Syringes are prepped with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine before being administered at Richmond Raceway in Richmond, Va., February 2, 2021. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)

More essential workers and Virginians with underlying medical conditions can now access COVID-19 vaccines through major pharmacies across the state, the Virginia Department of Health announced Wednesday.

There are currently eight large chains that offer vaccines through a partnership with the federal government, including CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, Kroger and Albertson’s, which owns Safeway grocery stores. 

Some independent pharmacies are also included in the partnership, which provides doses to more than 300 locations across Virginia, according to Stephanie Wheawill, director of VDH’s Division of Pharmacy Services. 

While the doses supplied to pharmacies are separate from Virginia’s overall allotment, Wheawill said locations are asked to follow the state’s distribution guidelines. Until this week, state health officials instructed pharmacies to limit doses to residents 65 and older, as well as certain essential worker categories. 

Those primarily included health care workers, teachers and child care providers — the latter two categories added after President Joe Biden urged states to prioritize educators as children return to the classroom.

But starting Wednesday, pharmacies will expand eligibility to Virginians between the ages of 16 to 64 with underlying medical conditions that increase the risk of severe illness from COVID-19. A wide range of frontline workers will also be eligible for the shots, including first responders, mail carriers, grocery store clerks and faith leaders, according to a release from VDH.

“The expansion follows the state’s recent announcement that some Virginia communities could move from Phase 1b to Phase 1c,” the department wrote. 

The Eastern Shore, Southside and Pittsylvania/Danville Health Districts moved into Phase 1c on Tuesday, with others expected to follow suit by mid-April, according to VDH. The category includes restaurant workers, university faculty, energy, construction, transportation and sanitation workers, lawyers, media and a range of other “essential” professions.

But not every health district is administering vaccines at the same rate. VDH said Wednesday that those three health districts moved onto the next phase based on “a variety of factors” — including a decrease in demand for the shots among eligible residents despite “strong efforts” to engage them. 

The Blue Ridge Health District, in contrast — which covers Charlottesville and surrounding counties — announced Wednesday that the shift to Phase 1c would likely take longer than in other districts. That’s based on the number of residents in the area who are older than 65 or have underlying health conditions, officials said.

Many Northern Virginia counties also have lower rates of vaccination than other areas of the state, despite receiving a larger percentage of its total allotment. In Fairfax County, for example, there were still more than 11,000 seniors on the local health department’s waitlist as of last week, according to Hannah Menchhoff, communications director for county Chairman Jeff McKay. 

More than 100,000 residents with underlying conditions were still waiting for shots. 

“In sheer volume, the Fairfax County Health Department has vaccinated more individuals than any other health district in the state,” McKay said in a statement. “With close to 500,000 people eligible for vaccination, we are vaccinating at rates similar to the next largest jurisdictions with the caveat that no other jurisdiction has a population close to ours and we still aren’t receiving as many vaccine doses as we could administer.”

The county recently partnered with Inova Health to open a large-scale vaccine clinic by the end of the month. Inside NoVA reported that the site could immunize between 6,000 and 12,000 Fairfax County and Alexandria residents a day. 

VDH is also opening four large-scale vaccine clinics across the state in partnership with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. The sites in Danville, Portsmouth, Petersburg and Prince William — funded with money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency — were selected based on a combination of community factors, including low existing vaccination rates, community need and COVID-19 caseloads.

But as the Mercury reported last week, the differing pace of vaccinations across the state has spurred competition for shots outside local health departments. Some Virginians are driving across the state to receive doses, and many retail pharmacies expanded eligibility to those with underlying conditions before the official go-ahead from the state.

In many cases, locations were booking appointments online on a first-come, first-served basis — sparking concerns over equity. In an interview last week, Wheawill said she had a conversation with several chains, including Kroger, to clarify the state’s guidelines.

“I emphasize with every pharmacy partner that they follow our eligibility criteria — I’ve been very specific,” she said. “We certainly try to ensure that there is equitable access across the system.”