The first coronavirus vaccine is making its way to front-line health care workers in the New River Valley and another vaccine version is coming.

The New River Health District expects to receive the recently approved Moderna vaccine in the next week. 

Still, a vaccine likely will not be available for a few months for Virginia Tech students and employees, said Noelle Bissell, the health district’s medical director.

Employees of front-line health care and long-term care facilities are considered first priority to receive a vaccine. Hospitals in the region already are receiving the Pfizer vaccine. Within the next week, long-term care facilities will be able to obtain the vaccine through pharmacy retailers, CVS and Walgreens, Bissell said.

Soon, the health district plans to assist with vaccinations for a second priority group that includes emergency medical service workers, residential substance use and mental health facility staff, and other health care employees. There are about 500,000 people in that group statewide, Bissell said. The health district is reaching out to these groups locally to find out how many vaccine doses will be needed. 

The next to receive vaccinations will be essential workers, adults with high-risk medical conditions, and people ages 65 and older. After that, community vaccinations will begin.

“This will occur over months as vaccine supply allows,” Bissell said.

Currently, tests have shown that those who receive the coronavirus vaccine are less likely to become seriously ill from COVID-19, said Lisa Lee, associate vice president for Scholarly Integrity and Research Compliance at Virginia Tech. Lee has worked in public health and ethics at the local, state, and federal levels, including at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The good news about the vaccine is it is really powerful, and it works well for the person who gets it,” she said. “It will keep people from getting sick.”

The goal is to establish herd immunity, which occurs when 75 to 85 percent of the population has been vaccinated, Lee said.

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are administered in two doses, taken approximately three to four weeks apart. People must receive the same vaccine for both doses.

Though not everyone will experience side effects, they appear to be more pronounced after people receive the second vaccine dose, Lee said. But this is good news because it is a sign that a person’s immune system is working well and responding to the vaccine.

In the meantime, Virginia Tech is on standby as it awaits the vaccine and considers early plans for its distribution on campus for students and employees.  

“We will assist the New River Health District in any way needed to support the efficient distribution of the vaccine,” said Mike Mulhare, assistant vice president for emergency management at Virginia Tech.

Virginia Tech and the health district established a Memorandum of Understanding in 2014 to help in the deployment of medical resources during an emergency. For example, the university has identified several minus 80 degree freezers in case they are needed for vaccine storage in the region, Mulhare said.

At this time, the commonwealth has not mandated vaccinations for university employees, though the vaccine is recommended for everyone unless there is a specific medical reason to not receive it.

Mulhare said he expects the university to know more details about vaccine distribution after the holiday season. 

As people await their turn for a vaccine, they should remain patient, Lee said.

“It’s important that we follow the recommended prioritization for the vaccine,” she said. “We want health care providers to be well to take care of all of us. What matters is getting the vaccine to the people who need it in the right condition at the right time. An effective distribution plan is critical for the vaccine to protect all of us.”

Also, until there is herd immunity, Lee said it is important to continue to practice public health guidelines, such as wearing a face covering, avoiding crowds, keeping physical distance, and washing hands.

— Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone