By April 18, COVID-19 vaccines will be freely available to all Virginians over the age of 16, Gov. Ralph Northam promised on Thursday.
The target date the state set for doing away with eligibility barriers will come a little less than two weeks before President Joe Biden's nationwide goal of May 1. Northam said that nearly all high-risk Virginians who have registered for a vaccine have received one, and the remainder will receive invitations in the next two weeks.
“The COVID-19 vaccine is the light at the end of the tunnel — and that light is getting brighter every day as more and more Virginians get vaccinated,” Northam said in a statement.
As of Wednesday, at least 2.5 million residents - or 30% of the state - have received one dose and nearly 4 million doses have been administered, a figure that’s nearly double the amount reported a month ago.
The governor said the state will work to make sure that the highest priority Virginians — essential workers, older residents and those with pre-existing health conditions — are at the front of the line once eligibility opens up.
By Sunday, the state expects many districts will be able to start offering vaccine appointments to the general public, based on promised federal supply.
Between now and April 18, every locality is expected to shift into Phase 1c, which includes workers in energy, construction, restaurant, transportation and media. Within the last day, the number of health districts entering Phase 1c more than doubled from 10 to 21.
Richmond and its surrounding health districts in Henrico, Chesterfield and Chickahominy were among them. Fifteen of the state’s 35 health districts remain in 1b.
“Expanding vaccine eligibility to all adults marks an important milestone in our ongoing efforts to put this pandemic behind us, and I thank all of the public health staff, health care workers, vaccinators, and volunteers who have helped make this possible,” Northam said.
The news broke during another media briefing Wednesday following state vaccine coordinator Dr. Danny Avula’s vaccination at the Richmond Raceway. Avula previously said Virginia expected to beat Biden’s goal by at least a week. Now, it’s roughly two.
“Did the governor actually announce that or are you baiting me?” Avula joked. “No that’s great, I was waiting for that announcement.”
Cat Long, spokesperson for Richmond and Henrico’s health districts, said while the localities knew the shift was coming, they did not know when.
Earlier this week, Avula told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that final dates for the Phase 2 transition had yet to be determined and districts would likely move within a date range rather than on a specific day.
Avula emphasized Virginia is still not accepting walk-ins — an issue that prompted hundreds to flock to a mass vaccination center and the Virginia Department of Health to urge people to stop driving outside of their localities without signing up for a dose — and will continue to base appointments through its registration system.
Virginia is also working to sync its process with an existing national, centralized website called vaccinefinder.org to ease accessibility in finding available clinic locations.
The announcement curbed concerns that Johnson & Johnson’s mix-up at its Baltimore manufacturing facility, which ruined 15 million doses and halted future shipments, would alter Virginia’s course in widening eligibility. Avula said more than 200,000 doses are slated to arrive next week and will hold the state over through May.
Johnson and Johnson’s one-shot vaccine was pivotal in expanding the state’s capacity to launch mass vaccination clinics and speed up distribution.
Virginia has lagged behind other states in expanding eligibility. According to a vaccine eligibility tracker from The New York Times, Virginia is one of about a dozen states where eligibility is restricted to people over the age of 60, unless they are an essential worker or have a pre-existing health condition.
Eighteen other states have begun vaccinating all adults over the age of 16. As of Wednesday night, Virginia was one of just seven states that expected to offer vaccines universally on May 1; the Times tracker reported the rest had already done so or planned to do in April.
Virginia, unlike other states, is not phasing eligibility by age, though it's not clear if individual providers or health districts will prioritize older age groups when offering appointments.
National health equity experts have previously criticized the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's age-based guidelines, warning the possibility of shutting out those shouldering the burden since Black and Latino residents have shorter life expectancies than whites.
In Richmond and Henrico, only 5% of Latinos are in the 65-and-up age range yet statewide they are the most likely to be infected, hospitalized or to die from the virus when adjusting for age and population. Among the 35 to 44 age group, Latinos are dying from the virus at almost 11 times the rate of white Virginians, according to a March report from the Virginia Department of Health.
The Northam administration said in a statement that Virginia’s delays were in large part due to efforts to deliver the vaccine equitably and to prioritize people at the highest risk before expanding eligibility.
While in recent weeks, vaccinations by race and ethnicity show an increase in the percentage of Black and Latino residents receiving a dose, they account for less than 22% of overall vaccine recipients. Combined, the groups are 30% of the state population and 46% of coronavirus hospitalizations.
More than 880,000 vaccinations do not have race and ethnicity recorded.
Avula emphasized that VDH’s efforts in allocating doses to high-risk communities, reserving slots for Black and Latino residents and conducting outreach through mobile vaccination clinics and door-to-door visits will continue in Phase 2.
Virginians wishing to pre-register for the COVID-19 vaccine can do so in English, Spanish and American Sign Language at vaccinate.virginia.gov. People can also call 877-VAX-IN-VA to sign up over the phone and receive assistance in dozens of languages.