By Evan Bush, Mike Reicher, Sydney Brownstone

January 26, 2021

Last Friday, Molly Stearns, chief development officer at Overlake Medical Center & Clinics, emailed about 110 donors who gave more than $10,000 to the Eastside hospital system, informing them that highly coveted vaccine slots were available.

“Dear Overlake major donors…” the email read. “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.”

The email gave the donors an access code to register for appointments “by invite” only. Last week, the public-facing Overlake registration site was fully booked through March.

The email — and the appearance of favoritism that an Overlake leader acknowledged was a mistake — raised eyebrows. Overlake shut down online access to the invite-only clinic after getting a call from Gov. Jay Inslee’s staff.

Overlake says the vaccination slots were not offered exclusively to donors, but also to Overlake board members, some patients, volunteers, employees and retired health providers — some 4,000 people in all. All who registered were supposed to be eligible for the vaccine under current state rules, the email said.

The invitation was a quick-fix solution after the hospital’s scheduling system failed, said Tom DeBord, the medical center’s chief operating officer.

“We’re under pressure to vaccinate people who are eligible and increase capacity,” DeBord said. “In hindsight, we could certainly look back and say this wasn’t the best way to do it.”

The state’s glitchy effort to vaccinate millions of Washingtonians has relied heavily on hospital systems, who have been provided little logistical support, an unreliable supply of vaccine and fast-changing guidance on who qualifies and how to reach them.

Now, after state officials expanded eligibility, a crush of seniors angling to book appointments has added to the strain for hospitals, which have been left to their own devices to manage the chaos. The Overlake invitations raise questions about whether the messy system gives those with influence, access or technical know-how a better shot at the vaccine.

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