HAMPTON ROADS, Va. (WAVY) — Public frustration over the coronavirus vaccine rollout in Virginia has mounted steadily since mid-January, evident on social media, in messaging from local officials and in threatening behavior that led health department officials in Western Tidewater to call police to protect staff.
A clearer picture of the efficiency of the vaccine rollout may emerge Tuesday, when the Virginia Department of Health is expected to launch a new dashboard that will show vaccines distributed and administered by providers, including health departments.
Until that launches, however, it is impossible to gauge the efficiency of vaccine administration by health departments, pharmacies and hospital systems, because there has been no publicly available, comprehensive data that shows the number of vaccines in and out of each health district.
For now, that information lies with local health department officials, and only some are willing to share it.
Peninsula and Hampton health districts spokesperson Irene Ferrainolo said as of February 5, more than 18,000 people had received their first doses among the districts’ six localities and that no vaccine had been discarded.
In Chesapeake, health district director Dr. Nancy Welch said her staff receives 2,800 doses around the beginning of each week. The department works with pharmacy, provider and hospital partners to administer every dose by Sunday evening.
In Western Tidewater, emergency manager Will Drewery said as of February 3, his department had received 3,800 doses of vaccine from the state’s allocation.
The department distributed nearly 1,200 more doses than the state allocated, though, thanks to partnerships with Sentara and Bon Secours, who shared their allocation when the health department’s supply was diminished.
Paul Brummund, chief operations officer for Norfolk and Virginia Beach’s health departments, didn’t say how many vaccine doses his health departments were allocated and had distributed, but pointed to such partnerships as the reason behind the difficulty of detangling which entities are receiving vaccine and how quickly it is moving out.
“In Norfolk, you see a really high number of doses received, and it’s because they have a really large hospital system headquartered in the city,” Brummund said. “The health department may receive vaccine, and then we share that with other providers so we can help distribute access through a city […] so you have to be careful about measuring just one component of the system.”
As for public frustration with the rollout, health officials like Drewery and Brummund say they can only work with the budgets the have and the amount of vaccine they’ve been given.
In Western Tidewater, that includes an antiquated phone system to take calls and make appointments.
In Virginia Beach, Norfolk and other districts across the commonwealth, a technological loophole allowed people to broadly share a registration link, leading to over-scheduled clinics and appointment cancellations.
A new, statewide registration expected to launch this week should help with both issues.
Meanwhile, health officials say there is little they can do until more vaccine is produced and distributed.
“I can’t give out vaccine that I don’t have,” Drewery said. “It would be unfair for us to plan something and have people have high hopes that they’re going to get something that we may not actually be able to deliver.”
As production increases, representatives for Chesapeake, Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Western Tidewater and the Peninsula districts were sparse on details about capabilities, goals or other specific plans, but say they are ready to ramp up the speed of vaccination.
Previous flu seasons have been like training drills for these departments, whose staff have long known that someday, a public health emergency would happen.
“It wasn’t a matter of if it’s going to happen, it’s a matter of when it’s going to happen,” Brummund said. “Unfortunately, the dynamics of vaccinating for [COVID-19] is a little different from what we’ve been practicing.”
The coronavirus vaccine is unlike the flu shot in that it requires multiple doses, must be kept in cold storage and is drawn from a vial, instead of using a pre-loaded syringe.
Also unlike the flu shot, demand for the coronavirus vaccine is high and supply is low.
When more supply is available, the most detailed plans for distribution came from Western Tidewater, where Drewery says that with a week and a half notice, his department can vaccinate 15,000 people in three days.
“We’re ready to move quickly and we’re ready to get this thing done and over with as quickly as possible,” he said.
In Norfolk and Virginia Beach, Brummund estimated that with enough supply, 5,000 residents per day could be vaccinated in Norfolk; in Virginia Beach, capabilities are even higher.
Brummund says he’s vague because resources may shift from mass vaccination clinics to smaller neighborhood distribution methods.
Smaller events may be less efficient, but would allow vaccines to get to vulnerable populations that may struggle to reach a centralized location.
“Depending on your resources, you have to flex based on that,” Brummund said. “I can’t give you a specific number, it’s not that exact of a science.”
Even when more vaccine is shipped, Brummund and Drewery caution that it will likely take months to get through everyone who currently qualifies for a vaccine in the Phase 1b, which includes people over 65, as well as those with certain health conditions and jobs.
In Virginia Beach, people in 1b comprise about 25 percent of the population. In Western Tidewater, Drewery estimates it’s about half the population.
“When Dr. Avula speaks and the governor speaks and they say it’s going to take some time to move through Phase 1b, they’re telling the truth,” Drewery said. “We just ask for everyone’s patience and persistence, that will be the way out of this.”
A robust pool of volunteers will also help push the vaccine out as quickly as health departments can get it, Brummund said.
Volunteers do not have to be medical professionals, although that is also welcome. Health departments also need volunteers to assist with registration and scheduling, perform data entry and staff phone lines.
See how your qualifications can contribute to the vaccine effort by visiting the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps website.