By Carol Vaughn —
A statewide, centralized pre-registration system and call center for Virginia’s COVID-19 vaccination program rolled out this week, after the Virginia Department of Health directed local health districts to stop registering people over the weekend.
The pause was to allow information from those who previously filled out a form or signed up for a wait list through the local health department to be imported into the new, statewide system.
The VDH announced vaccinate.virginia.gov went live Tuesday, Feb. 16, with a statewide hotline launched Wednesday. Gov, Ralph Northam announced in a briefing Wednesday the launch of the hotline, at 877-VAX-IN-VA, or 877-829-4682, where Virginians can pre-register to be vaccinated and also get information. The call center is staffed from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week.
People who previously pre-registered with their local health district do not need to register again. They will maintain their current status in the queue and still will be assigned to their local health district, according to a press release.
Data from the Virginia Immunization Information System is being used to remove from the list names of people who already have been vaccinated.
Local health departments will still manage their own lists, but they will be on the new platform.
“The form will change, but the process will not,” said Dr. Danny Avula, state vaccine coordinator, in a briefing Friday.
Virginians who pre-register online all will answer the same questions and will receive a confirmation on the screen that they are registered. They also will get weekly reminders and will be able to do a status search, Avula said.
Additionally, around 750 call takers at the centralized call center will be able to help people register and answer questions about COVID-19 and vaccination, taking the burden off local health departments. Around 10% of those workers speak Spanish and speakers of more than 100 other languages can request a call back in their language.
Northam said 1.4 million Virginians have been vaccinated to date.
More than 12% of Virginia residents have received at least one dose of vaccine, he said.
Avula said 130,000 first doses were administered in Virginia last week, up from around 108,000 three weeks ago.
“We continue to really focus on the long-term care facilities that fall outside of the CVS/Walgreens (federal) partnership, as well as some other priority populations” to which the state is distributing vaccines directly, including the Department of Corrections, Avula said.
Other than those instances, vaccines still are being distributed to localities primarily based on population, he said.
“We are doing…specific allocations when there are high-priority, minority residents or elderly, minority residents,” Avula said, adding decisions are going to be made “on data-driven priorities.”
“So there is a reserve of vaccine that goes to fund those types of initiatives,” he said.
Avula addressed the issue of allocating vaccines for older residents versus younger residents with underlying medical conditions that put them at higher risk for severe disease, as well as for special cases such as the large number of poultry processing plant workers in Accomack County.
“That’s really a tough one,” he said of younger residents with underlying conditions, noting “that is a large number of Virginians.”
“We just don’t have the science or the ability to assign a risk-order criteria, so there’s got to be some rule on the ground for providers to make decisions about which types of underlying conditions do we push to the front of the line and which types of conditions do we ask to wait,” Avula said, adding, “This is a hard place for America. …We’ve never really been in a place that we’ve had to ration a scarce resource, and functionally, that’s where we are right now. We have a very limited resource in vaccine, a very large number of people who want it, and we’ve got to use guidelines and our best judgment to try to meet individuals with the highest risk.”
State guidance is that each locality split its allocated doses roughly 50-50 between the elderly and younger people with underlying medical conditions, according to Avula.
“There’s still got to be local flexibility. … In a particular community, they are going to move through the demand at different rates and different segments of our state are going to have different desire for the vaccine, and so we’ve got to allow some local flexibility with that,” Avula said.
Avula also addressed the issue of out-of-state residents with second homes in Virginia, such as on Chincoteague, seeking to be vaccinated in Virginia, along with Maryland residents crossing the state line seeking vaccination.
Asked if the health departments have a protocol for weeding out non-residents coming to Virginia to be vaccinated, Avula said, “I wish we did.”
The vaccines are a federally funded resource, he noted, saying federal guidelines dictate that “regardless of place of residence or citizenship or anything that ties you to any location, that none of those things should be barriers to getting vaccinated.”
“What we’ve tried to do in our health department-run clinics and the guidance we’ve provided providers who are receiving vaccine is to provide vaccine to individuals who are qualified under 1b based on their age or their underlying condition. Those folks should go the locality that they reside in.”
Whether that means their first or second residence, Avula said, “I would say first residence, but everybody obviously is going to try to find the quickest way to vaccinate.”
Additionally, if a person qualifies for Phase 1b based on their employment type — essential worker status — “then your vaccine will come through closed pods the health departments are setting up with your employers,” he said.
Officials encourage people to get their second dose at the same place they received their first dose.
Virginia’s Vaccine Allocation
Health officials have been told the state’s current allocation from the federal government likely will remain the same for the next three weeks, but that other retail pharmacies in addition to CVS likely will begin offering vaccines allocated to them separately through a federal partnership within three to four weeks, according to Avula.
Additionally, the federal government announced a separate allocation will begin going to federally subsidized primary care providers around the United States, Avula said.
“What we’re hearing out of the federal government is that, by April, that most everybody who wants vaccine should have access to it, but we haven’t seen numbers here, what that means for Virginia,” he said.
CVS Vaccine Program
New last week was the addition of CVS offering vaccines to Virginians age 65 and over.
Friday, Feb. 12, was the first day CVS started giving vaccinations.
So far, no CVS store on the Eastern Shore is offering the vaccine.
The company said it will have around 26,000 doses per week to administer in Virginia.
Appointments filled up quickly on the company’s website after the announcement, but appointments will continue to be opened up “on a rolling basis,” Avula said.
Information is at https://www.cvs.com/immunizations/covid-19-vaccine
COVID-19 Variants Found in Eastern Virginia
The VDH Friday also announced a case of the SARS-COV-2 variant first identified in the United Kingdom was identified in an adult resident of Eastern Virginia with no recent history of travel outside Virginia.
The B.1.1.7 variant is associated with increased person-to-person transmission of the virus, and a preliminary report from the United Kingdom indicated it causes more severe illness than other variants — although further study is needed to confirm that, according to the VDH.
Additionally, two cases of a variant first identified in South Africa have been found in Eastern Virginia.
Virginia so far has identified a total of six cases of the UK variant and two cases of the South African variant in the state.
“Viruses change all the time, and VDH expects to see new strains as disease spreads. As our state public health officials closely monitor for the emergence of the B.1.1.7 variant and other variants in our Commonwealth, it is important that all Virginians comply now with mitigation measures. This means wearing a mask, staying at least six feet from others, washing hands often, getting vaccinated for COVID-19 when it is your turn, and staying home if you are infected with COVID-19 or if you have had close contact with someone with COVID-19,” the release stated.