Virginia reaches new vaccine milestone even as gaps continue across the state

By: - June 21, 2021 2:19 pm

Gov. Ralph Northam announces a new vaccination milestone at Hope Pharmacy in Richmond (Courtesy of the Office of Gov. Northam)

Seventy percent of adult Virginians have now received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, beating a July 4 goal set by President Joe Biden. 

“Virginia is the 16th state to have 70 percent of adults with at least one shot, and we reached that two weeks early,” Gov. Ralph Northam announced Monday, celebrating the milestone at a community pharmacy in Richmond. As national vaccination rates continue to tumble, Virginia has emerged as a leader in the South, where many states — including neighboring West Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina — continue to lag far behind federal targets. 

But the good news comes with some significant caveats, according to public health experts. Virginia’s vaccination numbers are heavily boosted by localities including Albemarle County and many parts of Northern Virginia, which have outpaced other parts of the state for weeks. 

High uptake in Northern Virginia, for example, could lead to herd immunity by June or July, based on modeling by UVA researchers. The region stands in stark contrast to many parts of Eastern and Southwestern Virginia, where well under 50 percent of the population has received at least one shot, according to data from the Virginia Department of Health.

Some pediatricians are also reporting declining interest among parents and guardians, who are required to sign off on vaccinations given to children under the age of 18. Dr. Sandy Chung, the president of Fairfax Pediatric Associates, said an initial “influx” of 12- to 15-year-old patients has “slowed to a trickle” since the Pfizer vaccine was first approved for adolescents.

“Saying that 70 percent of Virginians are vaccinated when most of them are in Northern Virginia just isn’t accurate,” Bryan Lewis, a computational epidemiologist for UVA’s Biocomplexity Institute, told the Mercury earlier this month. The overarching goal of vaccination is to prevent new COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths from occurring. For public health experts, there’s concern that low vaccination numbers in some communities could leave them vulnerable to new surges of disease.

“If you dial up transmission rates, you can still squeeze a lot of cases out of some districts,” Lewis said.

Currently, Virginia is experiencing a record low when it comes to new infections. The R-number — a way of measuring how quickly the virus is spreading — is below 1.0 across the state, meaning that one new case of COVID-19 will lead to less than one new transmission. Six months ago, VDH was reporting more than 6,000 cases a day and more than 3,000 hospitalizations. As of Monday, there were 116 new infections and 281 hospitalized patients across the state. 

It’s unlikely Virginia will see another surge of the same magnitude, Bryan said. But like the rest of the country, it’s seeing a growing number of more infectious mutations, including the Delta variant first identified in India. National experts have warned Delta could cause an upswing in cases among communities with low vaccination rates, especially as more people forgo masks and return to in-person activities.

“The vaccines are our way out of the pandemic, but it requires all of us to do our part,” Northam said. Virginia, like many states, is seeing lower vaccination numbers among many rural and low-income zip codes, a challenge officials are working to overcome. 

So far, Northam has opted against statewide lotteries spearheaded by Ohio. (Research has shown the incentive programs that haven’t led to a sustained boost in vaccination numbers, according to Politico.) But local health departments are launching new initiatives including mobile vaccine clinics and door-to-door canvassing in an effort to fight lingering hesitancy.

“Every person who has stepped up and gotten your shot — you have made yourself and your neighbors safer,” Northam said. “You’ve allowed us to get back to a more normal life.” 

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md. She was named Virginia's outstanding young journalist for 2021 by the Virginia Press Association.