RICHMOND, Va. -- As nearly a dozen health districts in Virginia moved into Phase 1B of the COVID-19 vaccine roll out on Monday, Richmond and Henrico County's Health Director said he anticipates Central Virginia could join them as early as the beginning of next week.
"We're going to do our best to move together as a region," said Dr. Danny Avula. "We did that with Northern Virginia and Southwest Virginia, for the most part. And I really do anticipate, depending on what vaccine supply looks like, if we get a big number announced this week about what's coming to the different parts of Virginia, I think it's very likely that we'll be able to move into 1B as a region if not at the beginning of next week, perhaps the end of next week or the following week."
Avula also spoke to his nearly week-old role as the person tasked by Governor Ralph Northam to lead the Commonwealth's vaccination program.
"What's clear is that this is the most complex logistical challenge we've ever faced as an agency, as a state," said Avula. "Just the layers, the processes that the federal government has set up. The communication that needs to happen to the different groups so that they understand when the vaccine will be made available to them and how they can actually get access to it."
Avula said he feels Virginia has done a "good job" of getting the vaccine to the Phase 1A group, roughly 500,000 healthcare workers and residents and staff of long-term care facilities.
He added he's heard from most health systems that about 50 to 60% of workers in the healthcare field have been taking the opportunity to get the vaccine, but said some who were initially hesitant have agreed to get the vaccine after seeing their colleagues get it.
Meanwhile, he said the fact some regions are moving into 1B, while others are not, should not be seen as some communities falling behind.
"Because of the diversity of our state, you have places in Southwest Virginia that just don't have the concentration of healthcare workers that other parts of the state do," said Avula. "So, they were able to get through the demand in 1A very quickly. And what the resulted in was a scenario where health systems and health departments had the vaccine, they felt constrained by the 1A, 1B, and they weren't able to get the vaccine out into the next phase. And, so, what we realized is that we had to give regions the flexibility to move on."
Avula said right now, the state is averaging around 10,000 vaccinations per day and is likely around six weeks away from hitting Governor Northam's target of 25,000 per day and even further from the eventual goal of 50,000 per day.
One way VDH is ramping up for vaccinators is to get private providers and pharmacies approved to administer it.
"I'll be the first to admit that the on board of that was pretty clunky. The CDC created brand new systems to get providers signed up and able to give the vaccine. That has not been an incredibly smooth process," said Avula. "And, so, our folks at the state health department are working, just nonstop, to get that to a place where we have providers that are approved... To date, we have about 1,000 private providers who now have been approved through the system. We have 170 or so pharmacies that have been approved."
Avula added VDH has launched an online tool where people can find out when they may qualify for the vaccine and it will give officials the ability to contact you when it is your turn.
"There will be a mixed method approach, right. There will be specific clinics that we're setting up for police and fire, there will be specific clinics that we're setting up for teachers and childcare workers," said Avula. "But, there will be pathways and there already is the pathway built on the VDH website so if... you fall into one of those other categories, for example, you're 75 or older, or you're a food service worker, and you go ahead and register on that site. The next step is that somebody from the health department will reach out to you once there are clinics available for that grouping."
Avula said that officials are also working on contingency plans to ensure vulnerable communities are not overlooked.
"Communities that don't have access to transportation; that don't have health insurance and may not choose to go to a private provider or pharmacy because they think there's going to be a payment barrier," said Avula. "And, so, we simultaneously need to do the large scale mass vaccination work, but we also need to find more targeted solutions for vulnerable communities.”