failed to get the second shot or did not get it at their place of work. (Attrition is measured a week from the 28 days required for the second dose of the Moderna vaccine.) Some providers told DC Health that health care workers got their second shot in their home state of Maryland or Virginia. (Officials in Maryland and Virginia told City Paper they’d vaccinated D.C. health care workers who are their residents.) “The real data that we have that we can actually investigate are overrepresented among the health care workers,” said Shah. “We’re actually in the point right now where we’re going to see what happens with our seniors.” 

— Amanda Michelle Gomez, (tips? agomez@washingtoncitypaper.com

This post has been updated to include FEMS data.

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