This week the New River Health District officially has moved into the next priority phase for administering the coronavirus vaccine. 

The district is starting to hold vaccination clinics for employees of higher education institutions, including Virginia Tech, and other essential workers who are part of the phase 1c priority group. This includes people who work in construction and housing, finance, legal services, public safety, and other fields.

Noelle Bissell, health director for the district, said Monday during a virtual meeting with news media that phase 1c is a smaller group in the region, compared to other vaccine phases. She anticipates that it could take only a few weeks to administer vaccines to this group.

May 1 is the goal date to begin offering vaccines to the wider public, she said.

Since December, the district has administered 44,439 vaccines. The district-wide count, including vaccines administered by hospitals and pharmacies, has risen to about 77,653.

“That’s great news, our vaccines are the light at the end of the tunnel,”  Bissell said. “But we’re still in the tunnel, and we encourage people not to let their guard down until we get closer to herd immunity.”

Herd immunity occurs when at least 75 to 85 percent of a population is vaccinated.

COVID-19 cases throughout the district are down, but it’s still important for people, even those who are fully vaccinated, to practice public health precautions when they are in public, Bissell said. This includes wearing a mask, staying physically distant from others, and washing hands.

To ease the vaccine scheduling process, the district has begun using a new system called Everbridge. It will automatically call, text, and email people to schedule vaccination appointments. The goal is to alleviate the strain on the district’s volunteers and staff who were  calling people individually to schedule vaccine appointments. Residents will receive SMS text messages from the number 88911, emails from nrphtaskforce@gmail.com, and phone calls from 540-838-8222.

As for vaccine supply, the district is administering the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, but it hopes soon to have supplies of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Bissell said she expected Johnson & Johnson supplies from the state this week, but did not receive them. 

The district has a waiting list of names of people who want the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, because it’s a “one and done” shot, she said.

Overall, the district’s vaccine supply is expected to increase over the next few weeks, which will open the door for more people to be vaccinated, Bissell said.

“We are in a race to get as many people vaccinated as we can,” she said.

By  Jenny Kincaid Boone