The New River Health District will begin administering a coronavirus vaccine within the next two weeks.

“It helps give us a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Noelle Bissell, the district’s medical director, during a Wednesday virtual meeting with news media in which she provided details about vaccines for COVID-19.

Health care workers and emergency services providers will be the first to receive the vaccine, followed by those in high-risk congregate settings, such as nursing home facilities. Next on the priority list will be health care providers who work in outpatient and specialty services, such as dentists.

Teachers, students, and high-risk individuals working in education likely will be able to receive the vaccine by the spring. This includes Virginia Tech students and employees, Bissell said. 

Drug companies Pfizer and Moderna are rolling out the vaccines, though Bissell said last week that the health district is likely to receive Pfizer’s version first.

The health district is considering how it will distribute the vaccine, and methods may be similar to ways that flu vaccinations are offered, including drive-up clinics, Bissell said.

“We don’t know exactly how that will look at this point,” she said. “This is the largest scale vaccination effort we have had to deal with.”

The vaccine has two parts. After one dose is given, another is required in three to four weeks. Bissell said the health district is working on a system that will remind people when they need the second vaccination dose. It is important that people take a vaccine from the same drug company for both doses, she added.

Bissell emphasized that the vaccine does not inject the coronavirus into a person’s body.

Still, it may have some side effects, including headache, fatigue, and body aches. 

The long-term side effects are unknown, though “actual side effects from vaccines in general in the long term are very very rare,” Bissell said. “Vaccines are one of the most significant health interventions that we have.”

Also, she said it is unclear how long immunity will last with the vaccine and if it will be effective for certain populations, such as children.

It will take time for the vaccine to roll out, and in the meantime, the health district continues to offer COVID-19 testing. With more than 90,000 coronavirus tests conducted in the district, Bissell praised the district’s partnership with the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute in Roanoke for providing strong testing services.

The health district has a population of 180,000, which includes university students. 

“That’s a pretty good testing per population number,” Bissell said, adding that it’s likely the highest in the state for testing per population.

Even as vaccines become available, she reminded the public to continue following health guidelines, from wearing a mask to staying home when sick, that will mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the community.

“We know how we can control things,” she said. “It’s a behavioral choice.”

By Jenny Kincaid Boone