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Fredericksburg-area health officials ramp up COVID-19 vaccine efforts
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TRYING TO PUT AN END TO THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC

Fredericksburg-area health officials ramp up COVID-19 vaccine efforts

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Mary Henderson sees the COVID-19 vaccine as “our ticket out of this terrifying mess.”

The Stafford County woman and her husband, Ron, are both over age 75 and filled with anxiety as virus cases, hospitalizations and death tolls continue to rise. Reports about more contagious strains just make it worse, and the Hendersons—like others across the area, state and nation—wonder when it will be their turn to get vaccinated.

“I feel like we’re in a bunker under siege” she said. “We have heard the cavalry is coming, but do not yet see it.”

If workers in public health and hospital systems are the COVID-19 cavalry, then they would say that help is on the way. About 1,000 vaccines went into the arms of health-care workers last week at the Fredericksburg Expo and Conference Center, and officials and will ramp up efforts in the days and weeks to come, said Joe Saitta, incident commander leading the effort to roll out the vaccine in the Rappahannock Area Health District.

Health district officials aim to vaccinate 700 to 750 people daily at clinics held at the center three to four times each week. The clinics are not open to the public, but are for specific groups identified in the state’s phased-in approach. (An accompanying chart details the breakdown of tiers and current schedule.)

In addition, Mary Washington Healthcare announced last week that it will work toward vaccinating 1,000 to 2,000 people six days a week at Stafford Hospital and in its “field hospital,” space in the parking garage at Mary Washington Hospital that was set aside, early in the pandemic, to handle a possible overflow of COVID-19 patients.

While local health officials wait for doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine from the federal government, a potentially bigger issue is the people needed to administer them—and some help has come on that front, as well.

About 125 paramedics and those trained in advanced life support with Spotsylvania Fire, Rescue and Emergency Management have offered to assist with vaccinating, Saitta said. The rescue workers have to complete a state course, and the two groups must work out a formal agreement, but he hopes it will be the beginning of similar partnerships.

“Even if they only do people within their own jurisdiction, that will still help enormously,” Saitta said.

Spotsylvania Regional Medical Center will vaccinate 250 police and fire officials in its county, and CVS and Walgreens have begun taking the shots to local long-term care facilities. Heritage Hall nursing home in King George County, which has had three virus outbreaks since May, was the first facility where staff and residents got the vaccine, Saitta said.

In addition, the Department of Defense will take care of giving the vaccine to active-duty service members and their families while the Veterans Administration will handle its personnel, residents in its facilities and the rest of the state’s veterans.

One bit of perspective worth remembering, Saitta said, is that the first vaccine was approved a month ago. Since then, almost 5 million Americans have been vaccinated—although that’s far less than what federal officials had projected.

“I understand the urgency, and I think part of it is that people want this done, and they want to get past COVID,” Saitta said, “and so do we.”

‘GET SHOTS IN ARMS’

Carol Long, a geriatric care consultant in Fredericksburg, said people have been “frustrated with the overall lack of information” from local and state health officials.

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“For older adults who have been pent up in their homes for months, and people in long-term care settings, the vaccine cannot come soon enough,” Long said.

She has followed information on the Virginia Department of Health website that notes how many doses were distributed to localities and how many were administered. Like Mary Henderson, she wanted to know what progress was being made—and Long also wondered why there was such a lag between the distribution and administration.

As of Friday, Virginia had received 481,550 doses but administered only 148,909 of them. The website explained that the difference may be because large quantities are delivered with the idea they’ll be given out in seven to 10 days. Also, providers have up to three days to enter the immunization data into the system.

Last week, Gov. Ralph Northam urged health officials to step up the rate of vaccination as he set a goal of 25,000 vaccinations a day in Virginia. He said he wanted health districts and hospital systems to “empty those freezers and get shots in arms. No one wants to see any supplies sitting unused,” he said last week. “The companies are manufacturing more, they’re working around the clock, and you’re going to get more.”

Northam also stressed a “use it or lose it” approach—that those that didn’t use their whole allotment would get less the next time.

Long, who listened to Northam and Mary Washington Healthcare officials discuss their progress, was glad to hear of the plans.

“Information is finally evolving,” she said.

There were bumps in the road to overcome, and Saitta said it would take a separate story to note them all. They included: no federal plan to cover vaccine distribution; Virginia health officials debating many finer points, such as all the groups that fall under the umbrella of health care workers; the equipment and knowledge needed to handle a vaccine that requires deep freezing, thawing and administering before it goes bad; and a cumbersome computer system along with massive amounts of paperwork. Each person who gets vaccinated also gets a 14-page document to read.

Then, there’s the issue that the people calling the shots—or giving them—are the same ones that have been battling the virus for 10 months. Most of the health district’s staff has been devoted to tracing contacts or investigating cases of COVID-19, running free testing clinics, responding to complaints about those not following the governor’s orders and working with community partners to spread precautionary messages through the area—all as new cases have increased in recent weeks by as many as 300 per day.

Likewise, those at area hospitals have had “all hands on deck, caring for sick COVID-19 patients,” said Dr. Christopher Newman, chief medical officer of Mary Washington Healthcare. “Our systems are being stretched,” and mounting a complicated vaccination plan doesn’t happen overnight.

“It’s very difficult to stand it up in a day,” he said. “There are some hiccups in the road and we are going to move forward as quickly as we can.”

A ‘HUMONGOUS LIFT’

Local health districts throughout the Fredericksburg area hope to finish with tier 1a—health care workers—in the next week to 10 days. Then, they’ll launch into tier 1b, which includes those age 75 and over, certain essential workers and those in correctional facilities, homeless shelters and migrant labor camps.

The first phases of the vaccination plan involved workers who came under the umbrella of an employer. That won’t be the case with older residents, including some who may be homebound.

The Rappahannock Area Health District will assemble mobile teams to take the vaccine to people, Saitta said. Officials also will work with community partners, like faith groups or agencies that deal with the elderly, to help get the word out for those interested in receiving the vaccine.

In the Three Rivers Health District, which includes Westmoreland County and nine other localities east of Fredericksburg, officials will use various forms of outreach to spread the word, said Dr. Rich Williams, director.

“It’s a broad effort, utilizing all those techniques to try to get into every nook and cranny of the Middle Peninsula and Northern Neck,” Williams said. “This is going to be an unprecedented, humongous lift across all segments of society.”

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425

cdyson@freelancestar.com

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