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Even With More Doses, Early Vaccines Unlikely to Flatten Curve

People holding signs
Though healthcare workers should soon be inoculated against COVID-19, most Virginians will have to wait for doses, meaning spread could remain high and ICUs full. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

With Virginia embroiled in its worst spike of the COVID-19 pandemic, the state is set to receive nearly enough vaccine doses to protect healthcare workers and long-term care facility residents.

In a press release Friday, the state Department of Health announced they expect to receive around 480,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines by the end of the month. Previously, Gov. Ralph Northam said the state would get 70,000 doses in the first shipment.

The state followed CDC guidelines in selecting healthcare workers and long-term care residents as the highest priority targets for vaccination. VDH estimates 500,000 people comprise those groups.

Despite the increase in projected doses, health experts are warning that early vaccinations will not drastically control the spread of the virus. Bryan Lewis, a computational epidemiologist at the University of Virginia, says that’s an intentional part of the distribution design.

“What we’re really trying to do with these first doses is protect the people who need to be protected the most,” he said. “These first shipments of this vaccine are mainly targeting saving lives and allowing the hospitals to function.”

Lewis said while death rates should fall, it’s unlikely there will be much change to case counts until vaccinations reach past the first 500,000. Following the first two groups, the state plans to administer the vaccine to essential workers and those at higher risk for severe illness, followed by the general public.

“That’s when you might start to see more of a population-level dynamic where you’d start to see the evidence inside of the curves,” Lewis said.3

This echoes sentiments from Northam who has repeatedly said it will take months to get the vaccine distributed to all and stressed the continued importance of social distancing, something some experts say increases as the vaccine nears.

“Now, we have a vaccine for COVID-19, and we can sort of see the end of the tunnel,” said Timothy Reluga, a professor of biology and mathematics at Penn State. “And so if we know that there’s an end soon, then it makes a lot of sense to do a lot of social distancing, a lot of prevention, because we don’t have to do it for very long.”

During an interview with CNBC Monday, Northam discussed the possibility of implementing further restrictions on the state. However, Reluga noted increased social distancing may not be widely accepted as pandemic fatigue wears on the nation. 

“So many people have made decisions so far that had repercussions on their lives. It’s not necessarily an easy choice to make now,” he said. “If you have a business, and you’ve had it shut down for six months, you’ve used up an awful lot of capital at that point.”

According to the state’s model developed by the Biocomplexity Institute at U.Va., new cases in Virginia could peak at 26,597 per week if the virus is better controlled or 77,159 if control slackens.

Connor Scribner is a former VPM News assistant editor.
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