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Virginia Vaccinations Lag as State Nears 5,000 Deaths

COVID-19 vaccinations sit on a table at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. (Photo: U.S. Air Force/Creative Commons)

Virginia health care providers have administered only a fraction of the roughly 285,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses the commonwealth has received, mirroring a pattern seen across the U.S. And while officials expect the pace to pick up, the vaccines come against the backdrop of a grim end-of-year marker: Virginia is set to surpass 5,000 COVID-19 deaths in the coming days. 

The federal government trimmed Virginia’s allotment of doses to 370,000 earlier this month, down about 110,000 from an earlier estimate. Only one-fifth of the doses it’s gotten so far have been administered, according to state data, although officials at the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) say those numbers are incomplete.

Several factors play into the slow rollout, including the logistical challenges of storing and distributing the vaccine and the novelty of setting up the infrastructure quickly. Christy Gray, director of VDH’s immunization division, said she expects the situation to improve as Virginia receives roughly 100,000 new doses per week in January. 

“I think we are pleased with our progress, but we have a long way to go,” Gray said in a call with reporters. “I think we will continue to get more efficient.”

Vaccinations at long-term care facilities began this week. And state officials are expected to finalize details on the next phase of vaccines, for essential workers and people aged 75 and up, later this week. 

About 2,700 Virginians are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, far surpassing any previous peaks in the pandemic.

“What’s a little bit unique about the current situation is that it's more evenly distributed across the state,” said Julian Walker, a spokesman for the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association.

Hospitals generally have enough beds -- over 3,000 across the state -- but some are having trouble replacing staff who test positive for the virus and quarantine, Walker said. And hospitals are bracing for a possible uptick in cases following the December holidays, he said. 

The association is now trying to recruit health care workers to help deal with the surge, including retirees or other people whose medical licences have recently expired in good standing. Candidates will be matched with regional hospitals and health care providers depending on demand. 

Walker said the state initially expected it would take between 45 and 60 days to vaccinate all health care workers. But both he and Gray hedged on whether that timetable had shifted. 

The timing of future rollouts to the general population remain uncertain. Gov. Ralph Northam told NPR’s Weekend Edition he expected most Virginians to be vaccinated by early to mid-summer 2021. With the possibility of both new vaccines and unforeseen roadblocks down the line, Gray was cautiously optimistic that timeline would still hold. 

“It is difficult to say one way or the other whether we can confidently stay on that track, but I don't see reasons that we couldn’t,” Gray said.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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