The news pingponged across Virginia Reddit threads, group texts and email chains for nearly a week with a call to action: Doses at the Danville community vaccination center were about to expire due to low demand. They were taking walk-ins to make sure that didn’t happen.
Within days, people came by the hundreds from Richmond, Harrisonburg, Roanoke and Charlottesville — all driving hours to the Southside Virginia city of 40,000 people where nearly 1 in 4 live in poverty.
The Danville location was the first mass vaccination site launched across Virginia to bridge a gap in access among rural and Black and Latino populations, whose vaccination rates lag behind most of the state.
With Danville being among the few health districts in Phase 1c — the final tier of essential workers prioritized in the state’s guidelines — more than half of Virginia is technically eligible. There are also no rules in place barring outsiders from accessing a dose at clinics hours away or a requirement to prove eligibility status.
But this wasn’t what the Virginia Department of Health had envisioned for its community vaccination centers — determined by an equity analysis from the Virginia Department of Emergency Management identifying cities with high COVID-19 rates.
The health agency tried to control the chaos, prompted by posts that indicated on-site workers were encouraging people in line to invite friends and family who were above the age of 18. On Wednesday night, the state asked people to stop driving to these clinics without an appointment or invitation.
Before the announcement, information had spread by word of mouth and across the internet, contributing to the confusion and ambiguity among people clamoring for a shot.
“Fluctuating registration numbers in the initial stages of site operations allowed for walk-ins in some isolated instances but this is no longer the case,” said Lauren Opett, director of communications for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, in a statement. “Any future decisions made regarding the operations of any [community vaccination centers] will be data-driven and done in collaboration with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, the Virginia Department of Health, and the local government.”
Opett added that if any sites were “scaled down, up, or closed, based on demand for and availability of vaccine,” details would be formally released when plans are final.
While individuals flocked to the community vaccination center for one of its 3,000 doses hoping to halt the waste of vaccines while also receiving a shot, Pittsylvania-Danville Health District spokesperson Robert Parker said the actual number of unused doses was minimal.
Like at most sites, Parker said the medical team draws vaccines based on appointments, not the number of vaccinations a clinic is capable of providing. Upon realizing the supply outpaced the demand, the health district worked to reallocate doses to other parts of Virginia, and while working through that strategy, temporarily opened to walk-ins.
Then the medical team determined how many vaccines to draw based on the number of people in line, a change Danville City Manager Ken Larking said was the clinic accommodating individuals who showed up without an appointment.
Now that the state is adjusting incoming shipments to match the need and the site has stopped that practice, Parker said, “We urge people not to travel to Danville to get a vaccine.”
Yet on Thursday morning, screenshots of online posts shared with the Richmond Times-Dispatch indicated people still showed up in hopes of getting lucky. They were turned away. The day before, another person waiting in line said hundreds who arrived were students from Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia.
Among some community members and UVA students, the news sparked outrage as people worried there were Danville residents who hadn’t known a clinic near them was taking walk-ins while others from hours away were able to find out through social media.
The online appointment system already favored those with internet access and created another technology hurdle for those without, which the U.S. Census Bureau estimates is 28% of Danville. This is nearly double the state’s percentage.
Opett noted teams on the ground are “pushing out registration and vaccine messaging through community events, places of worships, community centers, flyers, onsite registration opportunities” and door-to-door efforts to combat the divide.
The VDH’s plans prioritize people near the centers and in other high-risk categories such as Black and Latino residents from its preregistration list, said Dena Potter, the Vaccinate Virginia spokeswoman.
But at the Virginia State University vaccination site, a glitch resulted in invitations being sent to residents from outside the Petersburg area who are deemed Phase 1c in the system. The Chesterfield and Crater health districts are not yet in this eligibility stage.
While there’s no explicit guideline limiting people from traveling outside their localities for a vaccine, Potter said the agency is working to allocate enough doses to health districts and keeping sites to appointment-only to have the same effect.
But successfully baking equitable distribution into vaccination policies has loomed over Virginia’s rollout as the state scrambles to disrupt a system that has historically left out communities in low-income and rural areas.
Loopholes have also created an ethical gray area in a state where white residents are nearly 70% of vaccine recipients and those with transportation have the leverage to travel long distances when they can’t access a shot in their area. But forgoing a dose doesn’t necessarily mean that vaccine will go to someone in a hard-hit neighborhood, and more vaccinations are needed to reach herd immunity.
Similar scenarios of people poking holes in the system have unfolded across the country as eligibility widens, but vaccines intended for lower-income areas with major Black and Latino populations are being taken by wealthier residents.
In California, appointments reserved for Black and Latino areas bearing a disproportionate share of cases were taken by wealthier, ineligible people in Los Angeles when access codes circulated. A New York City vaccine site in the Bronx meant for Latinos was overrun by suburbanites who largely worked from home, resulting in the clinic banning out-of-towners.
A Palm Beach vaccination event for rural Black Floridians working in the state’s farmlands became a destination for wealthier, white ones living 40 miles away.
The pattern has kept local health districts, such as Richmond’s and Henrico County’s, from making public the locations of their clinics meant for immigrant and refugee populations so the sites aren’t flooded.
In a media briefing Thursday, Blue Ridge Health District Director Denise Bonds said “vaccine tourism,” or when people from outside the localities try to access a shot, makes equity plans more difficult to execute.
This is largely because the second shots are sent to the district where an individual received the first one, not the health district where a resident lives, Bonds continued. UVA students are considered part of Blue Ridge.
“So if there are 500 Blue Ridge Health District individuals who went to Danville and got their first shot and then come here and expect to get their second shot, that is going to be 500 fewer first doses that we will have available,” Bonds said. “Because their second dose wasn’t sent to us. It was sent back to Danville.”
The Blue Ridge, Richmond and Henrico health departments said they do not track where people are traveling from, and it’s the federal Vaccine Administration Management System that allows people to sign up for an appointment outside their residence, but all health systems have likely experienced out-of-towners.
Amy Popovich, nurse manager for Richmond and Henrico, added Thursday that the localities are not at a place where they could manage walk-ins.
With every adult in Virginia estimated to be eligible for a vaccine by May, Potter said the number of people traveling hours for a dose could dwindle as more sites open up. More information on when the entire state will be in the same phase is expected to be announced soon.