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Chelan and Douglas counties continue vaccination plan without J&J doses

WENATCHEE — Vaccination efforts in Chelan and Douglas counties have a new challenge after state health officials paused the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine on Tuesday.

Provided photo 

Luke Davies

Chelan-Douglas Health District administrator

Even without the one-dose option, the area can still reach 70% vaccination coverage in approximately eight to nine weeks, Luke Davies, health administrator for the Chelan-Douglas Health District, said at a Tuesday news conference.

The Town Toyota Center mass vaccination site has administered more than 43,000 doses of a COVID-19 vaccine as of April 9. Vaccine eligibility opens to everyone 16 and older this Thursday which will hopefully help limit transmission, Davies said.

“We’re hoping that demand is still very, very high,” Davies said. “We have now about 50,000 people who have not initiated vaccination who are eligible and are hoping will come in.”

Vaccine allocation will be limited for the next couple of weeks, however, Davies said. The Town Toyota Center and its local partners can cumulatively vaccinate around 12,500 a week. But with one vaccine suspended, the area is forecasted to receive approximately 9,400 doses of Pfizer and Moderna a week, according to Davies.

The area also has seen a slight increase in COVID-19 cases. Chelan and Douglas counties narrowly passed the state’s evaluation on Monday to remain in Phase 3 of the “Healthy Washington” reopening plan.

With spring break wrapping up last week — when people may have traveled, spent time with family, etc. — the health district is anticipating another spike in cases, Davies said.

“We are still asking people to use caution, to wear masks and to restrict their movement so we can try to fight some of these [COVID-19] variants and see less of these breakthrough [cases],” he said.

The state Department of Health suspended the use of the single-dose J&J vaccine after the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention put out a statement Tuesday recommending that states do so while it investigates six cases of blood clotting.

The complication seems to be very rare, but the state has decided to pause the use of the vaccine until the CDC provides further guidance, according to a statement from the state Department of Health.

About 149,000 doses of the J&J vaccine have been administered in the state while approximately 1,000 to 1,500 doses were delivered in Chelan and Douglas counties, according to Davies.

The state Department of Health urges anyone who has received the Johnson vaccine and develops severe headache, abdominal pain, leg pain or shortness of breath within three weeks after vaccination to contact their healthcare provider.

“This potential adverse event is very, very rare,” Davies said. “It is important to be aware but [people] shouldn’t be worried or scared.”

Columbia Valley Community Health was the first provider in the area to receive doses of the single-dose vaccine through a federal allocation program.

The biggest challenge now is finding new vaccines to switch out for vaccination clinics in the upcoming weeks, according to Katharine Bohm, CVCH marketing and communications relations manager.

Two clinics this week have been switched up with Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, Bohm said. CVCH is ordering more vaccine for the following weeks and are hopeful that they will not have to make any changes to their schedule, she said.

CVCH has also reached out to companies they work with and are happy to report that nobody has come forward with any symptoms after being vaccinated with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, she said.

'It's a long way to get here': The journey to vaccinate Lake Chelan's most remote communities against COVID-19

STEHEKIN — Little Fella, a 30-foot cabin cruiser, bounced violently in the rough morning chop, carrying precious cargo to some of the most remote communities not only in Washington, but in all of the Lower 48.

Soaring peaks, waterfalls and steep, snow-filled couloirs surrounded the vessel, which cruised at 17 knots.

“The farther we go, the more rugged it is,” said Jake Courtney, at the helm of the boat.

Paramedics with doses of Moderna COVID-19 vaccine watched from the cabin as scenery swept by.

Holden Village and the town of Stehekin, burrowed into the mountains and valleys along the upper shores of Lake Chelan, are communities among the most sheltered from the coronavirus and also isolated by it. These are places where the response times of emergency services are not counted by the minute, but the hour — or, during extreme weather, by the day.

No roads connect these communities to the outside world. Stehekin — whose year-round population is tallied by the dozen — famously resisted telephone service into the new millennium.

Visitors typically arrive by boat, by seaplane or, when hiking trails melt out, on foot via the Pacific Crest Trail and its tributaries.

The pandemic has only intensified the isolation. Last summer, COVID-19 reduced ferry capacity to Stehekin. Holden Village, which normally hosts some 400 visitors, staffers and volunteers during the busy summer months, closed last year to visitors and implemented strict restrictions for the skeleton crew remaining. This spring, staffers and volunteers numbered just 45.

Both communities welcome, and to a certain extent, rely upon mountain-seeking visitors. Helping protect these communities with vaccines promises to return what many residents have long enjoyed: seclusion with a choice of connection to the wild world outside.

Lake Chelan slices through the North Cascade mountains like a gash. Just two miles wide, the lake curls for more than 50 miles, traveling northwest from the resort town of Chelan to the Stehekin River, as if written in cursive across bedrock.

Ice Age glaciers carved the lake down to a depth of 1,486 feet, making it the third deepest in the United States, after Crater Lake and Lake Tahoe.

On one end of the lake, pastoral hillsides envelop the town of Chelan. On the other, the finned ridgeline of glaciated McGregor Mountain lurks over the Stehekin Valley.

Little Fella typically transports workers to Holden Village or Stehekin. But on this late March morning, Courtney’s VIP is a small blue cooler carried aboard by Ray Eickmeyer, the director of EMS and Paratransit, Safety & Preparedness at Lake Chelan Health, who coordinated the vaccination excursion.

Mountain Barge Services, a company owned by Courtney’s cousin, donated Little Fella’s use by the paramedics.

The mission for Little Fella, which was named by its owner’s young daughter, is to first head to Lucerne, the gateway to Holden Village, for vaccine delivery to villagers and workers, and then to cruise up to Stehekin. By the end of the day, they’d cover more than 120 miles on land and lake and deliver 55 doses of vaccine.

And on this bluebird morning, with sunshine shimmering on wind-whipped waves, there were worse assignments.

“Most of my team was like, ‘You’re going up lake to give vaccinations? Can I go? Can I go?’” Eickmeyer would joke later.

Mistaya Johnston, who grew up in Stehekin and is sister to boat pilot Courtney, had joined Eickmeyer. She’d be vaccinating some people she’d known for years.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, it had been a long, stressful year for Eickmeyer and Johnston.

Eickmeyer’s emergency medicine team, which typically operates two ambulances, received 23 calls for emergency assistance in a single day during the pandemic, the most on record.

“We’ve been talking a lot about mental health,” Eickmeyer said, adding that emergency medical services departments were familiar with intense demands but that “doing it for so long is the problem.”

Just before the pandemic began, Johnston and her husband, Jake Johnston, joined with family members to take ownership of the Riverwalk Inn & Cafe in Chelan, only to see the disease force them to close to most travelers and then cut staffers.

Early on, the couple sent their children to live in Stehekin with Mistaya’s parents because both work as paramedics and they faced so many unknowns. Then, one son developed appendicitis and needed to be rushed downlake on Little Fella.

“It’s been quite a year,” Johnston said.

But the arrival of vaccines had buoyed Eickmeyer’s and Johnston’s spirits and put them on a mission — vaccinating everyone from migrant farmworkers in Chelan to park rangers in Stehekin.

“It’s a lot of work, but it’s energizing. It’s super important so we can try to stay ahead of the variants,” Eickmeyer said, referring to increasingly common varieties of the coronavirus with worrisome characteristics.

And on this sunny morning, they could deliver final doses to people among those most cut off due to the virus.

Gaze out from the dock at Lucerne, Little Fella’s first destination, and you’ll see a scene so pretty that Hollywood producers brought actress Elizabeth Taylor here to shoot the 1946 film “Courage of Lassie.”

Some 11 miles uphill on a winding gravel road still partially covered this March with snow, is Holden Village, once a mining town and now a Lutheran gathering place and wilderness retreat at 3,200 feet elevation.

Copper once drew people to this remote corner of Washington. But the mine was abandoned in 1957, leaving behind an empty town, millions of tons of toxic tailings and a few old automobiles dumped in the lake.

The Lutheran Bible Institute purchased the village for $1 in the early 1960s. Since, the village has served as a peaceful, communal retreat for hikers and worshippers. It features five dormitory lodges and 14 small houses with names like “Narnia.”

During that time, Holden Village has faced a string of existential threats. Most recently, the Wolverine fire in 2015 forced villagers to evacuate. Whether it was firefighters’ bravery, divine intervention, luck or a combination — the village remains standing, but flagpoles of torched timber sticking out of the snow remind how near flames have come.

COVID-19 presents a different threat. For more than a year, the village has been closed to the public due to the pandemic. Upon arrival, new and returning staffers and volunteers must quarantine for nine days in a special lodge. Then, they receive a rapid test for the novel coronavirus that must come out negative before they’re allowed entry.

So far, the village has reported no cases of coronavirus, according to Sarah Moore, a professor and chair of the department of psychology at the University of Puget Sound, who is on sabbatical and came to the village in August with family. By now, more than 100 people have quarantined and received testing, crucial because Lake Chelan Health is so far away.

Vaccination offered new hope.

When Eickmeyer and Johnston arrived at the “Koinonia” lodge, a group of 20-something women gathered on its wooden steps, sipping on lattes or hot chocolate. Within minutes, Eickmeyer and Johnston gave each a quick jab of a needle and the group gave a little cheer upon completion of second doses.

“I woke up this morning and it felt like Christmas,” said Victoria Kerssen-Griep, 27, who came to Holden Village in search of community after losing a nannying job during the pandemic.

Moore said it was stunning to see a vaccine reach such a remote place, where not even cell service can touch.

“It’s a long way to get here,” Moore said, grateful. “People went so far out of their way to do this.”

Those hunkered down at Holden are hoping to broaden their summer social circles.

“These places can only stay closed for so long until it’s not financially tenable,” Moore said. “If all goes to plan and the crick don’t rise, we could open again this summer.”

Half an hour later, Eickmeyer and Johnston hit the road again, stopping by a bunkhouse about a mile from the village. Crews here trade shifts working at a wastewater treatment plant.

For years, the remnants of the abandoned mining project allowed heavy metals to flow into Lake Chelan from Railroad Creek, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2012 ordered the Superfund site’s cleanup.

The Rio Tinto mining company never operated the mine but ultimately succeeded the Howe Sound Mining Company that had left the pollution more than 60 years ago. The wastewater treatment plant, constructed by Rio Tinto, removes metals so clean water dumps into the creek.

Most treatment plant workers spend two weeks at the site and two weeks at home, making it difficult for some to coordinate their shots. Rio Tinto partnered with Holden Village and the barge company in asking the paramedics out.

And so, at 10:30 a.m., Bruce Albert, a sleepy-eyed night shift worker from Moses Lake, rumbled out of bed — in the middle of his time to sleep — to receive a shot from paramedics on the building’s deck.

He was looking forward to seeing his recently vaccinated 85-year-old mother.

“She’s all taken care of. I’m all taken care of,” Albert said.

Just after noon, Eickmeyer and Johnston pulled the cooler up a gangplank and into Stehekin. They posted up on a picnic table a few dozen yards from the dock. Within minutes, about a dozen people who were scheduled for appointments began to arrive, some chattering in anticipation. This was the most people some had seen in weeks.

Johnston greeted most everyone by first name as each went over paperwork and then received a quick jab.

“It builds trust. They know her,” Eickmeyer said.

In Stehekin, daily life hadn’t changed too much from the perspective of Courtney, who lives with his wife and their six children on a small farm with cows, chickens and a garden.

“Everything’s spaced out anyway,” Courtney said.

The one-room schoolhouse, which serves eight children, had enjoyed a relatively normal school year, Courtney said. The kids — including three of his own — just spent more time outside.

Some businesses had struggled with closures, he knew. And a handful of people had contracted the virus, though most had avoided serious cases.

With summer approaching, Courtney anticipates a fresh wave of arriving adventure seekers and pent-up travelers.

“Once things open up again, I think Stehekin will take off like crazy,” he said.

Meantime, for many, the virus has made life more isolated. Trips to see family, get supplies or visit the doctor can feel fraught.

Ursula Abelsen, a 25-year-old Western Washington University student studying remotely from the town where she grew up, said her family used to travel downlake once every few weeks. But she hasn’t left for months.

“It’s so beautiful. But it’s isolating,” Abelsen said.

Billy Sullivan, a 77-year-old former logger who retired to Stehekin years ago to live where he’d spent memorable time as a child, said he often didn’t see or talk to another soul.

“Eleven days I spent without seeing or talking to another person,” Sullivan said. “It was like heaven.”

Sullivan, rather chatty for a self-described “hermit,” admitted that COVID-19 had been a bit of a bore.

“I’ve been sleeping about 16 hours a day — getting old. And there’s not much to do when you’re dodging the virus,” he said. Lately, he’d been watching cat videos on his iPad by demand of Little Miss Mischief, his feline companion.

When Sullivan travels, he typically sleeps in a van he keeps in Chelan. Nights can be cold. Interactions feel risky. It’s stressful. He wouldn’t go downlake just for a vaccine.

During the pandemic, Sullivan, who has diabetes, has relied on deliveries from neighbors, namely Courtney.

“Real angels have brought stuff up — diabetes medications, food,” Sullivan said — and now a lifesaving vaccine.

The relatively wet winter whipped Washington's snowpack back into shape

SPOKANE — Washington’s snowpack is in good shape.

As of April 9, snowpack levels were either average or well above average for all of the state’s basins. Much of the Cascade Range has had an especially wet winter, with snowpack more than 30% above average — the Cascades may even have the best snowpack in the country right now.

Eastern Washington didn’t see quite as much snow, but it’s still been a good winter.

“Everybody’s kind of where we’d like to see them,” said Rocco Pelatti, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Spokane office.

This winter was part of a La Niña year. During La Niña years, the Pacific Northwest typically gets heavy rains and snows while the rest of the West sees drier conditions than normal.

That pattern held true in the winter of 2020-21. While Washington has been fortunate, western states south of Idaho have seen exceptionally low precipitation. Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and western Colorado might be poised for extreme drought.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, much of Eastern Washington has been abnormally dry, including the western half of Spokane County. A handful of Eastern Washington counties are experiencing moderate drought. Parts of Grant, Kittitas, Yakima, Klickitat and Benton counties are in severe drought.

The good snow year is especially welcome given those dry conditions.

“It’s really helping us to pull out of that,” said Vaughn Cork, a fuels analyst with the Washington Department of Natural Resources. “It looks for now that the drought conditions will be removed by the end of June.”

Mountain snowpack is important for many reasons. For one, it plays a role in determining drought conditions, water availability for irrigators and the severity of wildfire seasons. It also influences river flows, which affects fish and recreators.

Josh Flanagan, who owns Wiley E. Waters’ Whitewater Rafting, said he keeps an eye on snowpack levels because they help him forecast the upcoming season.

So long as temperatures don’t get too warm in the next couple of months, rafting companies could have an excellent, long spring.

“It definitely excites us,” Flanagan said. “It gives us a possibility for a really good whitewater year in Spokane.”

The last few years have been kind for river users in the area, Flanagan said. The last bad year was 2015, when river flows were low and most of the state experienced drought conditions.

Deep snows could help minimize the severity of the upcoming fire season, although experts said snowpack is just one factor in predicting wildfires.

“We’re still trying to figure out what the summer’s going to hold for us,” said Forrest Ownbey, a landowner assistance forester with the Washington Department of Natural Resources.

Fire seasons have gotten longer in recent decades throughout the West. There are a handful of factors that play into the growing fire problem, including rising temperatures due to climate change, long-term fire suppression and the spread of invasive species.

In general, the West has had less snowpack and that snowpack has been melting earlier, allowing fuels to dry out sooner. While a relatively bountiful snowpack this year doesn’t necessarily mean the upcoming fire season will be mild, it certainly doesn’t hurt.

“It does make a big difference when it comes to plant stress and the larger diameter forest fuels,” Cork said. “When (plants) are stressed, they’re more susceptible to burning earlier.”

Eastmont tackles back-to-school challenges — desk placement, lunch and more

EAST WENATCHEE — How will the furniture be arranged in each classroom? Where will the students eat lunch? How will students be accommodated if they choose to remain online?

These are some of the questions facing the Eastmont School District as it prepares to bring students back to school for full-time instruction.

Elementary students come back for full-time instruction on April 26, while middle school, junior high and high students are set to return full time on May 3.

At Monday’s Eastmont School Board meeting, the board heard from Spencer Taylor, executive director of elementary education, and Matt Charlton, executive director of secondary education.

Provided photo 

Spencer Taylor

Eastmont administrator

Taylor has been working with a team of teachers, paraeducators, administrators and association leaders to prepare for each phase. He said the team meeting Monday was their fourth planning session of the year to get ready for a new phase.

“We have initiated plans for the next phase and are excited about it, but it is a lot of work,” Taylor said.

A couple of key areas the elementary team is working through are classroom space and furniture arrangement. He notes when all the students are back, some class sizes are bigger and some are smaller.

Furniture has to be arranged in such a way that maintains the required 3 feet of social distance, he said.

“Logistics, as far as lunch, have worked really well to have half the students in class with our paras supervising them for 6-foot social distancing,” Taylor said. “We have to maintain that 6 feet whenever we eat and masks are down. We are going to have kids eat outside as much as possible.”

When the weather is not so nice, half the kids will eat in the classroom and half in different parts of the school. Although most schools have the screening process down, schools will have twice as many students to process, he said, so the logistics need to be worked out.

Some schools are set up better than others, he said.

“Kenroy — with construction on both sides of the school, and limited areas to access the school — they are going to have challenges to process those kids quickly enough to get them into class,” Taylor said.

Taylor said his team is working on the daily schedule with specialists. How do they safely do intervention? What does a typical day look like?

“All those items we have begun to process. We will have answers over the next few days. We hope to have that ironed out over the next week so we have plenty of time before that end-of-the-month start date,” Taylor said.

One of the things unique to secondary education at Eastmont is online instruction. There were students in the middle school, junior high and high school that did not want to go through Eastmont Virtual Academy but wanted to remain part of their school, Charlton said.

Provided photo 

Matt Charlton

Eastmont assistant superintendent

“Now that we have potentially 95% of the kids coming back, it’s going to be really difficult to continue to provide that online instruction while we’re teaching an almost normal size class,” Charlton said. “We’re working through that issue and possible solutions.”

Charlton said students eating lunch must be 6-feet apart, so his team is looking at how to provide safe eating spaces. Like the elementary schools, he said they will be going to go outside to eat when the weather is nice.

While the issue of cohorting or grouping is easier at the elementary school level, Charlton said it is more difficult at the secondary level.

“How to do that and keep the 3-foot maximum but without the cohorting built-in. We know we won’t have the cohorting. The health guidelines allow us some crossover, but how do we keep those small as possible?” Charlton said. “Those are some of the issues specific to secondary we are working through. I think we’ll be able to come up with a good plan.”