Jan 27th, 2021

Local officials press Northam administration’s COVID vaccine rollout

Originally posted by: Virginia Business Magazine

With Virginia lagging behind other states in getting residents vaccinated for COVID-19, officials in Hampton Roads, Fairfax County and Chesterfield County have gone straight to the governor with complaints and concerns about the process, which Chesterfield supervisors categorized as “totally defective” and Hampton Roads officials deemed “inconsistent,” saying it’s “causing confusion and frustration.”

“We need answers,” says a letter signed by Chesterfield’s five-person Board of Supervisors and sent to Gov. Ralph Northam on Tuesday. “What’s happening now is neither equitable nor fair to citizens or public employees, including teachers, who look to their local leaders to lead. We need action from you, as do the people who have entrusted us to do what’s best for the community.

“The front lines of local government are where citizens reach first, and it’s where they are heard,” Chesterfield supervisors continued. “This time, their cries to us are unprecedented to anything we’ve experienced. Simply put, Virginia’s campaign to vaccinate the masses is totally defective. On this issue, we have run out of patience and tolerance. Our citizens deserve better. They also deserve accountability as to what personnel or systems are responsible for the inordinate challenges that arise, almost daily.”

Meanwhile, the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission’s Jan. 21 letter signed by Chair Andria P. McClellan of Norfolk and Vice Chair David H. Jenkins of Newport News called for more consistency between the state’s health districts. “It is clear that each health district is approaching this effort in an inconsistent manner, which is causing confusion and frustration across our region,” the letter says. “While we understand operational flexibility, this approach where each health district establishes its own policies is not serving our community well.”

The group, which represents 17 local governments in Eastern Virginia, recommends that the governor appoint “a small committee” of city managers and county administrators to provide weekly advice on how to improve the vaccination rate, engage the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and “provide clear guidance to its health districts to stratify and prioritize personnel who should be considered in the phase 1b vaccination effort.”

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeffrey C. McKay was a bit more measured when he wrote the governor a letter on Jan. 20, saying that the county health department had administered 21,754 doses between Dec. 24 and Jan. 19, but that the average allotment of 10,000 doses a week “does not meet the demand nor the expectations of the 100,000 people we now have in the queue. We stand ready to expand our distribution to more eligible Fairfax County residents, should the commonwealth increase our vaccine supply.”

The letters come at a tough time for the commonwealth, with higher infection and death rates, as well as persistent difficulties in getting people vaccinated swiftly.

Numbers have improved in Virginia since the beginning of January, when fewer than 25% of available doses were being administered, according to the Virginia Department of Health’s vaccine dashboard. As of Tuesday, the percentage was up to 49%, with 24,790 doses being administered per day over the past week.

Still, as of Sunday, Jan. 24, Virginia ranked 47th out of all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico in the number of doses administered per 100,000 people, and the commonwealth ranked last in the nation of the doses it has received that have been administered, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which updates its number about a day behind VDH.

Only 71,459 people in Virginia have received the two shots necessary to be considered fully vaccinated — less than 1% of Virginia’s population.

With higher rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths across the state, as well as residents overwhelming vaccine registration sites with requests, local elected officials are hearing from their constituents like never before.

Henrico County and Richmond Health Director Dr. Danny Avula, who was recently appointed state vaccine coordinator, has implemented new policies to attack paperwork lags and tracking redistributed vaccine doses. In news conferences, Avula has explained that there are several challenges facing the state:

  • Facilities vaccinating but not filing information quickly with the VDH dashboard, which is updated daily
  • Doses being redistributed from one facility to a second one, based on need
  • Doses sent directly from the federal government to partnering CVS and Walgreens pharmacies to vaccinate long-term care facility residents and workers are entered into the federal system and not directly to the state, leaving many vaccinations unaccounted for on the VDH site.

Avula has deployed a team of 10 people to track down information about doses in the above groups, while also making sure the state’s database is as current as possible.

Also, there’s a much greater demand now for vaccinations because about half of the state’s population qualifies for group 1b: people ages 65 and older, essential workers such as teachers, first responders and grocery workers, and younger people with qualifying underlying health issues. On Friday, Avula announced a new distribution system of doses directly to health districts allocated by population — although the numbers are far below demand. He also said the state would be reallocating some of CVS’s and Walgreens’ doses to local pharmacies in order to vaccinate more people in nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

Virginia localities are already seeing lengthening waitlists for vaccines, and Avula has emphasized that the state is waiting for Moderna and Pfizer Inc. to produce more vaccine doses, as is the rest of the country. The Biden administration has set a goal of delivering 100 million vaccinations in the next 100 days, but this depends on manufacturing schedules as well as the approval of other vaccines, including two in testing by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson.

Effective Tuesday, Inova Health System canceled all first-dose appointments because its vaccines were being sent directly to health districts for administration. “As a result, Inova’s allocation of vaccine has been severely diminished, causing us to make the difficult decision to prioritize the available doses” for second-dose appointments, according to a statement.

In Prince William County, the city of Manassas and Manassas Park, there is an online waitlist application for vaccinations because appointments are booked through Feb. 15, according to the Prince William Health District. The city of Richmond and Henrico County health departments announced Monday that they expect only 6,400 doses per week, about a quarter of what they requested.

Overall, the state and the nation are waiting for pharmaceutical companies to produce more vaccine. Avula’s goal is to vaccinate 50,000 people a day in Virginia, getting the state to the 70% to 80% inoculation that will provide herd immunity, he says. The state won’t reach that daily average until at least March, based on production schedules, Avula anticipates. Northam, meanwhile, is set to give a COVID update Wednesday afternoon, Jan. 27.

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