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A shot in the dark?

Residents, local officials frustrated by slow pace of vaccinations, lack of information

It’s the light at the end of the tunnel.

That’s what Gov. Ralph Northam and state health officials have repeatedly said about the much-heralded arrival of a pair of COVID-19 vaccines since they began going into arms last month.

Other things they’ve repeatedly said:

We’ve got a plan to get the doses we need.

We’ve got a plan to give people the information they need.

We’ve got a plan to get everyone vaccinated.

But from the start — similar to the early days of the coronavirus pandemic when the state was devoid of tests, personal protective equipment and information on protecting ourselves from the virus — plans went awry.

The governor and state health officials have had to scale back the amount of vaccines provided to hospitals and local health districts.

Those delays continue to have ripple effects, especially in places like the Western Tidewater Health District, where two of its health departments, in Suffolk and Southampton County, are closed, and it currently shares a director with Portsmouth.

That’s led to unanswered calls, missed opportunities and little direction for residents to get accurate and timely information about COVID-19 and the vaccine, especially for older populations in rural areas without reliable broadband to access vaccination information.

And the health district has had to scramble to find mass vaccination sites — which district emergency manager Will Drewery views as critical — nearly two months after vaccine doses began coming to the region.

As much of the state, including Western Tidewater, is now in Phase 1B of vaccinations, which include frontline essential workers, people aged 65 and up, those aged 16 to 64 with a high-risk medical condition or disability, along with public and private childcare and school staff (https://www.vdh.virginia.gov/content/uploads/sites/191/2021/01/Phase-1b-In-Depth.pdf), precious few shots have gone in arms.

For many, getting the vaccine, or simply getting timely and accurate information about it, has been a shot in the dark.

The lack of doses

In the Western Tidewater Health District, 4,027 vaccine doses have been administered as of Jan. 22, according to the Virginia Department of Health, with 2,250 of those in Suffolk. Statewide, 424,857 vaccine doses have been administered among the 1,010,150 distributed.

To get to herd immunity, state and federal health officials have said 70% to 85% of the state’s residents need to get the vaccination.

Dr. Danny Avula, the state’s new vaccine coordinator, said 50,000 people per day would need to be vaccinated to get 80% of the state’s adults by the end of the year.

Avula has noted that more people have actually received the vaccine than data on the state health department dashboard indicates, it is unclear how many more, and local leaders are getting impatient with the slow pace of vaccine doses being administered.

Drewery said most of the health district’s vaccine data is reported in real-time to the state, though it has had instances where it has to record information with pen and paper and then put it into the system.

The 47-member Hampton Roads Planning District Commission board, made up of elected and appointed officials to the region’s 17 local governments, on Jan. 21 unanimously approved a letter to Gov. Ralph Northam urging an expedited response to increase the rate of vaccinations in Hampton Roads and Western Tidewater.

“Based on input from our localities, and the number of vaccines being made available to our communities, we estimate it would take at least 12 to 16 months for the population of Hampton Roads to be vaccinated,” the letter states. “We can all agree that this is not acceptable.”

Suffolk Mayor Mike Duman said he has reached out to local Del. Clinton Jenkins to have him speak to the city’s chief of staff. He said he would work with the city to increase opportunities for city residents to get the vaccine.

After the health district put out a notice Wednesday evening saying it was moving into Phase 1B and taking vaccine appointments, they were mostly taken within hours, and in Suffolk, no appointments are available for the next two weeks.

Drewery said each of the district’s four health departments would host one vaccination per week, with enough vaccine doses for about 600 people district-wide per week. He said the district plans to schedule vaccination appointments on a two-week basis as it learns how much vaccine it will have available.

But he said the health district, like others, is limited by the supply it receives.

“We receive our vaccine allocation early in the week, and by the end of the week, they’re all gone,” Drewery said. “The common misconception is that I’ve got a freezer full of vaccines somewhere in Suffolk or somewhere in Franklin. That’s certainly not the case. We received 1,000 doses of vaccine this week, and we plan to deliver 1,000 doses of vaccine this week.”

Each week, Drewery said the health district submits a request to the state for its allocation, and then it gets confirmation of that allocation.

“We haven’t had trouble obtaining vaccines up to this point, but we’re understanding that methodology may be changing,” Drewery said. “But we don’t know what that’ll look like just yet.”

The information gap

Though the state department of health has produced information about the vaccine on its website, that information is harder to come by locally, and even harder for those without broadband access.

As a state agency, the Western Tidewater Health District leases the space for the Suffolk Health Department from the city, and that space has been closed since March. It is the same situation in Southampton County, where the state health department and health district lease space from the county, so its staff moved to the health department in Franklin.

Those who have tried to call the Suffolk Health Department — many trying multiple times without success — were not able to reach anyone there since it has been closed since last March. Health department staff were relocated to the Isle of Wight County health department in Smithfield, Drewery said.

Since the health district opened up vaccinations to people in Phase 1B, it has updated its messaging and has staffed the phone number, which Drewery said would stay staffed for the foreseeable future. That phone number is 757-514-4781.

“There was a lot of people obviously trying to call this morning (Jan. 21),” Drewery said. “We had several folks in the Suffolk office and they did the best they could to try to keep up, but unfortunately, some folks sometimes did get the voicemail. We, of course, would encourage them to call back … next week to try to make an appointment. Obviously, we’re working with a very limited staff, but we’re answering the phone as quick as we can, and we’ll make that appointment as quick as we can.”

Drewery said not having the health departments open in Suffolk and Southampton County is unprecedented. It is an element to the health district’s continuity of operations plan, though he said it did not expect to have to use it on a long-term basis.

“If the city decided to open the building back up, obviously, there’s going to have to be some things that are done as far as staffing,” Drewery said, “and making sure there’s adequate supplies and all the items for staff safety and things like that before we can come back into the building. But as soon as the city tells us that they’re ready to make that transition to allow us access back to it, we’re ready to do that.”

Drewery said the health district has had conversations with the city about regaining access to the building, and it was his understanding that city representatives were at the building Jan. 21. Suffolk Mayor Mike Duman said Interim City Manager Al Moor was one of those people at the building.

As far as getting information about the vaccines out to city and health district residents, Drewery said the health district depends on the locality to get its information about vaccines out to the public. He asked for the public’s patience in this process.

“Just like with testing, we rely on the locality because they have a much larger presence and bandwidth to get our message out,” Drewery said. “So we rely on their platforms that they have that are already existing because we don’t have those platforms to get our message out. It certainly proved effective during testing.”

Duman said the city would continue to get information about the vaccine out on its website, through the media and through any other means possible.

“We’re absolutely going to make more of a concerted effort to get information out,” Duman said.

A vaccination plan

Drewery said the health district has enough people to carry out vaccinations, but there are efforts underway to train Suffolk Fire & Rescue paramedics on administering the vaccine, and a bill in the General Assembly — SB 1445 sponsored by Del. Siobhan Dunnivant of Henrico County — that would expand the number of volunteers to help administer the vaccine.

The commission letter noted that each health district is approaching the vaccine effort in an inconsistent manner “which is causing confusion and frustration across our region.”

It stated that it is creating “vast inconsistencies” on who is included in various phases and how soon they are vaccinated.

The commission is also concerned about equity in vaccine distribution, saying that lower-income people in the region could have reduced access to the vaccines because of which health district they live in. It also said health districts are underfunded and understaffed, “without the resources and structure to respond to this crisis in a timely manner.”

It also wants to see a public information campaign to get clear and consistent information about the vaccines to the region’s residents. With fewer than half of the doses delivered to the region having been used as of Jan. 21, it is calling on the limited supply to be administered as soon as possible.

“To ensure the vaccines are administered in a more expedient manner, protocol should be established that ties vaccine distribution numbers to those localities that can produce maximum through-put while providing immediate assistance to health districts not able to distribute their proportionate share by providing additional VDH resources or locality support.”

In Suffolk, Sentara Obici Hospital has been vaccinating frontline healthcare staff in Phase 1A, and it is now beginning to vaccinate those in Phase 1B for eligible Sentara Medical Group patients, along with continuing Phase 1A vaccinations for its more than 30,000 employees and community healthcare workers around the state. It is offering a limited number of vaccines to those who are eligible in Phase 1B, starting with people aged 75 and older. Sentara is contacting eligible patients through their MyChart account or via phone or text message, and stated it would expand its clinics depending on future vaccine supply.

Suffolk Fire & Rescue personnel, also in the 1A category, had the opportunity to receive a first dose earlier this month. Second doses are to be offered to them from Feb. 3 to Feb. 5. Deputy Fire Chief Brian Spicer said 44% of fire and rescue personnel have “accepted and received” the vaccine.

Spicer said city employees have been designated by the state department of health as frontline essential workers due to continuity of government. All city employees have been added to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Vaccine Administration and Management System, allowing employees to schedule their first vaccine dose. Suffolk Police, also in Phase 1B as essential frontline workers, are also eligible to receive the vaccine.

Once they are in the VAMS system, they will see a list of locations where they can go to receive the vaccine, with 10 clinics within about a 50-mile radius of Suffolk. That includes at least three in the city, two of which Spicer identified as being at the Western Tidewater Community Services Board at 7025 Harbour View Blvd., which began Jan. 20 and will go every other Wednesday, and the Department of Public Utilities Operations Center on Benton Road beginning Jan. 27, also running every other Wednesday.

About 800 Suffolk Public Schools employees have signed up to receive the COVID-19 vaccine from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Jan. 25-26 at King’s Fork High School.

But for many in the city in Phase 1A and 1B, they simply seek information about the vaccine, and where and when they can get one.

“I am getting a lot of calls and concerns about why (people) can’t get the shots,” said Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett. “And that question is out there and needs to be answered. People want to know why they can’t get the shots, and where can they get the shots.”

Moor said he has been in touch with interim health district director Dr. Lauren James and has offered city assistance to reopen the Suffolk Health Department.

“Together, we are currently moving forward in scheduling a phased reopening approach and this information, including the effective date, will be shared in a media release in the very near future,” Moor said via email. “We will also keep our citizens informed via social media, special signage, and other methods.”

Moor said there is a scheduled vaccination event Feb. 5 at the city health department for those in Phase 1B who have previously registered.

Drewery said the health district is working with the city to establish mass vaccination sites, but said that effort has been hampered by plans that have largely involved using schools.

“Schools are trying to get back open, and … that has limited us in our planning because we have to basically go back and rewrite the plan for sites that are going to actually be available to us,” Drewery said.

He said the health district is looking at very large event spaces across Western Tidewater, citing the conference center at the Hilton Garden Inn Suffolk Riverfront downtown as a good site.

“Our goal right now is to get as many people vaccinated as possible,” Drewery said, “and it’s easier for us to do that if we do a lot of people at one spot instead of going around the community like we did (with COVID-19 testing).”

Moor said the hotel site is one that the city is looking into, along with places such as “healthcare facilities, private businesses, houses of worship, as well as city facilities that can adequately and safely accommodate such events.” He said factors such as parking and other needed resources would be considered in site selection.
With testing, the health district started out doing large-scale events before phasing to a more localized system.

“Obviously, you can multiply the demand for vaccine more than the demand for testing,” Drewery said. “So where we were able to quickly move from mass testing to more community-based testing, it’s going to take us longer to make this transition because it’s a vaccine that’s more in demand.”

Moor also said the city has offered its assistance to the health department to help administer the vaccines, but that is contingent on the health district getting the state support it needs, and getting more vaccine doses.

But Duman said he has not been satisfied with the health department in meeting the needs of residents with regard to the vaccine.

“I know they’re closed, but information has not been placed on their answering machine … that informs people that they can go to Franklin or Smithfield,” Duman said. “In particular, it doesn’t really give them any options. It just asks them to leave a message.

“I think we failed in several areas to keep our citizens informed, and most of the citizens that have called me, they’re not worried about whether they can get one today or not. Their concern is they do not have the information that they would like to have. It’s a matter of who and when and where.”