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VIRGINIA — After numerous health districts in Virginia moved to phase 1b of coronavirus vaccinations this week, more residents will be eligible in this phase, Gov. Ralph Northam announced Thursday.
The expanded eligibility will allow anyone aged 65 and older as well as ages 16 to 64 with a high risk medical condition to get vaccinations. The list of medical conditions is listed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Residents should look to their health departments for guidance on how vaccinations are carried out in their localities.
People aged 65 and up and people aged 16 to 64 with a high risk medical condition were previously placed in phase 1c while people ages 75 and up fall within the current phase 1b. A start date has not been determined for phase 1c, but all Virginia health districts will be in phase 1b by the end of January.
"This means half of Virginia is now eligible to receive the vaccine," said Northam in a news conference on Thursday. "That's a major logistical effort, and it is not going to happen overnight. Everyone will need to be patient it's going to happen as fast as it can be done. And we're moving faster every day."
The updated guidance comes from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Northam said HHS advised states to immediately expand vaccinations to 65 and up and those under 64 who have a comorbid condition. The federal department also indicated it would help states to rapidly expand vaccination channels and was sending states funding to help achieve this.
"This is what we've been saying that a better federal partnership and support will help all the states get this done faster," said Northam.
Virginia is already making significant progress in comparison to other states, according to Northam. He said only a handful of states have given more doses, and they are bigger states like California, Texas, Florida. On Monday alone, over 15,000 were vaccinated in Virginia, followed by 17,000 on Tuesday.
Virginia is currently receiving an allocation of 110,000 vaccine doses per week from the federal government. To date, 100 percent of doses allocated to Virginia have been distributed to 160 vaccination sites across the state.
Last week, Northam set a goal of 25,000 people per day being vaccinated and an eventual goal of 50,000. He urged vaccine providers such as hospitals and health districts to administer doses as quickly as possible with a focus on the priority populations. Northam estimated Virginia would need 17 million doses total if the estimated 8.5 million Virginians would get vaccinated.
To help coordinate the between local and state officials, Northam appointed Dr. Danny TK Avula, the Henrico and Richmond health director, to head Virginia's vaccination program. Avula said on Thursday that hospitals are administering the majority of vaccinations in recent weeks and health departments are conducting large-scale vaccination clinics. He expects private providers and pharmacies will be more involved in future weeks.
"But what we recognize is if we're going to get to 50,000 doses a day, which is what we need to do if we're going to get herd immunity in the commonwealth, we really do need to get to an infrastructure that can handle 50,000 doses a day that we're going to need to do more," said Avula.
Part of that will be standing up fixed site mass vaccination centers across Virginia, Avula said. These sites would be open six to seven days a week in partnership with health departments, medical reserve corps and health systems. Ultimately, he said the goal would be to get these large-scale efforts staffed by the Virginia National Guard and contracted vaccinators. He pointed to examples of large-scale vaccination efforts like Fairfax County conducting 4,000 vaccinations at its government center and Virginia Beach Convention Center conducting nearly 1,000 in one day.
Northam also pointed to Inova Health System for administering over 35,000 doses so far and now coordinating with health departments to vaccinate teachers, public safety personnel and people aged 75 and up. He also recognized Mary Washington Healthcare in Fredericksburg, which is setting up clinics in large spaces.
"I'm grateful for our partnership with our hospitals in Virginia, and they're going to be a great help in the coming weeks as we speed up our pace of vaccinations," said the governor.
The governor acknowledged that some are hesitant to trust the vaccine and asked a person who was involved with a vaccine trial to speak. Wayne Turnage, who was chief of staff under former Gov. Tim Kaine and now deputy mayor for the District of Columbia Health and Human Services, spoke to the Black community specifically.
"Our reluctance is understandable, for it is born of a justifiable mistrust of medical experiments that were once implemented in the Black community using methods that violated the most basic research ethics for conducting experimental trials," said Turnage. "Not withstanding this egregious history and based on personal experience, I stand before you to bear witness to the process that produced the U.S. vaccines, in particular, the safety record compiled by the vaccines...and the effectiveness that was proven by rigorous experimental research study designs."
Turnage participated in a trial with 30,000 people, half of whom received the vaccine and the other half a placebo. Among people determined to be later infected with the virus, 95 percent were in the placebo group and 5 percent were in the vaccine group. He added that among severe infections and one death among participants, none were in the vaccine group.
"The takeaway is that once you get vaccinated...you have less than a 5 percent chance of contracting COVID, and if you get infected despite having the vaccine, there appears to be next to a zero chance that you will become deathly ill," he said.
He also wanted to dispel a fear in the Black community that the vaccine exposes someone to the virus. Turnage described COVID-19 vaccine as being designed with new technology that forces the body to make proteins that appear like the virus, tricking the immune system to produce antibodies.
"There is no chance that these vaccines will transform into the actual virus and make you sick," he said.
Turnage noted that the benefits of the vaccine outweigh safety concerns. He noted that side effects have been short term and mild, largely involving fatigue, headache and some muscle aches. Personally, he experienced fatigue for two days.
He concluded that the benefits of the vaccine's protection are clear when COVID-19 has killed over 385,000 people in the U.S. For Black individuals, he said the odds are worse than their white counterparts: Black residents have a 1.4 percent greater odds of contracting the virus, 3.7 percent greater odds of hospitalizations for COVID-19, and 2.8 times greater offs of dying of COVID-19.
For all Virginians, Northam reiterated guidance to continue following health protocols and get the vaccine when available to them.
"I will do it and so will our family," said Northam. "Vaccines are how we get back to a near normal. This is how we reopen our schools and rebuild our economy, through the vaccine. It is the light at the end of a long and dark tunnel. And while it is a massive undertaking and it will take some months to get to everyone, I promise your turn is coming, and soon."