RICHMOND, Va. -- The federal government said it will no longer hold back second doses of the COVID-19 vaccine and is asking states to expand access to the vaccine to a larger portion of the population.
At an Operation Warp Speed briefing on Tuesday, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Alex Azar said the change in the month-old vaccine rollout "reflects the urgency of the situation we face."
"Every vaccine dose that is sitting in a warehouse rather than going into an arm could mean one more life lost or one more hospital bed occupied," said Azar.
Azar said there are telling states they should open up vaccinations to anyone 65 and older or under the age of 65, if they have a medically documented COVID-19 comorbidity.
In Virginia, that group of people fall into Phase 1C. Currently, 11 health districts in Virginia began Phase 1B this week. The remainder are in Phase 1A (healthcare workers and longterm care facility residents and staff).
Azar said they are also calling on states to expand channels for vaccine administration.
Richmond and Henrico County Health Departments Director Dr. Danny Avula, who is now in charge of Virginia's vaccine rollout, told CBS 6 on Monday that VDH had already begun that process and had on-boarded over 1,000 private providers and around 170 pharmacies.
CBS 6 reached out to the Virginia Department of Health to see what the impact of these changes would be for Virginia's vaccine rollout. They said in a statement that "Virginia's Unified Command will consider these new federal recommendations and update its guidance as needed."
"This is a complex process with many moving parts. This is an immense undertaking, this is a wide scale, nationwide and really global vaccination effort. Here in Virginia, it's a it's a statewide initiative," said Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association's (VHHA) Vice President of Communications Julian Walker about the federal changes. "Our position has been consistent, we want to do this as quickly and safely and effectively as possible."
Back on December 30, VHHA's President & CEO Sean Connaughton wrote a letter to Virginia Governor Ralph Northam asking him to, among other things, "aggressively" expand "the Commonwealth's efforts to vaccinate Virginians as quickly as possible."
The letter expressed concern about the rising number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. It said while VHHA hospitals and health systems remain prepared to care for all Virginians, "maintaining our acute care hospital capacity will require continued public vigilance and unity in adhering to existing and enhanced public health safety precautions."
"That letter really is just a really reiteration of principles that we've communicated with the Northam administration about working collaboratively to do everything that we can to administer doses of COVID-19 vaccine in a safe, effective and expeditious manner," said Walker. "We have been on an upward trajectory in terms of total hospitalized patients and positive patients really, since the end of October... There's still capacity in the Virginia healthcare delivery system. But, if we continue on this trajectory, we could end up in a posture where the existing capacity of the system, which has been enhanced in response to the pandemic with thousands of beds added, even so, we could reach a critical breaking point. We're not there yet. We've never been there so far in Virginia. But, if we stay on this course, we could end up there."
Among the other requests for action from the Governor included sharing "data-driven, educational messaging about the importance of masking, hand washing, and social distancing" and consider "additional public health measures regarding limits on indoor dining, stricter occupancy limits, expanded use of telework, and requirements for non-essential businesses."
"We all need to work together and really just double down on strategies to limit the spread -- to get people to take these smart, personal safety behaviors like mask wearing and social distancing and avoiding large crowds," said Walker.
Alena Yarmosky, the Governor's spokesperson sent the following statement to CBS 6 in response to the letter:
"Governor Northam values his partnership with Virginia hospitals and is continuing to work closely with them in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Governor just announced new measures last week to increase flexibility in vaccine administration, and continues to actively consider additional measures to mitigate the spread of the virus and protect hospital capacity, as needed."
The Northam administration has imposed several restrictions over the last two months, including a 10 p.m. cutoff for alcohol sales at bars and restaurants, limiting social gatherings to 10 people, lowering the mask mandate to those five and older, an overnight stay-at-home order, and capacity limits for indoor dining and non-essential businesses.