Standing on a landing in Roanoke’s Berglund Center coliseum on Friday morning, Dr. Cynthia Morrow gestured to the scene unfolding below her.
“This is beautiful,” she said.
As she spoke, educators from around the region wound their way through a maze of traffic cones and caution tape before arriving to a table. In exchange for their arm, they received a quick jab and a sticker that read, “I got my COVID-19 vaccine!”
Approximately 2,000 school employees on Friday received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccination during the Roanoke Valley’s largest mass vaccination clinic to date. Two more clinics are scheduled on Saturday and Sunday for residents ages 65 and older.
In total, 6,000 people will be vaccinated by the end of the weekend, said Morrow, who leads the Roanoke City and Alleghany health districts.
“That is something to celebrate,” Morrow said.
At the same time, “there are tens of thousands of people for whom hope is in sight but just out of reach.” Demand continues to outpace the supply.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Morrow said, tearing up as she spoke of the calls she receives from people searching from open appointments, particularly those who are elderly and isolated from family and friends.
Appointments for this weekend’s clinic filled up within just a few hours of their announcement, but more clinics will be scheduled, health officials promise.
Friday’s clinic provided vaccinations to teachers and other school employees who work in Roanoke, Salem, Roanoke County and Botetourt County. Many employees also volunteered throughout the day.
One such volunteer was Denise Dowell, who is the school nurse at G.W. Carver Elementary School in Salem. As a health care worker, Dowell already received her first dose, and she believes it’s important to set an example.
“With us being the health advocates, we need to advocate for vaccines,” she said in an interview on Thursday. “The vaccines are safe and we need to get out and make sure everyone can get vaccinated when possible so we can curtail this virus.”
Dowell said as a Black woman she understands hesitancy in getting the vaccine, especially in communities of color, who have historically endured racism and mistreatment in health care.
“Historically, we haven’t treated people of color well in the medical community when it comes to experimentation, so there is some hesitancy,” Dowell said, saying that she was hesitant, too. “But when we look at the science of how things work, especially with vaccinations, we kind of have to let our guard down.”
Dowell, who is married to a pastor, said she also got vaccinated to protect him, and to protect family members who are at high risk for serious symptoms.
She said she was “delighted” that teachers are now able to receive their first dose.
Roanoke County Superintedent Ken Nicely said that Friday’s event was a “large step forward.” It won’t immediately change how the county approaches returning to the classroom, but Nicely said decreasing physical distancing may be possible once the rate of community transmission goes down.
As he spoke, a woman walking by told Nicely that she was thankful substitutes are among those able to be vaccinated, and that she would now feel more comfortable in the classroom.
Morrow said it’s “critically important” to protect teachers, and this is the next step in moving forward.
“But we’re not there yet,” she said, explaining that people still need to follow best practices and cannot led down their guard.
Gov. Ralph Northam visited the event early in the afternoon, speaking with Morrow and meeting some of the educators who received their vaccinations. Dels. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, and Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, were also present, as were Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea, Vice Mayor Trish White-Boyd, council member Vivian Sanchez-Jones and the region’s school superintendents.
Northam praised the “team effort” between Carilion Clinic, local health districts and the Medical Reserve Corps.
Virginia is receiving 105,000 vaccine doses per week, he said, “nowhere near where we need to be.” He wants the state to vaccinate 50,000 people a day in order to vaccinate all Virginians by early to mid-summer.
“We’ve been receiving the doses that were allotted to us,” he said. “We’ve asked for more, as have other states. So we’re all in the same position. We want to get as many shots in arms as we can.”