(AP Photo/Steve Helber, File; Graphic by Rebecca Russ/COURIER)
(AP Photo/Steve Helber, File; Graphic by Rebecca Russ/COURIER)

Gov. Northam explained changes for who will receive vaccines and when.

RICHMOND – Gov. Ralph Northam assured Virginians in his Wednesday press conference that there’s a path out of the pandemic.

“Taking a vaccine is the right thing to protect your own health and also to protect other people,” Northam said. “It’s the way to stop this virus. It’s our path forward to recovery, and it’s the clearest way we’re going to get back to something that feels like normal.”

However, the governor cautioned against complacency, noting the COVID-19 case numbers break records daily. Currently, positive cases are about four times higher than they were in the springtime. The University of Virginia meanwhile projects that positive test rates will not decrease until around Valentine’s Day.

He also warned that although there are no confirmed COVID-19 mutations in Virginia, they are spreading throughout the world. The governor cautioned that the mutated virus is more contagious than the current illness.

Northam encouraged Virginians to remain vigilant in staying at home, wearing a mask, washing hands and staying six feet apart.

“I know it’s no fun, but we need to keep it up,” Northam said. “And I cannot over emphasize that.”

The Vaccine Strategy

To fight the virus, Northam laid out a game plan for Virginians, centered on particulars about the vaccine.

“I want to tell you what you need to do, when you need to do it and how it all fits into the larger plan,” Northam said. “You deserve to know that as well.”

The governor started with the numbers.

“We’re looking at a few different numbers and let’s start with the big ones. The first number that you need to know is 8.5 million. That’s about how many people live in our Commonwealth,” Northam said. “The second number you need to know is two. That’s how many doses each person will need to receive. You get one shot first, then another one a few weeks later. When you multiply those numbers, you get 17 million. That’s how many shots it will take to vaccinate everyone in our Commonwealth.”

Currently, Virginia receives approximately 110,000 COVID-19 vaccines a week. Northam challenged the Commonwealth to completely wipe out the supply, coupled with a replenishment promise.

“That works out to about 14,000 doses a day,” Northam said. “We’re close to that. Now, in fact, today we added another 12,000 doses to that list.”

Next, Northam challenged Virginia to administer 25,000 COVID-19 vaccinations per day and later 50,000. However, he noted that the Commonwealth does not yet have what it needs to reach those numbers. That depends on increased manufacturing and supplies distributing to the state over time.

“To get all Virginians two shots later this year, we know we’ll have to double that. So let’s talk about that,” Northam said. “It will take a moment to achieve this. We’re not going to get there tomorrow.”

RELATED: Virginia Won’t Get Its Full Vaccine Shipment This Month. 

Use It or Lose It

As more vaccine doses pour into the state and more people receive the shot, Northam also proposed raising the number of vaccines administered.

“We can ramp it up. We can be faster and we’re going to be faster,” Northam said. “That starts with a simple message to healthcare providers, health departments, hospitals, clinics and pharmacies everywhere. You use it or you lose it. So I want you to empty those freezers and get shots in arms. When you have vials, give out shots until they’re gone.”

The idea behind the use it or lose it protocol is that if a provider receives more vaccine than they’re able to give out, then maybe they have too much on their hands. The protocol calls for lessened shipments to areas underutilizing the doses they received, with the surplus heading to other areas.

Northam clarified that the vaccines would not go to anyone other than those on the approved schedule.

“Now I want to be clear: use it or lose it does not mean that you go give shots to everyone who shows up. There’s a clear prioritization of who should get shots first and who should get them in what order,” Northam said. “People most at-risk go first. We all know what that means. Healthcare professionals are first in line. People who care for people who are sick, they’re most at-risk. And if they get sick, then no one is left to care for everyone else. So nurses, EMTs, doctors, they’re in group 1a. Then the next group of people who are at-risk are people who live in our long-term care facilities, places like nursing homes and assisted living.”

The governor estimated that approximately 500,000 Virginians make up group 1a.

Subsequent Groups

The next vaccination group is 1b, comprised of essential workers in jobs that keep society functioning. Northam mentioned firefighters, police officers, hazmat workers, grocery store workers, food processing plant workers, bus drivers and transit workers, mail carriers, individuals in the food and agriculture business and people aged 75 and over.

“This list has been developed based on guidance the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] has given to all states. It’s good guidance and it’s clear guidance. It also allows room for states to customize,” Northam said. “We’ve done that in Virginia, after consulting with healthcare professionals, experts in medical ethics and lots of others.”

Another group scheduled for 1b in Virginia are those involved in education, specifically teachers, childcare workers and anyone who works in kindergarten through 12th grade schools.

“Let’s be clear about this too. We all love teachers and we value the work that they do to educate our children, but they’re not high on the list just because we liked them. They’re high on the list of essential workers because teachers are critical to getting schools back open and that’s critical to people getting back to work and literally getting back to normal,” Northam said. “Opening schools doesn’t depend on vaccinating teachers, but that sure will make it a lot easier. So that’s why we’ve chosen to put teachers so high on the list of essential workers.”

The governor estimated that approximately 2 million Virginians make up group 1b. If all goes according to plan, 1b vaccinations will occur well into the spring.

“After that is the next group of essential workers. People who work in transportation, food, service, construction, energy and more,” Northam said. “It also includes everyone aged 65 and over, and that’s about another [2.5] million people.”

An Appointed Leader

Northam appointed Dr. Danny Avula, director of the Richmond and Henrico health departments, to lead Virginia’s vaccination program.

“He knows how to get things done and he’s the right person to bring extra help to our local health department,” Northam said. “He will be our field general, coordinating work between state officials, local health departments, hospitals and private providers.”

Avula will work with other state and local officials, as well as the National Guard, to coordinate the vaccine distribution.

“I’m really excited to have this opportunity to serve with this incredible administration,” Avula said.

Leading out in COVID-19 based groundwork in Richmond and Henrico for nearly a year, Avula spoke confidently about his new position with the governor’s team. He also thanked the staff working at the health districts he directs, expressing their dedication to the cause.  

Coming Soon

While more vaccinations take place every day throughout the state, Northam encouraged patience.

“Remember, we’re three weeks and two days into this and we’re focusing on people who are most at-risk first,” Northam said. “So your turn is coming. But for now, unless you work in healthcare or live or work in a nursing home, you don’t do anything. It’s not yet your turn, but it will be. Soon, as that time gets closer over the next month, we’ll be rolling out online tools to let you know where shots are available and how that you can get them. When your turn comes around, you need to be ready and we’ll make sure you have the information you need ahead of time.”

The governor encouraged Virginians to consider taking the vaccine, calling it safe, in his opinion.

“I believe that with all my heart, based on years of experience as a doctor. I will take it when it is my turn. And so will my family. I have full confidence in the process to develop the vaccines,” Northam said. “Yes, it has moved quickly, but that’s because the whole world went all-in on developing the vaccines. It’s not something to be worried about. It’s a success story in a year that didn’t have very many. I say that as a physician and as someone who has participated in more than 200 clinical trials over the years, I am confident that the proper process was followed for these vaccines.”

Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at amie@couriernewsroom.com