Area schools and the Blue Ridge Health District are working together to make sure students 12 and older receive at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine before the school year ends next month.
The Pfizer vaccine was approved for use for ages 12 to 15 on May 12 — launching the latest phase of the COVID-19 vaccination effort. Since then, Charlottesville and Albemarle County school divisions, as well as private schools, have opened up their buildings for the health district to hold vaccine clinics.
Charlottesville wraps up the year June 11 while Albemarle does so June 15. School officials have not said whether students will have to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
The school sites, which are run and staffed by the Blue Ridge Health District, are one option for young teens. Shots are also available at the health district’s vaccination clinic at the former JC Penney, the University of Virginia’s site at the former Big Lots and through local doctors and pharmacies.
So far, the school sites haven’t seen “tremendously high volume,” said Ryan McKay, the COVID-19 incident commander for the health district.
“But that’s not the goal,” he said. “The goal is to make sure that students have access.”
McKay said the health district and UVa are seeing the younger teens at their sites and that pediatricians have reported an increase in families seeking the vaccine.
“There are plenty of appointments that were open, even with that little influx of 12- to 15-year-olds,” he said. “It’s hard to not find vaccine.”
So far, a total of 225,029 doses have been administered in the health district, and 65% of Albemarle residents have had at least one dose, which is the most in the state, according to the state dashboard. In Charlottesville, 58% of residents have received at least one dose. District-wide, 58% of people have received their first dose.
As vaccinations increase, COVID-19 cases are declining locally. On Wednesday, the seven-day average of new cases in Albemarle County hit zero for the first time since the early days of the pandemic. Charlottesville’s seven-day average has stayed at zero for almost two weeks.
“The zeroes are great,” McKay said, cautioning that the averages can be a little misleading as the state conducts quality checks on the data to make sure cases are assigned to the correct locality.
Those checks have meant that some localities have had a negative number of new cases. Still, numbers have fallen to the level where the health district can contain future cases, especially positive as state COVID restrictions were lifted Friday and students soon will leave school for the summer.
“I think we’re at a really good point to be able to handle potential new cases, which feels really good,” McKay said. “… It’s great to be in this position, but we are also anticipating potential for increased cases, but at least we’re in a position where there’s not widespread community transmission that would be really difficult to manage.”
Moving forward, McKay said the area’s high vaccination rates, especially for Albemarle, Charlottesville and Nelson County, will help limit the spread of the virus. Additionally, the health district has the tools and staff necessary to respond to and contain new cases.
“We feel that all those things are working in our favor, as things open up even more here in the next couple of weeks, so it just gives us a better chance to keep that spread contained,” McKay said.
The health district also is shifting its vaccination strategy, taking doses to the people rather than asking people to come to them. That’s reflected in the school-based clinics, as well.
McKay said the partnership with the schools could serve as a model for future phases of the vaccination effort when it is open to younger students. The health district also is working with private and independent schools to vaccinate children.
Charlottesville High School had a clinic recently for high school and eligible Walker Upper Elementary students, said Beth Baptist, interim director of student services and achievement for the city school division. Buford Middle School also held one, completing the first round of clinics for first doses. The health district is scheduling appointments for the second dose.
Nearly 70 students received a shot at the CHS clinic, which was not as many students as officials hoped to have, but Baptist said they know some students are going elsewhere for the vaccine.
“Every shot that we’re able to give is one more shot that we’ve been able to give,” she said. “So we were pleased we did 69.”
Albemarle County is working to have at least one clinic at each middle and high school before the year ends. That effort kicked off with Albemarle High School, where 167 people recently received a shot. At Burley Middle School, the division’s third clinic, 36 students signed up to receive a shot. The clinics are open to students and household members.
Overall, 253 students and household members have received a shot through a county school site.
“We wanted to make sure that there were no obstacles to getting kids vaccinated, to bring in the vaccines to where the kids are and remove some of their obstacles such as transportation,” Eileen Gomez, COVID-19 coordinator for the county school division, said of the school-based clinics.
Baptist said offering vaccines at the schools also helps parents who might not be able to take time off work.
Parents and guardians must give permission for their child to be vaccinated, but the school clinics offer ways to do that in advance, including an electronic submission of consent.
“Also, the students pretty much trust us, and so they aren’t as scared of getting a shot as they might be in an unfamiliar place,” she said.
Vaccinations are key to returning to more-normal school in the fall, Baptist said.
“We want our kids back in school,” she said. “We want them back five days a week. … We want to get back to normal, and the more we can do to help accomplish that, we’re going to do it.”