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Virginia Health on more contagious variant: 'We're not out of the woods yet'

Posted at 6:31 PM, Jun 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-15 14:13:06-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- As the more contagious Delta variant began to take hold in the United States, Virginia Health Officials worked to address vaccine hesitancy amid declining vaccination rates.

A few cases of the Delta variant or B1.617.2, had already been found in Virginia, according to Virginia’s Vaccination Coordinator Dr. Danny Avula. He said in the United States, it made up about 6% of cases, and was expected to spread.

“I think it's just yet another reminder to us that we're not out of the woods yet,” said Dr. Avula. “The reality is that it’s here in Virginia and we’re going to see more and more as the weeks go on.”

The strain, which devastated India and swept across the United Kingdom, was about 40 percent more contagious than other variants, according to Avula.

He said the Delta variant could soon become one of the more predominant strains in the U.S. — and eventually in the state.

“We know that there are parts of our state where we are under 50% vaccinated. And so that reality means that we likely will see spread,” said Dr. Avula.

Dr. Avula said not only could new variants take hold in unvaccinated populations, but also could eventually impact the effectiveness of the vaccine.

“Each new mutation of that S protein, each new mutation that leads to a new variant means that the vaccine is slightly less effective,” Dr. Avula said.

However, Avula said current vaccines in the U.S. were still showing to be effective against variants. For the Delta variant specifically, he said in a fully vaccinated individual, they were about 85 percent effective. But added that this highlighted the need for more people to get the shot.

“We’re averaging somewhere between six (thousand) and 8,000 new adults a day getting vaccinated,” Dr. Avula said.

With that that vaccination rate, Virginia was in good shape to meet President Biden’s goal to have 70 percent of adults vaccinated with at least one dose by July 4th, according to Avula.

As of Monday, the state was at 69 percent.

“Right now, that equates to about 70,000, adult Virginians that we would need to vaccinate between now and July 4,” Dr. Avula said.

Avula estimated the state would reach that goal in seven to ten days. But some people were still hesitant.

Dr. Avula said June had seen a decrease in vaccination rates which he said was, in part, to be expected.

“So much of the work right now is, is a shift away from what we have been doing for the first four months. You know, from January to April, it was all about allocating the vaccine, getting vaccine out as efficiently as possible through mass vaccination efforts through pharmacies,” said Avula. “Now, what we're seeing is that the people who were ready to get vaccinated or wanted to get vaccinated, you know, that thirst has been satiated. And so now we have segments of the population that that have questions, and they are not sure whether this is what they want to do or not.”

Avula said health officials were addressing hesitancy by putting more vaccine in private providers’ offices and working to connect with trusted voices in the community — like pastors who could help sort through misinformation.

Avula said certain areas of Virginia — like the south and southwest had lower vaccination rates than central Virginia. But Richmond had lower vaccination rates than surrounding counties.

“We’ve really shifted our model to do more outreach and education,” said Cat Long, Spokesperson for the Richmond Henrico Health District.

As of Monday, Long said 52.1 percent of Richmond adults had been vaccinated with at least one dose. But in Henrico that number was at 67.5 percent.

The Richmond Health District was addressing hesitancy by targeting communities with lower uptake and higher risk and bringing vaccines to them, according to Long.

“In some pockets of the north side, the east end and the south side, particularly, are all really important to us,” said Long. “And we're looking at areas in Henrico, where there are lower income communities. In Richmond and Henrico, where there are immigrant populations. We just want to make it as easy as possible and create as many points of access.”

Long encouraged the community to get involved in the effort

“We know that people are much more influenced by their loved ones that they know and they trust than they will be by us,” said Long. “Chat with your friends and family in a way that is gentle, and kind, and informative. And you can read up on vaccines yourself so that you can be a conveyor of that message.”