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Surry advocates for vaccine equity

Surry County is celebrating some COVID-19 vaccine-related successes but asking regional and state leaders for more equity in vaccine availability and distribution for local residents as the coronavirus pandemic approaches the one year mark in Virginia.

Like in many other communities, local availability of the COVID-19 vaccine has come in surges — sometimes unexpectedly — according to a Feb. 12 memo for the public shared with The Smithfield Times by Melissa Rollins, Surry County’s administrator. The memo cited what happened at a recent vaccination clinic as an example of how local officials are trying to make the best of an evolving situation where circumstances often are out of their control.

On Feb. 6, about 90 Surry County Public Schools teachers and staff were set to receive the vaccine during a clinic at Surry County High School. Initially the clinic was for teachers and staff only, “a decision made by the Crater Health District due to the push by the governor for students to return to the classrooms; a decision that is up to each school district,” officials said.

During the event, “we learned that additional doses were available from other jurisdictions in the health district. Not desiring for any vaccines to be wasted and knowing that we had a wait list, Surry County leaders, volunteers [and] Crater Health District personnel on site sprung into swift action to ensure that the vaccine went into the arms of citizens on the waiting list,” specifically people in category 1B, those age 65 and up and people with underlying health issues that put them at greater risk of serious or life threatening illness if they contract COVID-19.

The health district’s jurisdictions are Surry, Sussex, Prince George, Dinwiddie and Greensville counties and the cities of Petersburg, Hopewell and Emporia. Surry used its email instant alert system to notify residents that the vaccine was available on a first-come, first-served basis for people who are in category 1B of eligibility.

Instead of about 90 shots, 241 people were vaccinated on Feb. 6.

“A planned three-hour event essentially turned into nine hours and all involved are to be commended for making this happen for the community,” officials said. “We heard positive comments from citizens who were grateful to receive the call and [were] pleased with the process.”

A similar experience played out days later. On Feb. 9, the county learned that 200 vaccines would be made available to Surry in addition to 90 reserved for schools. The following day, on Feb. 10, Surry said 328 people were vaccinated — 55 were school division or county employees and the rest were county residents in 1B.

“The response from the event has been that it was well organized, efficient, friendly, helpful volunteers and the clinic provided an opportunity for citizens to see and greet each other even behind the masks,” officials said.

At the same time, “Surry County understands that many are frustrated with the process,” officials said. “We are also, and much is out of localities’ control. States rely on the federal government to distribute vaccine doses, which have been limited and distribution proportionate to population.”

According to the memo, the Crater Health District currently receives about 1,775 vaccines each week to be distributed to all eight district jurisdictions. “According to our recent records, nearly 500 citizens have been requested to be on the waitlist,” the memo states. “We understand that demand all over exceeds supply at this time, and we will continue to advocate for additional vaccines.”

The vaccine rollout process — seemingly surging then stalling — along with equity of the shot’s availability drew the attention of Rep. Donald McEachin, whose 4th Congressional district includes Surry County.

“I have heard from constituents that the Virginia Department of Health could be doing a better job making public resources available. I have received multiple complaints regarding website difficulty, busy call centers, and a lack of communication to those on waitlists,” McEachin wrote in a recent letter to Dr. Norm Oliver, Virginia’s state health commissioner and Dr. Danny Avula, head of the state’s vaccination program.

McEachin expressed concern that rural communities and communities of color will be hit hardest by a lack of coordinated vaccine distribution and administration efforts. He said the Crater Health District “has received the sixth-lowest amount of vaccines of Virginia’s 35 health districts — a trend I hope is not further exacerbated by a lack of coordination moving forward.”