The Charlottesville area’s health district will start vaccinating frontline medical workers next week.
The Blue Ridge Health District, formerly known as the Thomas Jefferson Health District, received doses of the Moderna vaccine for COVID-19 the week of Christmas and vaccinated some of its staff Monday.
Starting this coming Monday, district staff will begin vaccinating area EMS providers, dialysis center staff and Region Ten Community Services Board residential facility staff, according to a news release.
The first doses of the vaccine will go to health care personnel and staff and residents at long-term care facilities, as determined by the Virginia Department of Health and a federal advisory committee. After this first priority group has received the vaccine, doses will be open to additional essential workers, but exact categories haven’t been decided yet.
To assist with vaccination plans and to accommodate social distancing, the health district will set up a building in the parking lot of the former Kmart at the intersection of Hydraulic Road and U.S. 29. They’ll start with at least three clinics per week at the Kmart site and plan to increase the frequency, depending on staffing and vaccine availability.
The Kmart location was established with the help of Red Light Management and the Bama Works Fund.
The district is asking frontline health care entities in Charlottesville and the counties of Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa and Nelson to complete a survey to let them know about their need for staff to be vaccinated.
The health district is responsible for vaccinating everyone in this first group, known as 1a, other than those who work at the University of Virginia Medical Center and Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital.
Through a federal partnership, CVS and Walgreens will vaccinate those living at long-term care facilities, and those shots started this week.
At The Colonnades, a local facility that includes assisted living, residents and staff members started to receive the vaccine in the first set of three clinics, which were completed Monday and Tuesday, said Craig Wagoner, the facility’s executive director.
The Virginia Department of Health surveyed long-term care facilities in the state on their preference for vaccine administration and then gave a list of sites to the two pharmacies.
The next clinic will be the week of Jan. 18, and Wagoner said he anticipates more residents will participate. He said staff members at The Colonnades are working to provide information about the vaccine through one-on-one discussions, town halls and letters.
“It was heartwarming to see residents and team members happily roll up their sleeves, and you could feel them smiling behind their masks knowing that they were taking a step toward protecting themselves and others,” he said.
The vaccine’s arrival comes as the health district saw its worst month of the pandemic. The district reported 2,181 new cases, 86 new hospitalizations and 10 new deaths in December. Additionally, the positivity rate is 7.9%, which is the highest it’s been since mid-July.
“We really saw what the aftermath of Thanksgiving was and social gatherings and people getting together,” said Ryan McKay, the district’s COVID-19 incident commander. “We’re fully expecting that to actually get worse … following the holidays."
McKay said the district is hiring more case investigators to handle the increase in the need to trace all close contacts and slow the spread of the virus as much as possible.
“I think that’s an important reminder — that there’s a long way to go with this,” he said. “Even though a vaccine is here, there’s still a long way to go with just disease spread and disease burden on the community, and that’s not going to change over the next couple of months.”
Since the FDA authorized the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for emergency use in December, 3,179 people in the district have received the first dose. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses — 21 days and 28 days apart, respectively — to be most effective.
UVa and Martha Jefferson started giving shots to their staff Dec. 15.
The state is planning to receive about 370,000 doses by the end of the week. So far, 64,882 doses have been administered in Virginia.
McKay said there are about 5,000 to 8,000 people in the health district who can be vaccinated in the first priority group. That doesn’t include hospital-affiliated staff.
How many shots the health district can give in a week depends on their staffing and how many appointment slots are filled. Next week, if all of the appointments are filled, McKay said they could administer about 500 to 600 doses.
The Virginia Department of Health has asked districts not to share how many doses they received. The district submits a weekly order for vaccine doses based on their plans to offer clinics.
Rolling it out
Vaccinating their staff first allowed the district to learn how to use the new vaccine management system in real time, troubleshoot glitches and work through logistics such as timing and spacing of administering the doses at the health district’s main building on Rose Hill Drive in Charlottesville.
They’ll continue to train staff from that location and give shots to some EMS personnel there.
Those eligible to receive the shot in this first phase will use the vaccine management system — a tool that’s required by the state — to register, make appointments and track when they need their second dose.
Other health districts already have begun vaccinating EMS and other frontline workers.
McKay said next week’s start is in line with the district’s envisioned timeline. They received doses of the Moderna vaccine the afternoon of Dec. 23. Additionally, they’ve been able to learn from other districts and apply those lessons for their launch.
“So that when we roll out to health care providers next week, we’ve already accounted for all those issues that people went through already,” he said. “That gives us a little bit of an advantage in terms of efficiency and time and providing relatively easy access for this first group that’s coming in.”
Fifteen public health nurses are in charge of giving shots, but with the help of Medical Reserve Corps volunteers, McKay said they hope to double their nursing capacity by the end of next week. That will mean they offer more appointment slots at the Kmart location and open up more sites.
He expects they’ll get more efficient over time.
The National Guard will be assisting with the district’s drive-thru COVID-19 testing clinics, which frees up nurses to help with the vaccines.
The health district has spent months planning for the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine. The plans include hiring three more staff members to coordinate the program; finding locations for clinics; staffing and supplying those clinics; contacting health care employers to sign up their staff; and learning the new vaccine management system, among other things.
“It’s a big sort of puzzle in terms of fitting all the right pieces together,” McKay said.
McKay said the health district has practiced vaccine rollouts over the years since H1N1 but not on this scale.
“It hasn’t necessarily been with a vaccine that has some different requirements to it in terms of, certainly, storage here at a different temperature,” he said.
The health district has one freezer and ordered two more that can store the Moderna vaccine.
In talking with other health districts, McKay said the space required to allow people to social distance and wait for 15 to 20 minutes after receiving a dose of the vaccine has been a challenge.
That waiting period could create a bottleneck, and limit their ability to vaccinate people efficiently, he said.
That’s when Red Light Management and the Bama Works Fund stepped in. The district met with group representatives on Dec. 23 to discuss the vaccine rollout and spacing options.
With their help, the district will set up a clinic at the former Kmart parking lot. What the district is calling “a large-scale modular structure” will open in the middle of next week.
“It gives us a chance to move through this phase 1a and then subsequent phases much more quickly,” McKay said. “So it may seem small at first as we kind of get our footing and increase our capacity. But we feel like that by the end of this, it’s going to be a huge advantage for us to be able to run multiple days a week for extended hours a day and really provide tremendous access for a good portion of the community, especially in the early phases of the campaign.”
As they build capacity, McKay said the facility could be open five to six days a week most of the day.
Skyline Tent Company, Martin Horn and Riverbend Development also helped get the site ready, according to the release.
McKay said they are working with county administrators in other localities in the district to identify fixed locations for clinics as they plan to ramp up vaccine efforts in future phases.
“The site in Charlottesville is a huge lift off of our shoulders because we’re not trying to sort of cobble together a series of locations early on,” he said. “We know we can trust that the site will be there. Health care workers that are going to be vaccinated there know where to go and get it. So it’s just a huge advantage for us to be able to have this location.”