Health districts that have received the least amount of coronavirus vaccines in Virginia are the ones with counties reporting some of the highest COVID-19 rates throughout the state. They’re also largely rural with populations up to 77% Black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and have no major hospitals.
With health systems given a significant ration of vaccine supply in the early days of the rollout, localities in Northern Virginia, Central Shenandoah, Richmond and Norfolk led the way in weekly allocations.
Districts without the infrastructure in place, or the ability to buy the ultra-cold freezers the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require, were left with a logistical nightmare worsened by a limited supply.
In recent weeks, Virginia adjusted its supply allocation to be population-based, but in a letter to Dr. Norman Oliver, the state’s health commissioner, and Dr. Danny Avula, the state’s vaccine coordinator, Rep. Don McEachin, D-4th, said “more needs to be done.”
“I have heard from constituents that the Virginia Department of Health could be doing a better job making public resources available. I have received multiple complaints regarding website difficulty, busy call centers, and a lack of communication to those on waitlists,” McEachin wrote in the letter. “Moreover, I am concerned that as vaccine rollout continues, rural communities and communities of color will be hardest hit by a lack of coordinated distribution and administration efforts.”
The congressman added that he hopes the trend isn’t exacerbated by a further lack of coordination at the state level, a matter made even more urgent with the onset of highly transmissible variants.
“Every vaccine that goes unused could save a grandparent’s life, a teacher’s life, or a frontline worker’s life — and we must do everything in our power to protect as many Virginians as possible,” he added.
McEachin’s congressional district includes Crater, which has received the seventh-lowest number of doses out of 35 state health districts and is home to Petersburg — a city with the sixth-highest percentage of Black residents in the country.
In May, Petersburg made national headlines when officials cut off the water for residents who hadn’t paid their bills in a pandemic that requires washing one’s hands to limit COVID-19 spread. Following criticism that Del. Lashrecse Aird of Petersburg called “inhumane,” Oliver ordered the city to restore services.
Aird’s resolution in the 2021 General Assembly session citing clean, affordable water as a human right passed the Virginia House of Delegates in a party-line vote on Friday.
Limited water and medical access has stunted cities like Petersburg that, decades after a legacy of discriminatory lending practices, have severe segregation across racial and socioeconomic lines.
Now, the unaddressed history has seeped into vaccinations.
“Since the beginning of the vaccine rollout, I have been vocal about the need to frame our response with an emphasis on equitable distribution,” Aird said in a statement Tuesday. “Crater Health District has some of the highest concentrations of poverty and some of the lowest health indicators in the Commonwealth and because equity was not prioritized, we have fallen short of prevention the routine pattern of neglect when it comes to communities of color and rural communities.”
The VDH did not respond to questions regarding efforts to funnel resources to health districts like Crater by time of publication, but in a media briefing Tuesday, Stephanie Wheawill, director of the Division of Pharmacy Services at the health department, said “our focus has been on equity and fairness and making sure that we can get vulnerable populations vaccinated.”
In an interview Tuesday, McEachin said Congress is fighting to have money coming into states go toward vaccination clinics established near rural Black and Latino communities to widen accessibility. He added that this remains a national issue with complicated and unanswered questions left over by the previous administration.
Of the top 10 health districts with the lowest number of vaccines received as of Tuesday — Eastern Shore, Hampton, Western Tidewater, Crater, Piedmont, Southside Health, West Piedmont, Cumberland Plateau, Three Rivers and Rappahannock — all have fewer than 20,000 doses despite some having populations in the hundreds of thousands. Eight are in the southern part of Virginia.
By the numbers
Virginia recorded 3,291 new cases on Tuesday, up from the single-day increase of 1,700 the day before. The state’s total caseload is at 534,116, and the positivity rate has settled at 10.2%.
The state is approaching 7,000 deaths, less than 2½ weeks since surpassing 6,000. On Tuesday, the death toll was at 6,898 deaths. With a seven-day average of 54 deaths per day, Virginia could reach the grim milestone in two days.
Current COVID-19 hospitalizations decreased by 37 patients since Monday, according to the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association’s online dashboard, which is the most accurate representation of hospitalizations. The state’s hospitals had 2,248 COVID-19 patients.
COVID-19 figures for the Richmond area
Richmond and the surrounding counties of Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico have had a total of 60,394 cases, 2,386 hospitalizations and 818 deaths.
Richmond has had 13,563 cases, 641 hospitalizations and 143 deaths. Chesterfield has had 20,876 cases, 728 hospitalizations and 216 deaths.
Henrico has had 19,760 cases, 797 hospitalizations and 355 deaths. Hanover has had 6,195 cases, 220 hospitalizations and 104 deaths.