By next week, the New River Health District will begin administering the COVID-19 vaccine to people who fall in the state’s third priority phase, which includes employees of Virginia Tech and other area colleges and universities.

On Monday, Noelle Bissell, the district’s health director, said it is transitioning to phase 1c because it expects to receive an increase in vaccine supply from the state.

The district will begin holding large scale clinics for employees and students of higher education institutions, and it is beginning to schedule these appointments through employer groups. Bissell estimated that the district would need at least 50,000 vaccines to cover its higher education population.

Phase 1c also includes people who work in housing and construction, public safety, media, finance, legal services, and other positions deemed essential.

Though phase 1c is a large group, Bissell said she hopes the district can move through the phase by the end of April. 

“The big factor will be vaccine supply,” she said. “Then, we will have to look at our clinics and partners to figure out how to distribute it.”

To receive a vaccine, people should pre-register with the Virginia Department of Health. Some universities may handle their own signups, but ultimately, they also use information available through the state’s system, Bissell said. The district is using a new automated notification service for larger clinics that will email, text, and call people to schedule appointments. It pulls names from the statewide pre-registration database.

Virginia Tech employees soon may register for a vaccination clinic to be held next week at Radford University’s Dedmon Center. Approximately, 1,500 vaccine doses will be administered.

The health district will continue to offer vaccination clinics for the university community in the coming weeks, as vaccine supply is available, Bissell said. Currently, the district is administering the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. If the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is available, it likely would be offered at a separate clinic. Offering all three vaccines at one clinic is a challenge logistically, Bissell said.

The district is holding some of its larger clinics at the Dedmon Center, and it is working with institutions, such as Virginia Tech, to locate additional vaccination sites. In anticipation of receiving larger vaccine supplies, the district is moving its clinics to bigger sites in general, specifically those with more parking and drive-through options, Bissell said.

As of March 22, approximately 12,034 people in the district are fully vaccinated, which is about  15 percent of the population, Bissell said.

College students in the district are included in the phase 1c priority group, with a specific focus on students who will graduate this spring, ahead of commencement events, Bissell said. 

“Our college students are where we are seeing our community spread right now,” she said. “We want to get them vaccinated to stop that community spread.” 

The district still is working to vaccinate people in phase 1b. This includes people who are 65 and older and those younger than 65 with high risk medical conditions.

Bissell encouraged New River Health District residents who are 65 and older and have not received a vaccine to go to one of the district’s clinics held on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. They can receive a vaccine without an appointment, though identification is required. Details can be found at www.nrvroadtowellness.com.

Bissell encouraged everyone, even those who are vaccinated, to remain vigilant and to follow public health guidelines. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidance recently that people who have been vaccinated can gather in small groups with other vaccinated individuals, without wearing a mask.

Even so, the coronavirus continues to spread locally, and it will take more time to reach herd immunity, which is when about 75 to 85 percent of a population is vaccinated, Bissell said. 

“If you are out in public, wear a mask, watch your distance, and wash your hands,” she said. “Once you are vaccinated, you can start those smaller gatherings and relax things a little bit. But we still have a ways to go. It’s getting brighter with each vaccine we give.”

— Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone