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Virginia officials will exert more control over the state's vaccination process to speed up delivery; Northam extends covid restrictions



Mel Leonor
Richmond Times-Dispatch

Gov. Ralph Northam said Wednesday that he feels “the frustration out there” regarding the state’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout, and he indicated his administration will play a larger role in coordinating vaccine acquisition and delivery to “get more shots in more arms faster.”

During a briefing with reporters, Northam laid out a series of steps to increase the number of first doses available to Virginians by 100,000 this week. He also promised the imminent release of a statewide appointment system and expanded call center to help Virginians access the vaccine — the lack of which has caused confusion and frustration among the public and left the task to local health departments.

 
 
Gov. Northam gives update on Virginia vaccination rate

 

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Virginia has struggled with vaccine distribution since receiving its first doses in December, and for nearly a month, it trailed nearly every other state in how much of its supply it administered. That changed this week.

Of the 1.16 million doses the state has received from the federal government, 53% have been administered. That is slightly above the national average.

 
 
Northam promises uptick in Virginia vaccination rates

 

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COVID restrictions extended

Northam announced Wednesday that the state would remain under the current public restrictions through the end of February. That includes a curfew between midnight and 5 a.m. and a limit of 10 people at private gatherings.

 

“I understand your frustration. I know you’re out of patience, and I am as well,” Northam said.

While the percentage of people testing positive for COVID-19 is at 12%, down from 17% at the start of the year, Virginia is one of five states seeing a sustained high number of new cases, according to a data compilation from The New York Times of case counts, deaths and hot spots recorded by state and local health agencies. On Wednesday, the state saw a single-day case increase of 5,227 cases.

Long-term care sites

 
 

Among Virginia’s challenges is the delayed vaccination of residents and staff at long-term care facilities — the state’s highest priority. On Wednesday, Northam stood next to representatives of CVS and Walgreens, which are administering vaccines at these facilities through a federal partnership, and they pledged to speed up their vaccination efforts.

Walgreens committed to wrap up its share by the end of the first week of February, while CVS said it would finish its vaccinations at skilled-nursing facilities by the end of February, and at all but 3% of assisted-living facilities in three weeks.

Currently, 48.5% of the pharmacy chains’ allotted doses have been administered.

 
Northam describes Walgreens, CVS role in vaccinations

 

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Northam said he was “satisfied” with their progress. But in interviews, administration officials said the entities had estimated that their delivery would be faster than it has been, holding up doses that the state could otherwise access for the broader public.

Northam Chief of Staff Clark Mercer said it would be a few weeks before the pharmacies get through the surplus they already have. As a result, roughly 60,000 doses that were reserved for the partnership will be redirected to the statewide pool and replenished within a few weeks.

 
 
CVS updates their vaccination progress in Virginia

 

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40,000 more doses

The state’s vaccine coordinator, Dr. Danny Avula, said in an interview Wednesday that about 260,000 doses are sitting in reserves within the state’s hospitals for second-dose vaccinations, most of which are scheduled to go into arms in the next week.

Virginia identified roughly 40,000 doses that are not scheduled to be injected in the next two to three weeks. In calls with hospital systems, the Northam administration urged them to administer those as first doses, promising to replace that volume by the time they are needed.

“We’re also working with hospitals and local health districts to make sure they’re not holding on to too much supply of second doses, especially if they won’t need it for several weeks,” Northam said. “My team and I have been working the phones, asking hospital companies to shift excess supply to others who can get more first shots in arms right now.”

Northam said cooperation on this request by the state’s hospitals will increase the number of shots administered in Virginia this week by 20%. Avula said that the one-time move should not delay any second doses. However, in an email to staff, VCU Health said it would after rerouting about 9,500 doses to the state.

“We are delaying second-dose vaccinations by lengthening the amount of time between their first and second dose vaccinations until our vaccination supply has been replenished,” read the email, sent shortly before the start of the governor’s press conference.

“We have confidence in the state’s efforts to make second doses available to us as soon as they are able, so we can resume second-dose vaccinations within the expanded time frame recently authorized by the CDC, which allows six weeks between the first and second vaccinations.”

Avula reiterated that the state’s request should not delay second doses, and that the state was committed to replenishing hospitals with doses in time.

 
Dr. Danny Avula comments on CDC mask guidance

 

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Statewide, Avula said, the move is meant to help reduce the vaccine backlog that resulted from hospitals requesting more doses than they were ready to immediately administer.

Mercer, the chief of staff, said in an interview that the excess supply that hospitals and pharmacies have and can’t immediately inject is among the reasons why the state appears to have administered too few of the doses it has received.

Other states have begun to be more judicious about the number of allocated doses they draw down from the federal government, Mercer added, timing it with when they are needed rather than as soon as they are available.

“We’re starting to do this,” he said.

Avula said separately that the state would exert more control over how Virginia’s inventory is used, making sure vaccines are distributed where they can be immediately used.

Mercer said boosting the percentage of vaccines administered compared with those received is “100% the reason,” for doing so. “For the press, it’s almost an obsession with looking at that ranking that the CDC pulls,” he said.

Northam said coordination of supply and delivery is expected to improve under the new administration of President Joe Biden, which this week promised governors it would increase vaccine supply by 16% and keep it steady for the next month.

“Instead of being forced to operate week to week, we will now be able to plan out a month,” Northam said.

New guidance

On Wednesday, the Virginia Department of Health issued guidance to local health districts to help them prioritize vaccine distribution. Local health departments are taking the lead vaccinating the second priority group, known as 1B, which includes people 65 and older, front-line essential workers and people with health conditions that put them at higher risk for severe illness.

The state is instructing health departments to allocate 50% of the vaccines they receive to people over 65 and the other 50% to the rest of the priority group.

As the state expands eligibility, Northam acknowledged widespread confusion and doubt about how and where to get a vaccine dose. Northam reiterated that the state is working on a website and call center that will help people figure out when they will be eligible for a dose and where they can procure it.

“That is not ready today, but I expect it to be ready soon. And I’ve told the Health Department that this is a top priority. I know this has been a source of great frustration for a lot of Virginians. I hear you. And we’re getting this fixed.”

 

mleonor@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6254

Twitter: @MelLeonor_


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