The new Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine has arrived in the New River Valley, and the New River Health District is making plans to distribute it as widely as possible, within the current priority group.

This week, the district received 5,000 doses of the new vaccine, in addition to its weekly shipments of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, said Noelle Bissell, the district’s health director, on Wednesday during a virtual meeting with members of the news media.

The district will begin to offer the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to as many people who want it and who are part of the phase 1a and phase 1b priority groups. They include health care workers, people who work in critical infrastructure jobs, such as manufacturing, and those who are 65 and older.

“We are hoping to make a big dent in those [groups] with the infusion of these numbers,” Bissell said.

Unlike the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine requires only one dose. But the side effects, which can include headaches, body aches, and low grade fever, are similar to those that people may experience with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, Bissell said.

Though people can choose which vaccine they take, Bissell encouraged anyone who is eligible to receive the vaccine that is available to them. There have been reports questioning the efficacy of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, but Bissell said the vaccine is as effective as the others, adding “I don’t want people to look at it as something less.”

“From a public health standpoint, we are not going to get to COVID zero,” she said. “COVID will be circulating. Vaccine success is preventing serious hospitalization and death, and all three vaccines are excellent choices to do that.”

The district will host a virtual town hall on March 11 at 6 p.m. to discuss the state of the pandemic in the region. More info about the town hall can be found at

Bissell said she is hopeful that having additional vaccine supply will allow the district to move quicker to the next priority phase, phase 1c. But she did not offer a timeline estimate.

“We are working hard to make sure that we are not missing people [in phases 1a and 1b] before we start moving on,” she said.

Throughout the district, COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to decline, and that largely is attributed to the administration of vaccines for people in high risk priority groups, Bissell said.

Cases also are decreasing at local universities, according to health district data. 

Virginia Tech announced this week that there may be some in-person activities to celebrate its spring commencement in May if statewide restrictions on gatherings loosen by then. The university’s commencement ceremony will be held virtually.

Bissell said she believes that it is fine to plan for the potential of having some in-person activities in May, particularly as the weather gets warmer and vaccine supply likely will increase across the state. Even so, vaccine demand far exceeds supply, she said.

“There are a lot of unknowns between now and May,”  Bissell said. “If the [vaccine] supply increases markedly, as we hope that it will, it will be a game changer.”

—Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone

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