In an effort to speed up vaccinations and ensure equitable distribution, Virginia officials this week expanded the number of people eligible to administer the COVID-19 vaccine and issued a requirement that those vaccinators collect race and ethnicity data.
Gov. Ralph Northam announced Wednesday he had signed legislation to that effect introduced by Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, and Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico. The emergency legislation became law upon Northam’s signature.
Now, any health care worker licensed by the Virginia Department of Health Professions or the Virginia Department of Health — or who was in the last 20 years and is in good standing — can volunteer as a vaccinator. The bill also allows health care students to volunteer, as long as their programs can confirm they’ve been trained in vaccinations.
All vaccinators in the state, under the new law, are required to collect patient data from people receiving the vaccine — specifically, data related to their race and ethnicity. Such data has been lacking within the state’s vaccination data. The data that is available shows lower vaccination rates among people of color.
“Tracking this is a critical step to ensuring we’re distributing vaccines equitably,” Northam said Wednesday during a briefing with reporters.
Also Wednesday, Northam announced the launch of a new call center to help people register for COVID-19 vaccines, following the launch of a statewide online registration form.
In addition, he announced updated guidelines related to high school sports. The state will now allow up to 250 spectators for outdoor sports, as long as there is enough room for people to socially distance. The current limit is 25 spectators.
Virginia as of Wednesday had administered 1.4 million of the 1.8 million doses that the state has received from the federal government. Roughly 12% of Virginians have received at least one dose, and about 366,000 — 4% — had received both doses of the vaccine, completing their immunization.
More than half a million vaccinations — roughly 35% — did not have race and ethnicity recorded. The available but incomplete figures detail a major disparity where 72% of people vaccinated are white and less than 20% are Black or Latino — two populations that make up nearly half of COVID hospitalizations and more than a third of deaths.
The incidence of COVID-19 in Virginia is trending downward, and on Wednesday, the state reported an average of 2,600 new cases over the past week. The state’s positivity rate is at 9%, following an early January peak of 17%.
Still, Northam said that public restrictions and health precautions will continue as the state ramps up vaccinations.
The vaccinator bill directs the state health department to create a program to recruit, enlist and train volunteers. It also directs the health department to create a system by which businesses, universities and other private and public entities can make their facilities available for vaccination clinics.
Vaccine Call Center
As for the new call center, the hotline is 877-VAX-INVA, or 877-829-4682.
Northam said the call center is being staffed by 750 people, including Spanish speakers and translation services in more than 100 languages.
State Health Commissioner Norman Oliver on Wednesday also addressed complaints that the Spanish version of the online registration form was not an accurate or adequate translation.
Oliver said that the vendor the state used to create the forms relied on Google Translate to create the Spanish version, but Tuesday afternoon, pivoted to a different vendor to translate the site.
“This [new] vendor utilizes native speakers of Spanish — human beings as opposed to artificial intelligence, which is much more reliable and culturally proficient. Our vendor is in the process of putting that back in the code. That will take 24 hours or so,” Oliver said.
On Tuesday, a spokeswoman for the Department of General Services told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that technical delays with the Spanish version — which had been professionally translated and approved — would have stunted the ability to launch the system as scheduled. She said the Google Translate version was a “stop-gap.”
The state’s Chief Diversity Officer, Janice Underwood, said in an interview that state officials realized days ago that the translation was inadequate, and were working to fix it. Eventually, they pivoted to a new vendor, Transfective Language Services.
The Spanish version of the form, powered by Google, returns a decipherable but faulty product. The state faced sharp criticism over it, including from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, said in a statement Tuesday that the move showed “a clear lack of cultural competency at VDH.”
On Wednesday, Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, tweeted: “I called on the governor to stop with Google Translate the last time they messed up a translation on a COVID site. Esto continúa faltándole el respeto a la comunidad.” (The phrase means: This continues to show disrespect to the community.)
Guzman and Davis are seeking the nomination for lieutenant governor from their respective parties.
Northam on Wednesday addressed other challenges with the new online system, including complaints that people who had registered with their local health department were not seeing their names reflected in the statewide system.
State officials had said people need only register once, and that people who had registered through local portals would see their forms migrate into the statewide network.
Northam said local registrations are still migrating over to the state database, and urged Virginians to give that process more time.
“It may take days for your name to show in the central registration system,” Northam said, urging Virginians to check back in a few days.
A spokeswoman for the Richmond and Henrico health districts said that missing registrations could be due to differences in how the information was entered.
“The system is case-sensitive and only works if individuals type in their name, e-mail, or phone number using the exact same characters as when they entered it in an interest form,” she said.
Staff writer Sabrina Moreno contributed to this report.