Editor’s note – updated January 15, 2021:

Following publication of this article, the Virginia Department of Health changed the phase 1b group to include individuals age 65 and older. 

The ambitious effort to roll out the coronavirus vaccine to a new priority group of people in the New River Valley is moving quickly and drumming up excitement in its wake.

Approximately 4,500 people who live in the New River Health District had received the coronavirus vaccine as of Jan. 13. The district is working as fast as it can to schedule vaccination appointments for people who fall in the phase 1b group, as determined by the Virginia Department of Health, said Noelle Bissell, health director for the district during a Wednesday meeting with news media. This includes people who interact directly with the public in such jobs as public safety, K-12 schools, childcare, grocery stores, and individuals age 75 and older.

The move to phase 1b “has unleashed a lot of excitement and emotion across the region and the state,” Bissell said. “From what we have seen, there are a lot of people in the New River Valley who want to get the vaccine, and we are really excited to see the demand.”

The district began administering the vaccine for phase 1b on Jan. 11, and its goal is to vaccinate 1,000 to 1,200 people a day. Those who fall in phase 1b must pre-register to receive the vaccine at the health district’s website or by calling a new hotline at 540-838-8222.

After pre-registering, the health district will call each person to schedule an appointment for a vaccination. People who are not in phase 1b or phase 1a, which includes front-line health care workers, should not preregister for a vaccine. The health district will announce when it is time for each priority group to receive a vaccine.

Bissell emphasized that phase 1b includes a large number of people, and that it will take time to vaccinate as many as possible in this group. The health district is scheduling some vaccinations in blocks so that individuals who work in large settings, such as schools, can receive the vaccine at similar times.

“Our goal is to build the most efficient and safe process for vaccinating the most people that we can in our community,” Bissell said. “We want to get vaccines into arms as quickly as possible while still being safe.”

Once each person is vaccinated, they are required to wait in a designated area at the vaccination site for 15 minutes so that district staff and volunteers can observe them for possible reactions. Each vaccine is administered in two doses approximately three to four weeks apart. Health officials have said that the second dose is likely to produce side effects.

Each week, the health district receives a predetermined vaccine dose amount from the Virginia Department of Health. Bissell said she orders vaccines based on the upcoming week’s capacity to administer the doses and scheduled appointments. She wants to ensure that no vaccine is wasted. For instance, once each vial of the Moderna vaccine is opened, all 10 doses must be administered within six hours.

“It’s a big logistical challenge,” Bissell said. “I absolutely want to get it off the shelf. I do not want to request vaccine that I cannot give.”

The state receives about 110,000 doses a week to distribute, though that amount changes regularly based on what manufacturers release. So far, the health district’s vaccine supplies have been adequate, Bissell said.

She said the district is working with chain and independent pharmacy retailers and doctor’s offices to eventually administer vaccines. Alongside the ramp up of vaccination clinics, Bissell said the region’s COVID-19 testing capacity remains on track, and she praised Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC for its work producing test results fast.

The district has opened several supervised self-collection test sites in the region.

Bissell said she anticipates a slight rise in positive COVID-19 cases once students return to the area and begin spring semester classes next week at Virginia Tech and Radford University. But those case numbers are likely to be minimal compared to the large increases when students returned to campuses last fall, she said.

Overall, she characterized this time period as the “home stretch.”

“I know people are tired of COVID,” Bissell said. “If we can just hang in there, we can get people vaccinated and get that herd immunity [when 75 to 85 percent of the population is vaccinated]. That can help us get back to some semblance of normal.”

Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone

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