Frontline workers nervous, confused as Virginia vaccine numbers lag behind

Sovah Health Nurse Yolanda Pool receives the vaccine at Sovah

DANVILLE, Va. — Virginia has administered just over a quarter of its distributed COVID-19 vaccine doses, which, going into 2021, was 110,000 fewer doses than the commonwealth expected to receive. And with the projected numbers of both doses distributed and administered lagging behind statewide, Southern Virginia has gone overlooked, leaving Southside citizens worried and confused.

Fairfax County alone is responsible for nearly 12 percent of all administered vaccine doses among the commonwealth's 133 counties and independent cities. All of Southside Virginia combined, including the counties of Pittsylvania, Campbell, Franklin, Patrick, Halifax, Charlotte, Mecklenburg, Appomattox, Brunswick and Greensville, plus the cities of Danville, Martinsville and Emporia, account for less then three percent of vaccinated Virginians. Counties like Charlotte have vaccinated as few as six residents, as of Friday afternoon.

In fact, in a 53-minute press briefing Thursday afternoon conducted by Gov. Ralph Northam that sought to bring light to the commonwealth's vaccination rollout, Northern Virginia, Tidewater and the Richmond area were referenced in the discussion of vaccine success. There was no reference to Southern or Southwest Virginia during the conference.

Health officials announced Friday that the Pittsylvania-Danville and Southside health districts plan to expand COVID-19 vaccination to Phase 1b Jan. 18, to encompass teachers, public safety personnel and people aged 75 and older. Northam also announced Thursday that people under 64 with co-morbid conditions will also be eligible in Phase 1b.

Despite a hint at progress for the Southside, one Danville healthcare worker is confused and worried about her inability to get vaccinated.

"I wanted the vaccine as soon as I heard there would be one," Danville woman Deborah Phelps told the Star-Tribune Thursday. "Of course I was nervous, I didn’t want to be in a trial. But a few [vaccines] rolled out and it appears to be safe."

Phelps, 59, has diabetes and works for Negril Inc., a care provider serving Danville, Pittsylvania County and Richmond, to care for adult individuals with intellectual disabilities.

"For all those reasons, I'd like to get the vaccine so life can move on," Phelps said. "We [at Negril] have group homes and in-home support. It's vital that our staff gets access to these vaccines. I'm right on the frontline. But we are not in the list to get them yet."

Phelps maintained that she doesn't mind exercising patience at this early stage, but became worried when colleagues at Danville-Pittsylvania Community Services were vaccinated ahead of her.

"I don't mind waiting, I want direct care staff to get it first," Phelps explained. "But I don't want it given arbitrarily based on who they know, political position or whatever is motivated to give it to non-essential staff. I'm not in too bad health, but I don’t want to think people are getting it that shouldn't be getting it yet."

Then, in an unexpected turn of events, it was released Friday that the supposed "reserve" of second-dose shots that was slated to roll out this week does not actually exist.

Pfizer, Moderna and BioNTech doses arrived to the U.S. in quantities lower than anticipated, due to the fact "that the calculation for how much vaccination would be available…it was determined off of the wrong set of vaccines,” as VDH Immunization Director Christy Gray said in a press call Wednesday. Following this, the Trump administration shipped the "reserve" doses directly to health officials starting in late December.

According to the VDH, who refused to answer if the federal administration or vaccination manufacturers will be held to any degree of accountability by the commonwealth, herd immunity is achieved when 60-70 percent of Americans are vaccinated.

Dr. Danny Avula, director of the Richmond City and Henrico County health departments, said we need to do more.

"If we're going to get to the goal of 50,000 vaccines per day, which is what we need for herd immunity, we're going to need to do more," Avula said Thursday. "Part of what more looks like is standing up fixed-site mass vaccination centers across the commonwealth. Place that will be six-, seven-day-a-week operations. Eventually, our goal is to get this staffed by the National Guard and contracted vaccinators who will be able to provide this service in large scale."

For now, the U.S. is facing 230,000 new infections per day and 4,400 new deaths per day, with a 50 percent increase every two weeks.

"As soon as next week, we should see some more movement in the mass vaccination arena, as well as more vaccine as it's available," Avula said.

According to Northam, the vaccine is "the only way out of this pandemic."

"Vaccines are how we get back to a near normal," Northam said. "It is the light at the end of a long and dark tunnel. I promise your turn is coming."

Phelps and others like her can now look forward to Phase 1b in Pittsylvania-Danville and the Southside to start Monday.

“We are pleased to move to the next phase and to be able to provide a safe and effective vaccine to more people,” said Dr. Scott Spillmann, director of the Pittsylvania-Danville and Southside health districts. “But, as we enter Phase 1b, we will begin administering the second doses to those in 1a. We ask everyone to please be patient as we recruit as many contract staff and volunteers as we can to help with this.”

Sovah Health Chief Medical Officer Sheranda Gunn-Nolan encouraged Southside residents not to be afraid of side effects when their turn comes, and warned it couldn't be worse than the disease itself.

"My common question I get asked is, 'What is the long term effect of this vaccine?' My response is, 'What is the long-term effect of COVID-19?'" Gunn-Nolan said Wednesday. "We are starting to see people come to the hospital months after their COVID-19 diagnosis with other issues. This is a very serious matter and time will only continue to tell us what those long-term symptoms are for COVID-19. Vaccine side effects resolve in 24-48 hours."

And although many Southern Virginians fear the vaccine, many others, like Phelps, only wish their turn would come today.