The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) is coordinating with local health departments and hospital systems to get residents vaccinated against the coronavirus.
But what does the vaccine distribution plan actually look like and just how effective is it?
Getting the vaccine
In order to get the vaccine, residents must first be eligible for the phase their local health department is currently vaccinating.
All local health departments, including the Peninsula Health District (PHD), are currently vaccinating people in Phase 1a and Phase 1b.
Phase 1a is for people considered healthcare personnel and residents of long-term care facilities. Residents who are eligible for the vaccine under Phase 1b are frontline essential workers, people age 65 and older, people 16-64 years old with underlying medical conditions, people living in correctional facilities, homeless shelters and migrant labor camps. You can see the full list of criteria for each phase here and use this VDH tool to see what phase you fall under here.
Once eligible, residents must first register and fill out a form through VDH’s website based on the criteria the person falls under. For example, if someone is 65 years and older, they must fill out a different form from those between the ages of 16 to 64 with underlying health conditions. Then, residents wait until VDH contacts them to schedule a vaccine appointment by phone or via email.
Residents can wait anywhere from four to five weeks to set up a vaccine appointment and receive an email confirmation.
People who get vaccinated through the PHD must return 28 days later for their second dose of the vaccine at the same time as their previous appointment. If residents need to reschedule, they get put on a waiting list.
So VDH suggests people contact their primary care doctors or pharmacist to see if they can get the vaccine quicker.
People who are considered “frontline essential workers,” can register here, however, VDH prefers to have one point of contact per business. For example, having one business sign up on behalf of all its employees.
Private practices, like Tidewater Physicians Multispecialty Group, can register to administer vaccines to its patients through VDH’s website. Once approved, VDH’s Emergency Planner will order the vaccine doses and coordinate with the doctor’s office.
While the VDH website provides residents with other resources, including a phase eligibility checker for the vaccine, general frequently asked questions and even a timeline of the vaccine’s arrival, some residents may not be able to access this information.
Why? Reasons can include a lack of technological skills or internet access.
So what is the VDH doing to remedy that situation?
“People without internet access can register by calling 757-594-7496. That has been in place since the second week of January. They receive their appointments by phone,” Irene Ferrainolo, spokesperson for the Peninsula and Hampton Health Districts said.
Each locality in the Historic Triangle also has a number residents may call for registration help.
The City of Williamsburg and James City County, in collaboration with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, established a COVID-19 hotline. The number is 877-724-1954.
According to city spokesperson, Nicole Trifone, residents may call this number to have their COVID-19-related questions answered and find help filling out eligibility surveys.
“We’ve been helping residents with their COVID-19 questions, but we started getting so many of them that we couldn’t keep up. That’s why the hotline was created,” Trifone said.
Renee Dallman, spokesperson for JCC, agreed the hotline has been helpful and there is “definitely a need.”
While York County is not a part of the Williamsburg-James City County hotline, it does have a COVID-19 Hotline geared towards York residents. That number is 757-890-5890, available on Mondays through Fridays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Residents can call this number to register for vaccination; however, this number cannot schedule appointments.
RELATED STORY: York County establishes COVID-19 vaccine helpline
York County Spokesperson Gail Whittaker said the county has posted information in its offices and sent out information about the hotline to media outlets.
“We have a great network of homeowners associations and a lot of them share the information with their neighbors,” Whittaker said.
She noted some neighbors have called the county directly asking on behalf of their neighbors who do not have internet access for information on how to sign up to register for the vaccine.
“We don’t have a list of people who don’t have the internet,” Whittaker added. “We don’t have any way to reach out to people like that.”
On Jan. 30, Sentara vaccinated 10,000 people in Phase 1b at Norfolk Scope and the Hampton Convention Center “with an emphasis on underserved minority populations for whom access may be a challenge.”
The healthcare system worked with local government agencies, universities and nonprofit organizations to help organize the event.
In addition to helping those residents set up appointments at Sentara clinics, Sentara also helps them fill out “necessary forms” if the person does not have access to the internet or is not comfortable filling out forms prior to their vaccine appointment, Lauren Patton, spokesperson for the healthcare system wrote in an email on Feb. 9.
“When Sentara has appointment availability, we reach out to eligible patients directly via a Sentara MyChart account, by email, or by phone,” Patton noted. “We encourage everyone, even if they are a Sentara patient, to pre-register for a vaccine with their local health departments.”
“Health departments will share their lists of eligible, pre-registered community members with Sentara if/when we are able to host future Sentara clinics,” she added.
As for its own staff, Patton wrote in an email on Wednesday that Sentara started vaccinating healthcare workers in Phase 1a on Dec. 15, 2020 and to date, “approximately 57% of Sentara’s roughly 30,000 employees have received at least the first dose.”
Riverside Health System announced on Wednesday the organization would start vaccinating patients 65 years old and older currently in an “active treatment” plan since Jan. 1, 2020.
“Previously, only those patients who had a Riverside primary care provider were eligible,” Savannah Lenz, spokesperson for Riverside, wrote in an email on Feb. 10. “This update extends the eligibility group to all those who are 65 and over and have received specialty care from Riverside since the start of 2020.”
Riverside will contact those eligible through MyChart, email or phone to schedule an appointment for the vaccine when it’s available.
“COVID-19 vaccine supply in Virginia is extremely limited, and Riverside is doing everything it can to vaccinate individuals across our community as quickly as possible,” she added.
As of Wednesday, Riverside’s website shows 32,000 first doses of the vaccine are “allocated,” administered 32,713 first doses and scheduled 7,736 first vaccines.
Meanwhile, private practices like Tidewater Physicians Multispecialty Group (TPMG), can register on the Peninsula Health District website to receive vaccinations for its staff at a VDH clinic.
But, if private practices want to help distribute and administer vaccine doses, they need to seek approval from the VDH. According to TPMG Marketing Director Terri Reedy, TPMG is already approved and has received 300 doses.
“We continue to reach out to the Virginia Department of Health, including Dr. Danny Avula [state vaccine coordinator], state representatives, and the city health departments to remind them we are approved, equipped, and ready to administer vaccines,” Reedy said in an email.
On Feb. 4, CVS Health announced 36 pharmacies in Virginia, including Williamsburg, would provide 26,000 doses. Those eligible for the vaccine — based on the state’s criteria — could register for an appointment through the pharmacy’s website or app starting Feb. 11.
But it did not go as planned.
At a press conference on Feb. 8, VDH State Vaccine Coordinator Danny Avula said CVS Health’s nationwide plan was to roll out the vaccine for residents 65 years and older who had registered on the health department’s website.
While the intent was to give priority to qualified Virginians, Avula said anyone who was on the CVS website could make an appointment whether they fit the criteria for a vaccine or not.
“CVS will be individually confirming if these individuals are 65 and over,” he said. “Not an ideal rollout but at the end of the day, we are thankful we are able to put more vaccines into Virginia.”
VDH is working on a centralized registration system to help residents sign up for the vaccine. In the meantime, it plans to reach out to other large scale distributors like Walmart and Walgreens.
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