The COVID-19 vaccination rollout in Prince William County, Virginia, has left residents frustrated, with eligibility requirements changing and a lack of supply prompting county officials to stop scheduling first-dose appointments until at least Feb. 15.
But Dr. Alison Ansher, the health director for the Prince William Health District, said a change in its scheduling system should improve the vaccination process.
The health district — which also covers Manassas City and Manassas Park — uses scheduling software that the federal government introduced, complicating the sign-up process. No matter where a vaccine clinic was located in Virginia, anyone across the country could see it and sign up.
But, starting early next month, the district will begin using PrepMod, a software that some hospitals in Northern Virginia have also used.
Ansher is hopeful it will facilitate enrollment at a time when vaccine supply is limited.
“[The new software] has a better vaccine tracking system as part of this electronic system,” Ansher told WTOP. “Unfortunately, we thought it would be better to halt the appointments in the old system until the new system was up and running. They’ll probably overlap for a very small amount of time.”
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According to Virginia Department of Health data, about 19,778 people in Prince William County have received at least one dose, and 2,431 people are considered fully vaccinated. From the outset, Ansher said, demand has far exceeded supply.
Virginia is in Phase 1b of its vaccination plan, which makes the following eligible to be vaccinated: front-line essential workers; those age 65 or older; people in correctional facilities, homeless shelters or migrant labor camps; and those between the ages 16 and 64 who have a high-risk medical condition.
Given its current allocation, Virginia’s Health Department said the state is unlikely to be able to vaccinate everyone in the current phase until March or April.
Virginia is now distributing vaccine to local health systems based on population, a shift from the initial distribution plan. On Jan. 15, the department said its request for additional doses was rejected.
On Tuesday, the Northern Virginia Regional Commission sent a letter to Gov. Ralph Northam urging a more equitable distribution of vaccines.
Last week, Ansher said the state learned it would receive 105,000 doses from the federal government. The Northern Virginia region received 30,000 doses for each locality to provide to hospital systems, health districts and any partners, such as pharmacies, also involved in distribution.
Prince William County, which accounts for 6% of the state population, therefore received about 6,000 doses. That prompted officials to stop booking new appointments.
Further complicating matters, the state said the pace of incoming doses isn’t expected to improve until March.
“Some events had to be canceled, appointments had to be canceled, because it ends up being probably a lot less than what had been anticipated as people planned and had people sign up for appointments,” Ansher said. “This past week is when that first occurred.”
The vaccine supply challenge is likely a production issue, Ansher said, but there has also been a lack of clarity surrounding what states would receive.
Second doses were expected to be saved and sent to states with a new supply of first doses, but Ansher said the previous administration didn’t set second doses aside.
However, with the Prince William Health District beginning second dose distribution this week, Ansher said that issue seems to be corrected.
“The federal government now has sent second doses to match the number of doses that you’ve given on a particular day about a week before they’re due,” Ansher said.
In Prince William, vaccines are available at several clinics, including local pharmacies, grocery stores and one at George Mason University’s Prince William Campus. Before it received word of the limited supply, the county was also working to partner with Walmart and Harris Teeter to get vaccines into the community, Ansher said.
She added that vaccination sites need to have enough space, because many people have arrived at appointments with family members. In addition, some recipients need to be observed for 30 minutes rather than the recommended 15 because of their medical history.
On Saturday, the county also implemented a new cold-weather policy so that those in line can wait in their cars.
Moving forward, the health district said anyone who has received a first dose between Dec. 28 and Jan. 21 but is struggling to secure an appointment for the second will be accommodated. It also has launched a waitlist for eligible residents.
As the region continues to roll out COVID-19 vaccine doses, Ansher said the community still needs to use mitigation strategies. She’s concerned that once people are vaccinated, they’ll stop.
“The mRNA vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna, at this point from what we know, does not prevent transmission, it just makes the disease less severe,” Ansher said.
“As research goes on, that may change. That means we need to continue to social distance, wash our hands, wear our face coverings. It doesn’t change all that.”