On Monday at 10 a.m., people across the commonwealth heard their smartphones buzz as if there was an emergency.
Titled “Public Safety Alert,” the message read: “Virginians 16+ are eligible for the COVID-19 vax — vaccinate.virginia.gov call 877-829-4682”
Since 2012, the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system has helped deliver critical information through cellphones in times of crisis. According to the Federal Communications Commission, at least 56,000 messages have been sent about issues including “dangerous weather, missing children and other critical situations.”
Pandemics certainly qualify as a critical situation. No matter what the crisis might be, WEAs have the same goal: to enhance public safety. And Monday’s emergency alert in Virginia sent the right message: In the fight against COVID-19, vaccines enhance public safety.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) breaks down the types of WEAs that can be sent. “Presidential alerts” are a “special class” only sent during a national emergency. “Imminent threat alerts” are for “natural or human-made disasters, extreme weather, active shooters, and other threatening emergencies that are current or emerging.” America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response (AMBER) alerts are a separate class of “urgent bulletins issued in child-abduction cases.”
Then there are “public safety alerts” like Monday’s message, with “information about a threat that may not be imminent or after an imminent threat has occurred.” Public safety alerts also “are less severe than imminent threat alerts,” FEMA adds.
Monday’s vaccines alert ideally would have been sent the first day shots were available. But officials needed time to ramp up production, fine-tune systems and gauge the effects on the population.
More than four months after the first emergency use authorization was given to Pfizer, these vaccines are doing much more good than harm in the fight against this pandemic. As of Tuesday morning, the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) vaccine summary shows roughly 40% of Virginians have received at least one dose and 25% fully are vaccinated.
Some localities are even closer to their community vaccination goals. Per data showcased on the Chesterfield COVID-19 Vaccine Dashboard: In Chesterfield, Henrico and Loudoun counties, roughly 75% of people have received at least one dose. Chesterfield also is the first large locality (>200,000 people) to reach 50% fully vaccinated.
“It may take a few weeks to get appointments for everyone,” Gov. Ralph Northam said Monday at a new mass vaccination center in McLean. “Not everyone can get a shot today or even this week. But I’m confident that every adult in Virginia who wants a vaccine can get their first shot by the end of May.”
We are, too. But another issue going forward is not just who wants a shot, but getting every Virginian to understand that vaccinations are a core part of public safety as we battle this virus.
When a hurricane hits, we can see wind and rain, and we know we have to take shelter. When an AMBER alert is sent, we can see a photo of a missing child and feel compelled to help. And after more than 568,000 COVID-19 deaths in America, we must feel equally compelled to roll up our sleeves and get our shots.
Without a doubt, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be an emergency situation. It might not be as visible as a life-threatening storm, but Monday’s alert certainly sent the right message.
— Chris Gentilviso