RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Gov. Ralph Northam announced Friday $22 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding will be used to create a statewide program to distribute COVID-19 vaccines when they are approved for public use.
The funding is the first allocation in what’s expected to be a $120 million effort to prepare the state for mass distribution. A 60-page report submitted to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention details the need for additional equipment, staff and communication strategies to make sure the program goes smoothly in Virginia.
“We look forward to the day that a safe vaccine for COVID-19 is available for public use, so that we can get closer to living normal lives,” Northam said in a statement on Friday. “I encourage Virginians to get this vaccine when it is available — that is our best way to end this pandemic.”
Virginia Department of Health Immunization Division Director Christy Gray said the unprecedented plan was designed with flexibility to accommodate an uncertain timeline. She said they are actively monitoring up to seven vaccines under development.
“We don’t know when they will become available and how fast they can be manufactured,” Gray said. “The vaccine campaign is not going to be a several month endeavor. It is going to take a while.”
The state’s plan calls for a phased approach that will begin after a vaccine is deemed safe by the Food and Drug Administration. The first phase assumes there will be a limited supply initially followed by a rapid increase in production in the proceeding months.
The federal government will largely decide how those first doses are prioritized based on a number of factors. Gray said the state could have a hand in further targeting resources if initial supplies aren’t sufficient to cover everyone in a vulnerable group.
“We expect that the recommendation is likely going to be healthcare works, essential personnel and residents of long-term care facilities,” Gray said. “We can’t necessarily say what order but those are the individuals that have either the highest risk of infection or the highest risk of severity of infection.”
Phase two of the plan marks the transition from vaccinating the most vulnerable to vaccinating the general public. Gray said the shot will be available to all Virginians, including the uninsured, free of out of pocket charges.
To distribute the vaccine in this phase, VDH will use its existing immunization infrastructure by working with its partners at pharmacies, hospitals, clinics and more. The state is also planning mobile events and large community sites with social distancing to reach every corner of the commonwealth.
“Think about where you go to get a flu shot. You should be able to go and get a COVID shot there too,” Gray said.
Gray said VDH started recruiting providers at the beginning of October and more than 800 have already signaled their intent to participate. Gray said they still need to sign an agreement with the CDC that will bind them to various safety standards, including how the vaccines are stored.
Phase three is when the public health vaccination effort will wind down, though it will continue to be available through the private sector. The plan notes that annual booster vaccinations may be required.
Gray said a complicating factor in the response is that several of the vaccines being developed require multiple, distinct doses. The state’s plan lays out strict data reporting standards for providers so the Northam Administration can keep track of what percentage of the population have completed the process.
Once the immunization is widely available, the plan also details the creation of a national COVID-19 vaccine finder and a screening tool for individuals to determine their eligibility on the CDC’s website.
“It is a living document and it will continue to be updated as we learn more information,” Gray said.
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