By Taylor Boyd
With news of the COVID-19 virus mutating around the world, Virginia is preparing to deal with the mutations.
“While we have not seen it yet in Virginia, it will surely make its way here if not already so,” Gov. Ralph Northam said during a recent update.
Nancy Bell, public information officer for the West Piedmont Health District (WPHD), said the health district is currently referring all questions regarding the mutation to the Virginia State Public Health Lab in Richmond.
“There’s a team” preparing for the mutations, Bell said, and added the mutations are more contagious than the regular COVID-19 virus, partly because “they spread more easily.”
She said mutations can still be diagnosed by the standard COVID-19 tests, but she did not know if the tests show whether the virus has mutated.
Bell added there is no reason or evidence to suggest the vaccine won’t work on the mutation COVID-19 virus.
Information from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website stated there is no evidence at this time to suggest “that these variants cause more severe illness or increased risk of death.”
“Vaccination is the way to stop this virus. It’s our path forward to recovery, and it’s the clearest way we’re going to get back to something that feels like normal,” Northam said, adding that getting the vaccine “is the right thing to protect your own health and also to protect other people.”
Northam noted the county is currently three weeks into the most extensive public vaccination campaign in modern history. To fully vaccinate Virginia, 8.5 million people need to receive two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.
“When you multiple those numbers, you get 17 million. That’s how many shots it will take to vaccinate everyone in our Commonwealth,” he said.
Currently, Virginia is receiving about 110,000 vaccines each week. That works out to about 14,000 doses a day. Northam said the state recently added another 12,000 doses to that list and Virginia will move to a clear goal of distributing 25,000 shots a day.
“Hitting it will depend on manufacturing ramping up and supplies being distributed to states over time. We don’t have everything we need yet. No state does because it’s being manufactured literally in real time,” he said, adding the plan is consistent with the short-term goal that President-elect Biden has laid out. However, Northam said the number of doses distributed will have to double to get all Virginians two shots later this year.
He said health departments, healthcare providers, hospitals, clinics, and pharmacies should distribute COVID-19 vaccines with a “you use it, or you lose it” mindset. “I want you to empty those freezers and get shots in arms. When you have vials, give out shots until they’re gone. No one wants to see any supplies sitting unused.
“The companies are manufacturing more. They’re working around the clock, and you’re going to get more, so don’t save everything. You’re going to get every dose you need because more is coming. But if you’re not using what you receive, you must be getting too much. So, in the next shipment we’re going to allocate more doses to other places that need them,” Northam said.
He explained the use it or lose it directive does not mean providers should give shots to everyone that shows up to receive one.
“There’s a clear prioritization of who should get shots first and who should get them in what order. People most at risk go first,” Northam said, adding healthcare workers are first in line people.
“People who care for who are sick are most at risk, and if they get sick then no one is left to care for everyone else. Nurses, EMTS, doctors are in group 1A. The next group of people who are at risk are people who live in our long-term care facilities, places like nursing homes and assisted living,” he said.
More than 300,000 people in the United States have died from COVID-19, and more than 40 percent of those deaths are people who lived in nursing homes or assisted living facilities.
“These are our parents, our grandparents, and people we love. People who just need a little extra help. That’s why they are at the top of the list,” Northam said, adding the two groups account for more than 500,000 people.
He said Tier 1B is comprised of essential workers, “these are the people who work in jobs that keep our society functioning. People who are at higher risk of exposure to COVID-19, and people who cannot work remotely.”
Tier 1B workers include firefighters, police officers, hazmat workers, grocery store workers, and people who work in plants processing food, bus drivers, and transit workers, corrections, mail carriers, and teachers.
Northam said teachers, childcare workers, and anyone who works in K-12 schools make up the largest group of front-line, essential workers, with about 285,000 people.
“They’re high on the list of essential workers because teachers are critical to getting schools back open, and that’s critical to getting people back to work and getting back to normal,” he said, adding vaccinating teachers should make opening schools easier.
Northam said Tier 1B will also include people aged 75 and older.
“Together this is about 2 million people. That’s a lot of Virginians. It will take well into the springtime to get all of these folks the two doses that they require,” he said.
The next group of essential workers — those who work in food services, transportation, construction, energy, and more, those ages 65 and older, and people ages 16 to 64 with high-risk medical conditions — make up Tier 1C. “That’s about another 2.5 million people,” Northam said.
Together, the groups make up the state vaccination program’s first phase.
“Remember we prioritized it this way. People who are most at risk first, then move quickly to essential workers whose jobs can help everyone get back to work and back to normal again. This is more than half of Virginia,” he said.
Northam said vaccine providers should use their judgement during distribution because “there aren’t always clear lines between different sub-groups of essential workers and it really gets complex between groups A, B, and C. We need to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible.”
Bell said Southwest Virginia could potentially vaccinate all Tier 1 residents “by the end of March, or by early spring.”
Northam said the vaccination numbers are going to be available to the public “so that everyone can see what supply is out there, where the doses are being deployed, and how quickly. Virginians deserve this transparency.”
Information on what vaccination phase Virginia is in and eligibility can be found by visiting www.vdh.virginia.gov.covid-19-vaccine/.