With COVID-19 cases increasing, Blue Ridge Health District officials are following federal guidance by offering a third vaccine dose for people with compromised immune systems.
During a virtual press conference Monday, officials said additional doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will be available to those with moderately to severely compromised immune systems. The additional doses are part of an expanded medical protocol to protect those who are immunocompromised. They are not considered booster shots, officials said.
Many pharmacies and doctor’s offices are offering third doses and appointments may be scheduled on the district website at virginia.gov/blue-ridge/covid-19-vaccination.
The district includes the city of Charlottesville and Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa and Nelson counties.
“We’ll be offering, by appointment only, the third doses at our local health district vaccination centers in the localities,” said Jen Fleisher, COVID vaccine project manager for the BRHD. “We’ll also have third doses available at the [mobile vaccine center], on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall on Mondays.”
No proof of medical need will be required to get the third shot. District officials said anyone wondering if they should get the added dose should contact their medical care provider.
“Once you make the appointment, there is no formal document that’s needed, apart from the medical questionnaire you fill out,” Fleisher said.
Officials said the area is being hit by the delta variant of COVID-19, which is surging across the country. The district has a 5.3% positivity rate for COVID tests administered in the last seven days, the highest that figure has been since Jan. 23, when it was 5.2%.
Hospitalizations also are increasing. The University of Virginia Medical Center reported a seven-day average of 5.29 patients per day admitted for COVID-19 as of Sunday and listed 33 patients currently being treated in its COVID care units.
The hospital registered as few as five COVID patients being treated through much of June and early July.
“We’ve been seeing an increase in the number of cases on a daily basis for about a month, so this current surge has happened somewhat quickly,” said Ryan McKay, COVID incident commander for the district. “While case counts are increasing, we’re also seeing more close-contact cases after [mask and social distance restrictions] opened up in June.”
McKay said most people testing positive are unvaccinated. That includes children under 12 and adults who have not been vaccinated. He said the recent state mandate that schools require masks will help tamp down the spread among younger children.
The federal Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also are investigating whether to allow vaccinations for children younger than 11 on an emergency basis, officials said.
“The delta variant is far more contagious than we have experienced so far,” McKay said. “Those masks will be a critical step in minimizing risk of transmission. It may not completely eliminate it, but it will minimize it.”
McKay said the spread has occurred evenly across the entire district. Each locality rose from low to moderate transmission in July, as rated by the CDC, and to high or substantial spread level as of Monday.
“We’re definitely in a surge, and cases will continue to increase as we see individuals come into close contact over the next few weeks,” he said.
Dr. Denise Bonds, BRHD director, said the return of students to schools and to UVa could provide an uptick in case counts because of people being in close proximity in indoor settings.
UVa is requiring all students to be vaccinated and to provide proof of vaccination prior to coming to Grounds. The school also is requiring masks to be worn in all indoor university facilities except for dormitories and other student housing or in associated common areas.
UVa officials have said they will review COVID case counts and decide by Sept. 6 whether to continue masking requirements.
Bonds said the masking requirement, and similar requirements for local school districts, should help lower case counts.
“We do know from other parts of the country that delta is a little bit different than the previous variants,” Bonds said. “Individuals who have been vaccinated can be infectious if they become infected with delta. They are going to spread virus particles, but the good news is that the individual who has had the vaccine is protected [from serious illness].”
Bonds said she has all but given up predicting the future when it comes to COVID, but believes that vaccinations, masks and avoiding crowded indoor spaces could prevent the type of post-holiday surge seen across the country last year.
“I think the difference this year is that we have three effective vaccines and we know they work and they work against the delta variant. The sooner we get people vaccinated, the less likely we will be to have another variant occur. Variants happen when spread happens,” Bonds said.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” she said. “It’s a pretty clever virus, if you want to attribute human characteristics to it.”