RICHMOND, Va. -- A top health official said Thursday that he's confident no COVID-19 vaccine doses have gone to waste in Virginia, despite mounting criticism over the state's sluggish inoculation rate and questions about where shots have been distributed.
Dr. Danny Avula, who was recently tapped by the governor to lead the vaccine distribution effort, said the state health department is working urgently to close the six-figure gap between the number of shots the state has received and the number that has gone into arms. But he said he has no concerns that any of the temperature-sensitive vaccines have been lost or misplaced.
“We really do have a good sense of where most of it is and what we need to do to get it off the shelves,” Avula said, speaking at a mass vaccination event for police officers, child care workers, and other frontline essential workers at the Richmond Raceway.
The difference between the approximately 960,000 doses the state has received and the approximately 400,000 it currently reports having administered has raised sharp criticism from GOP lawmakers. Some local officials have also expressed concerns and confusion about the state's handling of the rollout.
“Virginia’s government is failing her citizens," GOP Del. Roxann Robinson said in a floor speech Wednesday. "The CDC tells us that there have been hundreds of thousands of doses sent to Virginia that are not making it into arms. Where are they? Why were we not prepared?”
Avula provided at least a partial accounting Thursday, saying that some of the doses were redistributed from one facility to another; others allocated for long-term care facilities were put on hold during outbreaks of the virus; some recipients held doses in reserve out of uncertainty about obtaining a necessary second dose; and there was a lag in reporting about 90,000 doses that had been administered.
While Virginia has been consistently near the bottom of the federal government's ranking of doses administered, the national vaccine rollout more broadly has proceeded at a disappointing pace.
The U.S. government has delivered nearly 38 million doses of vaccine to the states, and about 17.5 million of those have been administered, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Only about 2.4 million people have received the necessary two doses, by the CDC’s count.
And other states have seen vaccine go to waste.
North Carolina’s top public official acknowledged for the first time on Thursday that the state has seen a small number of coronavirus vaccine doses thrown out.
In Ohio, a pharmacy responsible for distributing the vaccine to nursing homes failed to document storage temperatures for leftover shots, resulting in 890 doses being wasted, the state health department said Wednesday.
Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat and a doctor, said at Thursday's event that vaccine hesitancy is another struggle the state is facing in its aim to get about 75-80% of the state vaccinated - the level health experts say is needed to reach herd immunity and stop the virus's spread. He said his administration would continue working with faith and community leaders to reassure people that the vaccine is safe and effective.
“The way we’re going to get this pandemic behind us is to get as many Virginians vaccinated as we can," he said.
Also Thursday, the Virginia Department of Corrections announced that it was seeking to encourage inmates to get the vaccine by offering those who get a shot free email, stamps and telephone credits as well as a “care package” with commissary items including snacks.
As of Jan. 15, 648 inmates had received vaccinations, according to the department, which said it would begin reporting vaccination numbers weekly. A total of 25,000 inmates and “probationers” are housed in Department of Correction facilities.
Virginia has seen nearly 460,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 5,940 deaths related to the illness to date, according to state health department data.
Over the past two weeks, the rolling daily average of new cases has increased by 1,442, an increase of 30.6%, according to an Associated Press analysis. One in every 198 people in Virginia tested positive in the past week.