Positive COVID-19 cases in the region are declining, as are the numbers of people who are being tested for the coronavirus. 

It all points to one conclusion — vaccines are working, said Noelle Bissell, health director of the New River Health District.

“Those numbers [COVID-19 tests] will remain on the lower side as more people get vaccinated,” she said during a May 17 meeting with members of the news media.

So far, about 40 percent of the health district’s population has received one vaccine dose, and 32 percent are fully vaccinated.

The district will hold its last large vaccination clinic on May 18 at Lane Stadium where it will offer all three vaccines - Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson. Afterward, the district will host smaller clinics with local pharmacies and other partners. The clinic schedules are posted on the district’s website.

Since the pandemic began, more than 1,500 people have volunteered with the district’s COVID-19 testing and vaccination efforts, Bissell said.

The district already has begun offering COVID-19 vaccines in schools for children ages 12 and older, with parental consent. Last week, the Pfizer vaccine was approved for children who are 12 to 15 years old. Vaccines for this young population are as important as any, Bissell said.

“They can still play a role in the spread of the virus even if they don’t get very sick or have symptoms,” she said. “It’s part of the overall effort to decrease transmission.”

Vaccines for this age group also are essential in order for schools to move forward with in-person instruction. In particular, vaccinated students do not have to quarantine if they have been in contact with someone who has COVID-19, she said. 

“This is a huge step toward safety and stability for families,” Bissell said.

Virginia took another important step on May 14 when Gov. Ralph Northam lifted the state’s universal indoor mask mandate. Those who are vaccinated do not have to wear masks indoors, except in health care facilities, public transit, and congregate settings, following national guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Though the change is welcome news, Bissell encouraged people to be patient and to show grace as some institutions determine how they will operate. Virginia Tech is evaluating how these changes will apply to campus operations.

“We know the science is pretty clear that vaccinated people are protected and can start resuming normal activities,” she said. “However, there are a lot of caveats to this, and we are asking that everyone be patient. It’s a rapidly changing situation.”

The district is awaiting guidance from the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry regarding how some larger employers, such as manufacturers, could adapt to the new guidelines.

“We are trying to work with businesses to do the safest thing we can,” Bissell said. “It is confusing; there are some nuances. Clearly for people who are vaccinated, it’s not as important of an issue as those who are not vaccinated.”

— Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone

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