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More in Suffolk vaccinated, but pace slows

Though more people in Suffolk are receiving COVID-19 vaccinations, the pace of them still trails all but two other localities in South Hampton Roads and the Western Tidewater Health District.

Suffolk has fully vaccinated 15,472 people, and another 27,557 people have been vaccinated with at least one dose, but its fully vaccinated rate per 100,000 is just 16,798. Only Portsmouth, having a fully vaccinated rate of 13,223, and Norfolk, with a fully vaccinated rate of 12,370, have lower rates of fully vaccinated people.

Statewide, 36.6% of people have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and 21.3% of state residents have been fully vaccinated.

“We will get to a point, sooner than later in some districts, where the approach to vaccination changes,” said state vaccine coordinator Dr. Danny Avula. “It’s no longer just making the vaccine available, but it’s really addressing the underlying reasons for skepticism or deliberation or hesitancy, as the case may be.”

Some health departments, Avula said, are already doing open access clinics in neighborhoods. But he said there will need to be more outreach among trusted people in communities — elected officials, faith leaders and others.

“I think in every community we’re going to get to a point where we’ve been able to meet the demand of the low-hanging fruit, but they still want to be vaccinated,” Avula said. “And then we’re really going to have to work harder to get that remaining 10%, 15%. And in some communities, it’s going to be a higher percentage of people that don’t want to.”

While the state received about 124,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson one-dose vaccine last week and another 150,000 doses that came through the federal retail pharmacy program, it will receive significantly fewer this week.
Avula said it was that uptick in available doses which allowed the state to move into Phase 2 by April 18. However, allocations of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine this week will be about 10% of what the state had hoped for — 14,800 doses for the state’s allocation and 13,100 doses through the federal retail pharmacy program.

“It doesn’t change the pace at which we can move into Phase 2,” Avula said during an April 9 media briefing. “But it does slow the pace of our progression once we’ve opened up into Phase 2.”

And it means that vaccine appointments may not be available when people want them.

“I think it’s really important for people to understand that when we all collectively move into Phase 2 on April 18, that doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to get vaccinated within 24 hours,” Avula said. “It doesn’t really even mean that you’ll be able to make an appointment, necessarily, within 24 hours.”

But based on anticipated delivery and production schedules for all three vaccines, along with the state’s projected demand, Avula said that “everybody who wants to be vaccinated will also have the chance to do that by the end of May, at least for a first dose. We still feel really confident about that timeline.”

Avula said that as May and June roll around, that health departments would do more mobile clinics and more on-site, walk-up registration. At that point, the state will also start sending much more vaccine to private providers.

Through the state’s Federal Emergency Management Agency money, Avula said the state is in the final stages of contracting with mobile vendors to work alongside health departments and do one-time events in different parts of the community.

“I think we definitely recognize the large numbers of people who aren’t going to register through our website,” Avula said, “who need other ways to get access to vaccine.”

Avula said that as the state tries to vaccinate college students before they go home for the summer, it is working off a spreadsheet that maps the last day of classes, graduation dates and the anticipated uptake of the COVID-19 vaccine by the student population at all state colleges and universities.

Some schools that had planned on vaccinating students this week will have to push that back by at least a week.

Avula said the state would receive 117,000 first doses of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine and 140,000 second doses, along with 86,000 first doses of the Moderna vaccine and 82,000 second doses.

By April 18, Avula said there would be many open vaccination clinics scheduled so that when everyone moves into Phase 2, “everyone can be navigated to an appointment,” but he added it would roll out appointment availability a week to two weeks at a time. While vaccinate.virginia.gov will still be “the front door,” the state will direct people to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website, vaccinefinder.org, which after April 18 will include pharmacies as well as health department clinics and other providers.