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Opinion/Editorial: Virginia must step up vaccinations

Opinion/Editorial: Virginia must step up vaccinations

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Virginia suffered a black eye when it was reported early last week that the state had parceled out only 20% of the COVID vaccine dosages in its possession.

And this in a state governed by a physician.

Meanwhile, the COVID positivity rate — the percentage of people testing positive for the virus — had climbed to nearly 17% by midweek.

No wonder Gov. Ralph Northam quickly issued new orders and appointed an overseer to try to speed up the vaccination effort.

Data issued by the Virginia Department of Health on Jan. 4 showed that the state had administered barely 20% of its vaccine stock.

By the time Northam acted on Jan. 6, that had risen to around 24%. But even though improved, the figure still lagged behind the national average of nearly 31%, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the same day.

It is unconscionable — after the emergency push to get vaccines approved and shipped — that Virginia has vaccine dosages sitting in storage.

The vaccine won’t protect anybody there.

Some people may die because they failed to receive their vaccinations in a timely manner.

Meanwhile, virtually simultaneously, local residents were receiving shots at the new vaccination center located in the Kmart parking lot on Hydraulic Road. The Blue Ridge Health District had announced creation of the center — where vaccinations can be handled efficiently and in quantity — several days before word came of the state’s low overall vaccination rate. The center took its first customers on Jan. 6, the day Northam announced his new vaccination effort.

That opening of the local center is good news for our community.

As for its problems, the state health department cited reporting and record-keeping difficulties at both its headquarters and at the sites where vaccines were being administered, hinting perhaps that the actual numbers were better than the reported numbers. The problems are partly due to a glitch in the department’s computer system, officials say. They’re also because health-care workers are more focused on actually administering the shots than on paperwork documenting that the shots were administered, they say.

And, they add, some hospitals have been slow to give vaccines because staff are swamped with caring for current COVID victims.

Another problem in distributing vaccines was an early breakdown in a system by which doses were sent to nursing homes via a federal arrangement with CVS and Walgreens pharmacy chains. Some of the state’s most vulnerable citizens reside in elder-care facilities.

To address these and other issues, Northam put Richmond and Henrico Health Director Danny Avula in charge of an effort to speed up the vaccination process.

New rules also seek to incentivize action — and “punish” inaction.

Members of the Virginia National Guard will be sent to help local health departments administer the vaccines and to provide “logistical support.” (Perhaps the latter includes data entry.)

Once reporting problems are ironed out, medical facilities will be required to give vaccination shots as quickly as possible — or risk having any future allotments reduced.

That policy creates some winners and losers. People living near a low-performing facility may face delays in receiving vaccinations, unless they can travel elsewhere for help. (Of course, they’d be facing delays anyway if the facility is slow to administer the vaccine.)

But at least the doses won’t be sitting in a freezer somewhere; they’ll be sent where they can do the most good for the most people. It’s a tough priority, to be sure. But a key to defeating COVID is to immunize as many people as possible, so that the disease cannot be as rapidly transmitted.

Unless the spread of the virus is thus disrupted, the pandemic will continue to overwhelm our hospitals, nursing homes, jails, prisons and state and local health staff — and it will continue to kill.

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The country’s vaccine roll-out is an utter mess. The federal government is chiefly to blame, but states and local officials, all of whom had many weeks to prepare for what everyone knew would be a massive logistical challenge, have been caught tragically flat-footed as well.

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