Richmond and its surrounding health districts — Henrico, Chesterfield and Chickahominy — have begun Phase 2 of vaccinations, making all people ages 16 and up eligible for a dose.
This is 80% to 82% of the population. More than a third has already received at least one shot, reflecting statewide percentages, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
Friday’s announcement came a week and a half after the localities moved into Phase 1c, the final prioritization stage for essential workers, and nine days before Gov. Ralph Northam’s target date.
Only 13 of the 35 health districts statewide have yet to move to the second phase, according to the VDH website. Last week, the majority were just entering 1c, which includes workers in energy, construction, food service, transportation and media.
“This is a turning point in our vaccine distribution,” said Amy Popovich, nurse manager for Richmond’s and Henrico’s health districts. “People no longer have to wonder if they qualify.”
Richmond-area residents in Phase 2 who have already preregistered — at least 63,000 across the localities — started receiving emails and phone calls on Friday to schedule vaccine appointments for as early as next week.
The local health districts are also working through their existing waiting list to ensure those in Phase 1 have been contacted to get a dose, falling in line with a state promise that by April 18, anyone in the first phase of vaccination priority who wanted a shot would be able to at least receive a sign-up link.
Richmond and Henrico, which have 40,000 people on their Phase 2 waiting list, will begin allocating 15% of doses for residents 65 and older, 15% for Phases 1a and 1b, 35% for Phase 1c and 35% for Phase 2.
Since they’re not expecting any Johnson & Johnson vaccine next week, largely due to the shortage caused by the manufacturing facility ruining 15 million doses last month, Richmond and Henrico are not factoring the one-shot vaccines in their clinic output and will be relying on the roughly 12,000 to 13,000 doses of Pfizer and Moderna, spokesperson Cat Long said.
Still, the local health districts are on track to reaching herd immunity by the end of May or early summer, said Dr. Tom Franck, director of the Chickahominy Health District, which includes Hanover County.
But the health departments will likely never be completely done with a single phase, Franck said, noting how some people in the first vaccination stages were hesitant and took a wait-and-see approach.
“Now that their friends and neighbors are doing so well, now they want the vaccine and so we want to still prioritize those folks because they are the highest-risk adults,” Franck said. “The other reason ... is that there’s always new people joining the workforce.”
In a news conference Friday afternoon, health district directors emphasized their continued efforts to vaccinate the hardest-to-reach and most high-risk populations, such as holding walk-up events for older residents and Indigenous populations, having mobile vaccine clinics, connecting with faith and community leaders, and running programs to vaccinate homebound residents.
Strategies vary depending on what is “appropriate for various districts,” said Dr. Alexander Samuel, the Chesterfield director.
The shift to a community hub model in Richmond and Henrico also allows for community health workers to sign up residents a few days ahead of each event, Popovich added, and with most of the population now eligible, faith leaders are noting fewer stressors in the sign-up process.
As of Friday, 1 in 5 people vaccinated across Richmond, Henrico, Chickahominy and Chesterfield were in the 60-to-69 age range and 67.8% of vaccinations recorded by race and ethnicity were of white people. Less than 20% were Black, yet in recent weeks, Black communities have been more than 57% of Richmond’s cases and nearly 40% of Henrico’s.
While vaccinations in Virginia have ramped up to an average of 77,411 doses administered daily, hospitalizations and the number of new infections in Virginia are trending upward once again as the highly transmissible U.K. variant becomes the state’s dominant strain.
In a report Friday, researchers at the University of Virginia’s Biocomplexity Institute, which monitors COVID-19 trends, said that while the circulating variants are a concern, “vaccine hesitancy is the largest long-term risk to containing the impact of the pandemic.”
Dr. Danny Avula, the state’s vaccine coordinator, previously said a major need is community engagement in rural counties — areas where the VDH is seeing high levels of vaccine skepticism despite educational outreach.
As of Thursday night, the latest available update, 38 states had already made all adults 16-plus eligible for vaccination. Four, including Virginia, have indicated plans to do so in April.
For those still waiting in line, Franck urged patience.
“It’s coming really, really soon in the next couple months,” he said. “In the meantime, just please don’t let your guard down. COVID-19 is still out there. It’s still a problem. So please, please, please keep social distancing, keep washing your hands and wear your mask.”
Virginians wishing to preregister for a vaccine can do so at vaccinate.virginia.gov or by calling (877) VAX-IN-VA — that’s (877) 829-4682.