Dr. Danny Avula says things are improving in the Commonwealth, as he explains when kids can get the vaccine.

RICHMOND – Virginia Vaccination Coordinator Dr. Danny Avula called the last stretch of April a “significant week” in the Commonwealth’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

As of Friday, 44% of the state’s population had received at least one dose of the vaccine.

“Different parts of the state have been meeting demand at different points. But really, this past weekend was the first time that [in] every part of the state, we really saw demand peak,” Avula said. “And now, that means that we are pivoting all over Virginia in a different direction.”

The doctor expressed that now, the focus shifts to making sure people understand their options. He also called for action to make sure vaccination opportunities are as convenient as possible.

The messaging surrounding vaccine availability will also undergo some tweaks. It will ensure targeted, tailored and neighborhood-focused vaccination efforts.

“We have already started to change our messaging with providers, letting them know we are in a different phase of this rollout. Where up until a couple of weeks ago, our messaging has always been, ‘Whatever vaccine you get, you’re expected to use whatever week you get it’ because vaccine has been in such short supply,” Avula said. “But now that we’re on the other side of the supply-demand curve, providers should know it’s okay for them to have vaccine and to be able to carry it over into the next week. And just to use it per the manufacturer’s guidance. So that’s a big shift.”

A Potential Virginia Vaccination Surge

Related to the new approach, more primary healthcare providers will get vaccine doses. Avula noted the change would make it easier for people to get the vaccine. Also, for people with questions, some feel more comfortable talking with their primary doctor about it. He thinks this switch will lead to another spike in vaccinations.

“We want to give as many people as possible the opportunity to have those discussions with their primary care providers and then be able to get vaccinated if they choose to make that decision,” Avula said.

Allowing providers more access and also making it more convenient to manage the vaccine were big parts of the switch. And Virginia can thank parts of the Biden administration for helping with that.

“The federal government is helping some with that. Pfizer, as probably the most significant example, typically comes in trays of 1,170 doses,” Avula said. “Starting in May, they are going to significantly reduce that. I think in some cases, it’s going to be 460 doses. In some cases, it’ll actually be 150-dose packages. And so that will make it more and more possible for [smaller practices] to be able to receive vaccine.”

The doctor expected more providers to become part of the rollout, given the reduction in vaccine allocation size.

Virginia Vaccination Convenience

The state vaccine coordinator spoke about innovative approaches to vaccinating the remaining 26% of the population in order to reach herd immunity goals at 70%.

In addition to mobile units and pop-up community clinics, Avula noted that he communicated with other colleagues across the county. Together, they shared best practices and creative vaccination location ideas, some of which included farmers’ markets and polling precincts.

“I think these are the kinds of things you’ll see more and more of because convenience is such an important piece of the equation right now,” Avula said. “I think there’s a large segment of the population that hasn’t gotten vaccinated not necessarily because they don’t want to, but maybe they have had trouble navigating the website. Or just, you know, it wasn’t a high-enough priority for them to make an appointment somewhere where they have to wait in line. So we really need to understand that convenience is a major factor for this segment of the population.”

The doctor also expressed the importance of vaccinating the most vulnerable people. Generally, those are people with underlying health conditions and elderly individuals.

“It’s most important that we try to keep working on this population,” Avula said. “But as we try to get as many folks vaccinated as possible, we know that now we’re looking at kind of the 16 to mid-30s segment that we’re going to have to lower those barriers for.”

Making the shot even more convenient, most Virginia COVID vaccination sites no longer require preregistration. In most cases, people can schedule a same-day or next-day vaccination appointment. Some locations now offer walk-in vaccinations.

The Big Pause

Avula also addressed the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which the state recently reinstated after a brief pause.

Gauging the impact the initial halt had on the COVID immunization rate in the commonwealth proved difficult.

“It’s so hard to figure it out because of the timing, right? Like, the same time that that Johnson & Johnson pause was initiated, [it really] coincided pretty well with where demand was already starting to drop off,” Avula said. “So it’s really hard to know whether what we’re seeing is a result of the J&J pause and the potential for overall hesitancy that that may have led to or whether it was just coincidental.”

The doctor noted that he hadn’t heard much feedback since the vaccination went back into circulation earlier this week.

“Probably next week we’ll have a better sense of what that uptake has been like,” Avula said.

The College Rollout

For the vaccine rollout itself, the J&J pause had a significant impact on college campus-based vaccinations.

“Many of them switched over to two-dose vaccines. Some of them held out for Johnson & Johnson and we’ll be offering those clinics next week,” Avula said. “But I did hear some anecdotal response that they didn’t get as many college students as they were expecting to get vaccinated. And then some hypothesization: was that because it was two-dose versus J&J? So it’s really hard to tell.”

The doctor further expressed that healthy young adults generally seem less motivated to get the vaccination, and that if they do get the virus, they are less likely to experience life-threatening symptoms.

“[Young adults] say, ‘COVID’s not a big deal. If I get it, I’ll be fine.’ And by and large, they’re right,” Avula said. “But the whole idea of herd immunity [is] that we need to get as many people vaccinated as possible so that we don’t risk another surge of disease. Like, that would be the worst thing for all of us, is if we have enough people remaining that can actually be infected. And that’s why we need to keep vaccinating as many people as possible.”

In addition to college students receiving vaccines, news about vaccines for grade school students is potentially only weeks away.

“The CDC continues to affirm the likelihood that we will have an approved vaccine for those 12 and up sometime [in] mid-to-late May,” Avula said. “That’ll start with the Pfizer. They anticipate that the Moderna will be maybe two to three weeks behind that. But that means that that’s a large segment of our population that will be newly eligible in a month or less.”

Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at amie@couriernewsroom.com

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