A D.C. resident receives COVID-19 vaccine. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

The latest vaccination data DC Health published tells us two things: 76 percent of doses are being administered, and 64 percent of seniors have received their first shot. This helps us to understand how vaccinations are going. Stacked up against the nation, D.C. is below average.   

Let’s unpack the first statistic. On Monday, DC Health published a new dashboard that aims to contextualize the national news trackers that show the city near the bottom in vaccinations. A Bloomberg News tracker has D.C. using 71.9% of its supply as of March 29—only more efficient than five states and six U.S. territories. (Bloomberg and other trackers pull data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration attributed the poor performance on imperfect data. Tens of thousands of doses are going to federal entities in D.C. that the city has no control over, DC Health’s vaccine lead, Dr. Ankoor Shah, has repeatedly said. There are also doses that the CDC cannot account for that were sent to the District, he said last week.       

“We’ve talked about this ad nauseam about some discrepancies quite frankly between the number that the CDC reported and what we have,” Mayor Bowser said during a March 25 press conference. “What I’m going to work with DC Health to do is put in one single letter to the CDC where we think their numbers are off.” 

According to DC Health, 85.3 percent of the total doses delivered to the agency have been administered, as of March 26. DC Health directs these doses to the government portal and call center, select hospitals and health centers, and “special initiatives” like mobile clinics. This statistic would put D.C. above average in national trackers. DC Health also reported that 21 percent of doses sent directly to health providers in D.C. through a federal partnership are being administered. Taken altogether, 292,461 of the 384,770 doses delivered to the District have been administered, or 76 percent.

The caveat: DC Health says federal entities in D.C. are not included because they do not report to the city’s immunization information system. This means DC Health’s dashboard will look different than CDC data or national news trackers. According to Bloomberg, 80.7 percent of doses nationally are being administered, so D.C. is below the national average.

What are the federal partnerships that are weighing down D.C.’s average? This includes federal partnerships with pharmacies and federally qualified health centers. DC Health had been sending doses to some of these providers already. For those who get city and federal doses, providers are supposed to use the city doses first. During a call on Wednesday, DC Health identified inefficiencies in health centers.

How do vaccine appointments work? “The pharmacies are part of the portal, though newer pharmacies coming to the District may not be part of the portal. The health centers are not part of the portal,” says a DC Health spokesperson. 

Giant Food, which participates in the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, wouldn’t say how many doses are delivered to pharmacies or how many are administered. “The D.C. Department of Health is conducting the vetting, and sending us the list of people who are to be immunized,” wrote a spokesperson in an email. “We are then responsible for booking second doses and hold[ing] a second dose for an individual who gets their first dose from one of our sites.” Kiosks like the one at the Giant in Columbia Heights direct people to vaccinate.dc.gov to book an appointment. 

Kathleen Jaeger, the senior vice president of health and wellness strategy, policy, and and patient advocacy at the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, says pharmacies have to report within 72 hours to participate in the federal partnership. These pharmacies that are selected by the federal government in coordination with states and territories also report to DC Health through the immunization information system. “We are the closest to real time we can get,” says Jaeger. She also says community health centers generally do not have the IT infrastructure to report quickly, so there can be delays. 

The Biden administration just announced that it’ll be doubling this program to nearly 40,000 pharmacies across the country by April 19. “All your readers—hopefully early April but clearly by mid-April—should be able to get an appointment and get a vaccine very easily,” says Jaeger. “Because in April and May, more vaccine comes into the system.”   

As supply becomes consistent and increases, Jaeger says to expect more pharmacies to get shipments of vaccines, and people eventually will be able to book directly through them instead of always through DC Health. “We are going to go back to the commercial market … and let other governments do what they do best, which is govern,” she says. Some pharmacies in D.C. like CVS, Safeway, and Walgreens already have portals where people can book appointments directly through them. Walgreens also has an alert system. However, they are only vaccinating eligible populations according to DC Health’s phases and tiers

Federally qualified health centers, meanwhile, mostly serve lower income and uninsured residents, which is why DC Health strategically partnered with them early on for the city’s equity efforts. Unity Health Care, which also participates in the Federal Community Health Center Partnership, says the provider is predominantly vaccinating their own patient population. The spokesperson says they will likely use the portal for upcoming events in Wards 7 and 8, including a large-scale vaccination center this Saturday.  

In a call with the Council on Wednesday, DC Health’s emergency preparedness response lead, Patrick Ashley, said health centers are struggling to quickly put shots in arms. They are also slower to report. Ashley says the agency has been regularly working with these centers to get them the help they need to be more efficient. These health centers—which include Mary’s Center, Bread for the City, and Community of Hope—are getting millions of dollars from the federal government in the coming weeks.

“We obviously do our best to not waste any doses,” said Ashley. “I think this is more of a fact that they are sitting on a shelf.”

The second statistic to look at is the number of D.C. residents over 65 who are vaccinated. According to Ryan Stahlin, the data scientist responsible for DCcovid.com, which pulls data from DC Health, 63.9 percent of seniors received at least their first shot as of March 26. DC Health expected to vaccinate 70 percent of seniors by the first week of March, but did not. Meanwhile, the White House announced on Monday that 73 percent of seniors have now received their first dose.

At a March 15 press conference, DC Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt said seniors’ demand started to slow down citywide. She also said that DC Health is not getting all of the data it would like from Veterans Affairs, so the senior data may also be incomplete. 

The Bowser administration has been trying to get the public to help register more seniors. Seniors that are pre-registered are not always booking vaccine appointments. A snapshot of the pre-registration system shows that seniors lag behind other eligible groups, like people with qualifying medical conditions and select essential workers. More than one in three seniors are not booking an appointment within 48 hours of being offered one. Seniors may be getting vaccinated through other means, like their health care provider. Some seniors have not bothered with the pre-registration system because it seemed inaccessible. But some of those seniors may have gotten vaccinated through “special initiatives” at home.  

Just under a fifth of D.C. residents are at least partially vaccinated, as of March 26. Keep in mind, DC Health prioritized vaccinating frontline workers early on like those in health care, education, and public safety. Many do not live in D.C. but reside in neighboring states. DC Health is now prioritizing D.C. residents in its pre-registration system.  

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

This post has been updated to include information from a Council call on Wednesday.

  • The daily case rate is in the red, at Phase 0/1 levels, and is slowly ticking up again. (Yesterday’s newsletter inaccurately said positive cases interviewed were in the red, when the metric is actually in the yellow.) To see today’s coronavirus cases and more information, visit our coronavirus dashboard. [EOM]
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This post been updated to include information from a Council call on Wednesday.

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