Since December, at least 12,000 people have received the COVID-19 vaccine in the New River Valley.

But that number is only the tip of the iceberg compared to the many who want it but have not yet received it, said Noelle Bissell, health director of the New River Health District.

During a Wednesday virtual meeting with the news media, Bissell explained the challenging and changing dynamics of how the district receives the coronavirus vaccine and distributes it each week.

“This is the largest public health campaign of our lifetimes, and it’s not without tremendous logistical challenges,” she said. “We definitely have greater vaccinating capacity than we do have vaccine available. We are waiting for that day when those floodgates open and there is more vaccine, because right now we have a tremendous challenge trying to deal with the uncertainty of how much vaccine we have from day to day or week to week.”

In December, the health district first received the Moderna version of the vaccine, and now it is receiving both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

Right now, the district is administering the vaccine to people in phase 1b, which includes those who are 65 and older and those who work in essential jobs, such as K-12 teachers, that interact directly with the public. The group also includes people younger than 65 with high-risk medical conditions.

Bissell estimated that there are 80,000 to 90,000 people in the district who qualify for the phase 1b vaccine rollout. 

But the district, though it administers vaccines every day, has no control over how much vaccine it will have each week. Bissell said the district receives about 2,000 doses weekly from the Virginia Department of Health, though it requests 5,000 doses. It schedules vaccination appointments based on this dosage amount, and it’s working to ensure that people who are at the highest risk of contracting COVID-19 or becoming seriously ill from the virus are in line first. 

Appointments are scheduled through March for people in phase 1b.

“We really appreciate that there is a lot of enthusiasm in the community to get vaccinated, but we have to encourage people to remember that just because they’re eligible, doesn’t mean we can get everyone vaccinated now,” Bissell said. “I’ll assure you that as soon as we get the vaccine, we make every effort to get those doses into arms very quickly.”

People who fall in phases 1a or 1b must pre-register for the vaccine at www.nrvroadtowellness.com or by calling the district’s hotline at 540-838-8322. There are more than 25,000 people pre-registered, Bissell said.

The district also is scheduling appointments for second doses of the vaccine for those who received the first dose. The goal is to provide second doses within a four-to-six week window of the first dose, as supplies allow. Second doses also are complicating the district’s logistical challenges with vaccine availability and appointment scheduling, Bissell said.

It could be the spring until the district is able to offer vaccines to people who fall in the next phase, phase 1c, which includes employees of higher education institutions. A more detailed timeline is premature at this time, Bissell said Wednesday.

“I can’t even begin to say that until we have a more steady supply of vaccine coming in,” she said, adding that she is hopeful that vaccines for the greater public will be available by this summer.

There are other vaccine versions nearing approval stages, including one by Johnson & Johnson. Once these are approved, Bissell said she hopes vaccine supplies will increase.

Virginia Tech employees should watch Virginia Tech News for updates on vaccine distribution. Bryan Garey, vice president of human resources at the university, offered information for employees this week.

“Understand that this is a monumental effort,” Bissell said Wednesday. “The logistics of this effort are incredible.”

— Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone