As Virginia expands its availability of COVID-19 vaccinations to those falling under the Phase 2 guidelines, the Virginia Department of Health plans to prioritize vaccinations for college students before the term ends, public health officials said in a Tele-Press Conference on April 9.
Although the Virginia Department of Emergency Management issued an alert Monday morning saying Virginians 16 years old and older are eligible for the vaccine, the pause in the Johnson & Johnson vaccine administration following six reported cases of blood clots will slow appointment availability for the general public, state vaccine coordinator Dr. Danny Avula said in a Tele-Press Conference on April 13.
The eligibility expansion makes it easier, in some respects, for more vulnerable communities to get the vaccine because of clearer guidelines, said Cat Long, public information officer for the Richmond and Henrico health districts.
“The message is simple across the board -- that you qualify if you’re over 16,” Long said.
Richmond and Henrico health districts have been using the CDC’s Vulnerability Index to focus on most-at-risk zip codes to try and ensure equitable vaccine access, Long said. Long praised the local health department for going into senior apartment complexes and various neighborhoods to increase access.
The VDH is currently working with local institutions of higher education to set up vaccination centers and get students vaccinated before traveling home and potentially spreading the virus across the country, Avula said in a Tele-Press Conference on April 9.
The University of Richmond will hold an on-campus COVID-19 vaccination clinic this week, wrote Steve Bisese, vice president for student development, in an email sent to students on April 19.
UR was able to secure 1,100 doses of the Pfizer vaccine following the pause in the use of the J&J vaccine, wrote Cynthia Price, AVP of media and public relations, in an email to The Collegian on April 19.
“Over the last couple weeks, there have been surging new positive cases particularly in younger kids and younger adults,” Avula said. “We absolutely are going to press forward as fast as we can and to vaccinate as many people as possible.”
College students don’t live in a bubble, Long said. As of April 19, 3,022 COVID-19 outbreaks have been reported in health districts throughout Virginia, 88 of which were attributed to colleges and universities. There have been 70 total UR outbreak-associated cases, according to the VDH.
There have been 376 cumulative cases at UR during the spring semester, according to the UR COVID-19 dashboard as of April 19.
“It’s really the reality that college students are drivers of transmission,” Avula said in a Tele-Press Conference on April 9.
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With the end of the semester and commencement ceremonies approaching, it’s especially important for college students to get vaccinated, he said.
“I think it just gives us our best chance to not have big spreader events in the upcoming weeks,” Avula said.
VDH officials plan to vaccinate around 11,000 college and university students from the initial surveys of local colleges and universities, but they are seeing low initial uptake of under 50% of the total number of students on campus, Avula said.
So far, 12.4% of vaccine doses administered in Virginia have been to people ages 10-29, according to the VDH. In Richmond and Henrico, 17.1% of vaccine doses have been administered to people ages 10-29, according to the VDH.
The J&J vaccine was ideal for universities planning to vaccinate students before they went home for the summer because it was only one dose, Avula said.
UR students need to be available to return to campus during the week of May 10 to receive their second dose of the Pfizer vaccine through the university’s clinic, Bisese wrote.
“Unfortunately, the timing of our receipt of the vaccine coming at the end of the semester and the requirement for a second dose three weeks after the first does not align with the departure plans of most students,” Price wrote.
Dena Potter, director of communications for the department of general services, wrote in an email to The Collegian on April 14 that some colleges and universities are going to switch to the two-dose vaccines, especially those that can start early enough to get through both doses before the last day of classes in mid-May.
“Some are waiting to see what comes of the Johnson & Johnson pause and will retool depending on ACIP recommendations,” Potter wrote.
Though Avula acknowledged that the blood clot cases in the six women who received the J&J vaccine were occurring on an extremely small scale, vaccine safety is of the utmost importance, and the VDH will wait for further federal guidance and investigation before making any more decisions, he said.
There’s always a risk with any vaccine, said Rick Mayes, a professor of public policy and co-coordinator of the healthcare studies program at UR.
“But what gets lost is the fear of what happens if you don’t get vaccinated,” he said.
Approximately 30 vaccination events and 72,000 J&J doses that were scheduled this week have been postponed, Avula said. Wherever possible, the J&J doses would be replaced with Pfizer and Moderna so that the vaccination effort would not be hindered, he added.
“Any human being that can step up and fill a missed appointment or get a vaccination before they, you know, throw away a batch is a total win for that person and a win for all of us,” Mayes said.
The end of May is a reasonable goal for everyone who wants a vaccine in Virginia to get one, Avula said.
For the fall semester, more than a dozen colleges and universities, including Rutgers and Duke universities, announced they would require vaccinations for fall 2021 enrollment. The CDC has also recommended vaccinating at enrollment.
UR is aware of this, but has not yet made a decision about whether to require the vaccine, Price wrote. The university is currently developing a process by which students, faculty and staff will be able to report their vaccine status, she wrote.
UR adheres to the immunization and tuberculosis screening requirements of the Commonwealth of Virginia, according to UR’s Student Health Center page on new students. UR’s pre-entrance health form currently lists COVID under recommended vaccines.
“The University strongly encourages all students, faculty and staff to get vaccinated against COVID-19,” Price wrote. “We do not have a specific numerical target regarding the vaccine, but we are hoping that most if not all members of our community will get vaccinated.”
Contact news writer Natasha Sokoloff at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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