State anticipates fewer COVID vaccine doses due to U.S. shortfall
Federal reserve exhausted; state is ‘scraping and clawing’ for doses
Virginia public health officials said Saturday that the number of COVID-19 vaccine doses sent to the state is likely to decrease — possibly by a significant amount — because the federal government does not have the reserve of doses it had said were being held back for second shots.
Dr. Danny Avula, the state’s vaccine coordinator, said it is not clear how large the decrease will be in coming weeks. “We really don’t know exactly what to make of it,” he said, in part because federal officials, including Alex Azar, the Trump administration’s health and human services secretary, had said just days ago that the government would begin releasing doses. “There’s definitely no planning three weeks from now,” Avula added. Complicating matters is the transition of the presidency next week, which will bring in new officials to oversee federal vaccine distribution.
Last week, Virginia received 106,000 doses for first shots and about 61,000 doses for second shots, which come through different routes from the federal government. The two vaccines currently available require two shots for full inoculation.
Despite the forecast shortage, the state will continue to vaccinate as many people as possible in groups 1a and 1b, who are most vulnerable to the coronavirus, Avula said. He added that most of the state’s health districts will join the first 11 districts in phase 1b next week, providing vaccinations to essential workers, including police, teachers and grocery workers. Group 1a is made up of frontline medical responders and staff and residents of long-term care facilities, who have been eligible for vaccination since December 2020.
With the earlier news of an expected windfall of doses from the federal government, Gov. Ralph Northam broadly expanded the number of eligible people for vaccinations last week. He announced Thursday that all people 65 and older, as well as people with health issues who are between 16 and 64, will be eligible as part of group 1b, about half of Virginia’s 8.5 million population.
The state will still honor Northam’s expansion, Avula said Saturday, but he urged healthy Virginians over age 65 who aren’t at high risk of exposure to wait for their shot until the supply of doses catches up with demand. Avula said that although he is eligible as a health care provider to get the vaccine, he has not done so because he is healthy and can perform most of his job duties remotely.
Avula anticipates the number of doses available to build back up by March. Moderna and Pfizer Inc. are continuing to quickly produce more doses. AstraZeneca’s vaccine is still in testing, but it is likely to become available to the U.S. market by April, Avula added, and Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose vaccine is just behind AstraZeneca’s.
Virginia Health and Human Resources Secretary Dr. Daniel Carey said Saturday that even though the federal stockpile shortage was disappointing news, the state had already been considering an expansion of group 1b to include people over 65, because facilities conducting vaccinations were asking for a bigger pool of eligible people so they could schedule vaccinations quickly.
Also, addressing the apparent lag in vaccinations in Virginia, Avula said the problem is primarily data entry now. As of Saturday, the Virginia Department of Health dashboard shows that 295,202 doses have been administered, out of 943,400 received — or 31%.
The numbers don’t indicate how many people have gotten vaccinated, which is much higher based on information from health districts around the state, Avula said. But busy health districts, hospitals, medical practices and long-term care facilities’ employees have not all had time to update their vaccination statistics so the data is promptly reflected on the VDH vaccine dashboard, which is updated daily.
Beginning Monday, a 10-person team will start work on bringing the data entry up to date and Avula will send a weekly update to vaccine providers with the number of doses administered and how many are still on hand. He expects to see a major difference in data in coming days — a high priority because the federal government has said that states that don’t show high rates of administering shots may see their number of allocated doses decrease.
Meanwhile, Avula is focused on building infrastructure to allow speedy inoculations later this spring. The number of pharmacies and medical practices approved to give vaccinations is growing, and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and the Virginia National Guard are making plans for massive vaccination sites when there are more doses.
“We are scraping and clawing for every dose we can get,” Avula said.