By Carol Vaughn —
Gov. Ralph Northam in a briefing Monday said there are encouraging signs about the COVID-19 pandemic, including case numbers starting to decline again and hospitalizations leveling off.
“But the numbers are still way too high — ask any exhausted nurse,” he said, noting 1,997 new cases were reported that day.
Northam said “nearly everyone who is getting COVID is unvaccinated.”
More than 80% of Virginia adults have had had least one shot and 60% are fully vaccinated, ranking Virginia 14th in the United States.
“This is the best rate in the South,” Northam said.
The vaccination rate for ages 12 to 17 is roughly the same.
Northam spoke directly to unvaccinated Virginians, saying, “I want to give you two facts: one, these vaccines are incredibly safe and effective. … Two, by choosing not to get vaccinated, you are absolutely hurting other people.”
Hospitals are filling up with unvaccinated COVID-19 patients, creating stress on staff and resources, he said.
Additionally, “You are costing everyone a lot of money,” Northam said, noting $5 billion in costs “to treat a disease that could be prevented by a free vaccine.”
“There probably isn’t much I can say to change your minds,” Northam said to those who have chosen not to be vaccinated.
Still, he talked about his having a relatively mild case of COVID-19 last year, before a vaccine was available.
“A year later, I still can’t smell anything or taste anything,” he said.
Northam, who is a physician, described what it is like for a patient on a ventilator, calling it “miserable” and saying, “There is no guarantee you will make it.”
“Think about how you want your obituary to read because you are taking a foolish, dangerous chance,” he said.
Northam also spoke about booster shots for previously vaccinated people and shots for children.
Pfizer is the only company so far that has presented enough data for the FDA to recommend boosters. The Centers for Disease Control is recommending Pfizer booster shots for people ages 65 and over, frontline workers, and people with underlying conditions who received the Pfizer vaccine more than six months ago.
People can go to pharmacies, health clinics, and doctors’ offices to get the booster, and can go to vaccinate.virginia.gov to find a nearby location.
“It’s on the honor system,” Northam said, meaning the person giving the shot is not required to ask whether a person is qualified to receive a booster.
Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are filing data about booster shots with federal regulators. “If you got those, for now you don’t need to do anything,” Northam said.
About vaccinating children, Northam said, “We need you to be patient for a bit longer. … Kids under 12 are not yet eligible to get shots.”
Vaccines for children likely will become available by the end of October or the beginning of November, and it is likely they will be given at schools in Virginia, according to Northam.
“We have been preparing for a long time and when approval comes for children to receive their shots, Virginia will be ready,” he said, noting children already are required to receive vaccines for many other diseases before they enroll in school.
Having the health department give the vaccine in schools is “the easiest and most equitable way” for children to get shots and the state is working with school officials on that, Northam said.
He invited three school superintendents to speak about what their school districts are doing to keep students and teachers safe. Arlington County School Superintendent Francisco Duran, Roanoke School Superintendent Verletta White and Richmond School Superintendent Jason Kamras spoke.
Duran said school employees are mandated to be vaccinated and 91% of instructional staff now are vaccinated. Clinics are provided during the day, in the evening, and on weekends at schools, and the plan is to do the same at elementary schools when the vaccine becomes available for younger children.
Weekly testing also is provided at Arlington schools, he said.
White said Roanoke schools will hold vaccination clinics on site for younger children once the vaccine is approved for them.
Kamras said mitigation strategies are working so far. Around 200 cases of COVID-19 have been identified among students and staff, but more than 90% were determined to have occurred outside school.
Still, resulting quarantines are disruptive of learning, he said, adding vaccination is the way to limit those disruptions. A vaccine mandate is in place for staff and children will be vaccinated at Richmond schools once the vaccine is approved for them, Kamras said.
There are around 420,000 older school children, ages 12-15, in Virginia. About 63% have been vaccinated, Northam said.
Still, he said vaccination rates for teens vary significantly around the state, with much higher rates, topping 90%, in some northern Virginia counties but only 17% of children ages 12-15 vaccinated in Highland and Patrick counties.
“We don’t want to see the same trends happen with our younger children,” he said.
Northam cited two CDC studies that “show clearly” that masks protect children even in places where case rates are high and that pediatric cases increased at a far higher rate once school started in places where schools did not have a mask mandate.
To end the pandemic, Northam said, “There is only one answer. Get vaccinated. It is the only way forward.”