Beginning the new year with a new name, the Blue Ridge Health District embarked on an extensive COVID-19 vaccination campaign that will extend from mid-winter into spring and early summer, and continue as long as vaccinations are needed. It begins by carefully targeting those at the most risk of exposure, and continues with those at the most risk of serious consequences, whether from age or medical condition.
This district, formerly the Thomas Jefferson Health District, will use the Moderna vaccine. In the region, only U.Va. and Martha Jefferson are using the earlier-approved Pfizer version, said Ryan McKay, the director of COVID planning and policy.
U.Va. Health began the Pfizer vaccinations in mid-December for its employees at the highest risk of work-related exposure, a group that includes doctors, nurses, environmental services workers and pharmacists at the hospital. Between Christmas and New Year’s, Blue Ridge Health District employees were given the vaccine and also taught how to properly handle and administer it. The district hopes to hire and train more health professionals in the next few weeks, McKay said. “We hope to triple the number of nurses on our staff.”
The current phase includes frontline healthcare workers, and anyone in that category who is not offered the vaccine at a hospital is asked to apply through the Virginia Health Department’s website, vdh.virginia.gov. “That won’t include staff at residential care facilities,” McKay said. “We’re very grateful that Walgreens and CVS will coordinate that.” Private practice physicians, nurses and other healthcare workers who are exposed to patients are included in this phase. Crozet physician Maura McLaughlin of Blue Ridge Family Practice said that she expects to be offered the Moderna vaccine in January or February. Meanwhile, she said, the current use of masks and distancing has lowered the incidence of non-COVID-19 communicable diseases associated with the winter season.
Albemarle County residents who work as first responders do not need to apply, either on their own behalf or for their crews. “We will contact them directly,” McKay said. The next phase will be essential workers and those 75 years and older, followed by those older than 65 who are not in residential long-term care facilities. Phase 1c also includes those younger than 64 who have underlying medical conditions that put them at greater risk, and those who work in food service, transportation and other professions that expose them to numbers of people.
The health district has created a vaccination clinic at the former KMart in Charlottesville. When the time comes for large-scale vaccinations serving the county’s rural areas, McKay said they are scouting out expansive indoor spaces. “We’re trying not to rely on the schools, as many of them have used their gymnasiums and auditoriums to spread out teachers and students,” he said. He said for now, they’re not considering “drive by” vaccinations. “Adverse reactions are very rare, but it’s much better for us to be inside where we can observe people for a short time after vaccination.”
McKay said that part of the plan is to also offer widespread testing. “We would like for our vaccination sites to serve several purposes. We’d be offering the first vaccine, the second vaccine, and the tests, all at the same place and time.” He said that recent adjustments to testing now allow the health district to test as many as 200 at one site.
The most recent testing by the health district in the immediate area was Dec. 30 at Henley Middle School, with 50 tests; and Rockfish Presbyterian Church in Nellysford, with 100 tests. No January tests are scheduled for Crozet or western Albemarle, but there are events scheduled in Charlottesville throughout the month. There is no charge for testing at sites offered by the health district. To see the times and locations, start at vdh.virginia.gov.
Albemarle County had 2,808 coronavirus cases and 31 deaths in 2020. As a comparison, there were 14 deaths from flu or pneumonia in 2018, considered the worst year since the swine flu of 2009. Testing of residents of Crozet (the zip code 22932) has shown 172 positive results from 4808 tests. Statistics on hospitalizations and mortality are not available by zip code.