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Officials confident of more COVID-19 vaccine coming to state, city

Take the one you can get. 

That’s what health officials are saying about one of the three COVID-19 vaccines now circulating in Virginia and around the country now that 69,000 doses of the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine are moving to locations across the state. On top of that, another 22,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are going to pharmacies in the state that are part of the Federal Retail Pharmacy Partnership. 

Doses of that vaccine will drop over the next couple of weeks, and then as production ramps up, the supply will increase, state vaccine coordinator Dr. Danny Avula said during a media conference call March 3. 

He anticipates the state will get around 100,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine by the end of the month, which he expects will increase through next month. Combined with the Pfizer BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, Avula expects by the end of March through April to be receiving around 500,000 first and second doses per week, until the end of April when he expects the state to receive 650,000 doses per week. 

Avula said for the first shipment, the state health department plans to use the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at mass vaccination sites, but he sees it being optimal to use in certain situations, even as there are segments of the population that perceive the vaccine as less effective.

“We are full throttle, moving ahead with Johnson & Johnson, using it in mass vaccination scenarios,” Avula said. “And then we’ll continue to roll it out in other places where it makes sense, based on the logistical benefits of the vaccine.”

As of March 3, Avula said the state had allocated 65,000 of the 69,000 Johnson & Johnson doses, holding some doses for other health districts still finalizing their plans. While he didn’t provide amounts for every district, he expects about 14,000 doses to go to the Crater, Richmond, Chesterfield and Chickahominy health districts, 4,000 to Fairfax County and Northern Virginia, 2,000 to go to the Blue Ridge Health District, 1,500 each to Alexandria and Loudoun County and 1,400 to Alexandria. 

Also, three would be 1,000 J&J doses each to Prince William County, the Eastern Shore and Three Rivers. Riverside Health System is to get somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 doses, though that has not been finalized, and he did not expect much to go to Virginia Beach or Norfolk, Avula said, but any that is left over would likely go to those districts. 

Among the doses going to pharmacies, Dr. Stephanie Wheawill, director of the state pharmacy at the Virginia Department of Health, said there are a few independent pharmacies in Western Tidewater and the Eastern Shore that have received vaccine doses through the federal pharmacy partnership. 

The J&J vaccine will not be arriving to the health districts before March 5, Avula said, and then will be used between that date and March 9. 

Avula said as the vaccines are more widely available, there would be a mix of health departments, health systems, pharmacies and other providers administering them. 

Suffolk had a pair of vaccination clinics March 1 and March 2 at the Hilton Garden Inn Suffolk Riverfront with about 2,500 doses given over the two days through Bayview Physicians. The health departments in each of the localities in the Western Tidewater Health District are holding vaccination clinics once per week by appointment only from 8:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m — Tuesdays in Franklin, Wednesdays in Isle of Wight County, Thursdays in Southampton County and Fridays in Suffolk. Suffolk Public Schools also held second-dose vaccinations this week at King’s Fork High School. The city also partnered with the health department last month to vaccinate about 50 employees at the Western Tidewater Regional Jail. 

Deputy Fire Chief and Emergency Management Coordinator Brian Spicer said there will soon be a partnership with the local Meals on Wheels to have paramedics administer vaccines to shut-ins. 

The city has also submitted a request with the Virginia Department of Health to hold four separate vaccination centers — two sites, possibly at hotels, that would have a 1,000 person-per-day vaccination capacity for five days per week for up to three months. It’s possible, according to Spicer, that it could take place seven days per week.

Another two locations — churches or recreation centers are possibilities, Spicer said — would allow for 250 people to be vaccinated daily five days per week. Both sets of sites would have one located in the north end of the city and another in the south. 

Spicer also said that the city could also look to the Suffolk Executive Airport for a possible drive-through vaccination site if the weather is nice and other circumstances work.

Through March 3, there have been 16,960 nation doses provided in Suffolk, another 9,472 in Isle of Wight, 4,285 in Southampton and 2,036 in Franklin. Among all four district localities, 9,427 people have received the full vaccine. Statewide, more than 2.1 million total doses of the vaccine have been administered, and 16.2% of people in the state have received at least one dose. 

While vaccine data by race and ethnicity is still lagging — there is no such data for more than 3,300 people in Suffolk who have received the vaccine — people who are white have received the vaccine by about two-to-one. The data available from the state health department indicates that 5,537 people who are white have received the vaccine versus 2,762 for people who are Black. 

Interim health district director Dr. Lauren James noted that it is partnering with the Suffolk Coalition of Black Pastors to increase equity with the vaccine. 

“We have discussed what our next steps are, how we are going to reach the community,” James said, “who are more vulnerable, who don’t have internet access and who do not have emails.” 

It is looking for churches to create lists of their most vulnerable members who are not able to register for the vaccine online, and work with them to help provide more information to their members to get them comfortable about taking the vaccine. 

“We’re going to look to get out in the community where they are so our equity can be improved,” James said. 

Though Suffolk has had more overall vaccinations, it is behind the other three localities in the district for the per-capita rate. However, among Hampton Roads localities, it is in the middle of the pack, slightly behind Chesapeake and Virginia Beach, but ahead of Portsmouth and Norfolk. 

The city’s call center, according to Spicer, answered more than 1,500 calls per day with eight call takers. It also hired four temporary staff to staff the call center. When the state’s call center opened, the city’s call center volume decreased to fewer than 90 per day and reduced the temporary call takers from four to two. Spicer said there would be another assessment on the call center March 5. On March 2, Spicer said the city’s call center took about 65 calls. 

The city announced that it would close its call center at 5 p.m. March 5 due to the decreased volume of calls. Those who have questions or want to pre-register for the vaccine can call 1-877-829-4682 (1-877-VAX-IN-VA). 

Other places Avula said would make sense for the one-dose J&J vaccine would include inpatients in hospitals, which avoids logistical hurdles in having to schedule a follow-up dose. Another group, potentially, for the J&J vaccine would be those transferring from a hospital to a short-term or long-term facility, and those who are homeless.

The state, Avula said, is trying to find the right balance of prioritizing vulnerable people and making sure it uses the vaccine as quickly as possible, “particularly as we stare down the next couple of months of variants emerging.”

For those concerned about the perceived effectiveness of the new vaccine compared to Pfizer BioNTech’s and Moderna’s vaccines, Avula said the trials for each were done at different times, and for the two-dose vaccines, variants of COVID-19 were not then an issue. 

“The public may perceive that as J&J not being as effective a vaccine,” Avula said. “And so, I think it’s super important to lay out that this is not an apples-to-apples comparison. The J&J vaccine was done in a different context, in a different time, in a broader environment globally when variants were more of an issue.”

Still, Avula said the efficacies and hospitalization and death rates are around the same as for Pfizer and Moderna. He said that the J&J vaccine’s use at mass vaccination sites in the beginning is so that its safety is established. 

“Our message from a public health standpoint is that this is extremely effective, and absolutely preventative against the outcomes that matter most,” Avula said.