The new phase of vaccinations now gearing up in the Roanoke Valley will include coverage for two highly vulnerable populations: people experiencing homelessness and people in jail custody.
Those groups were included in the newly announced Phase 1b plans as distancing is difficult if not impossible in the homeless shelters and correctional facilities where they’re cared for.
COVID-19 outbreaks have been reported in 124 jails and prisons statewide to date, according to the state health department. Officials from at least four facilities in the Roanoke and New River valleys have told The Roanoke Times that they have had outbreaks; the local jails reported that their cases were largely mild with few hospitalizations.
Outbreaks in homeless shelters aren’t directly highlighted in state statistics, but local shelters and advocates have been scrambling to devise new ways to shelter their most at-risk clients.
People without stable housing are prone to underlying conditions that can make them vulnerable to severe illness if exposed to the virus, said the state announcement.
An exact timeline for when vaccinations will be offered to these groups is still being determined. Phase 1b launched Monday for an initial set of 11 health districts deemed ready to begin widening their focus.
The Roanoke City and Allegheny Health Districts and the New River Health District were among those green lighted to start the transition.
Officials cautioned, though, that the expansion would take time as staffers tackle the enormous logistical task of setting up vaccination clinics for a phase that also includes police officers, firefighters, teachers, grocery store workers, mail carriers and people who are age 75 or older, as well as others classified as either essential or at heightened risk.
In an update Monday, Dr. Cynthia Morrow, director of the Roanoke and Allegheny districts, renewed her appeal for patience as this new stage of operations is launched.
The health district has been swamped with questions from people eager to get inoculated. But the district has a finite amount of vaccine at any one time, and the initial focus of Phase 1b will be on police officers, firefighters and other public safety officers.
“It’s really important for us to get vaccines into the arms of our public-facing safety workers,” Morrow said. “They don’t have the option of staying home.”
Local jails and homeless shelters said Monday that details of the rollout for their populations were still being sorted out.
Jail administrators had been unsure if inmates would even be included in Phase 1b until the final list was announced late Friday.
But officials said they’d be ready to act as soon as the inmate demographic reached the front of the line. The Western Virginia Regional Jail, which began battling a COVID outbreak in October, said it got its in-house medical staff certified to give the vaccine in order to aid the process.
The regional jail, which currently has just under 800 inmates, also has a warehouse freezer capable of meeting the hyper-cold conditions needed for the vaccine, said Superintendent Bobby Russell.
Roanoke County Sheriff Eric Orange said it was encouraging to be nearing this milestone. The Roanoke County-Salem Jail has had 87 inmate cases of COVID since the start of the pandemic. That is out of 2,667 people housed during that time.
Most cases were asymptomatic and none required hospitalizations.
While no concrete details about the inmate phase were available yet, Orange said, it’s clear that considerable work was being put in both locally and beyond.
“It is a fluid situation, but you see a lot of work and effort being placed on it, and I think that is a very positive thing for everybody,” he said.
Correctional officers, who fall under the category of public safety staffers, could be eligible for vaccination as soon as this week.
Several agencies said they’d been asked to submit the names of officers who want the vaccine so their appointments could begin to be scheduled.
Maj. John Mandeville, chief deputy of the Botetourt County Sheriff’s Office, said he registered for an appointment Monday and has helped other officers register.
“I’m not crazy about shots but I’m looking forward to getting this one,” he said. “We’re ready to get this behind us.”
That said, officials agreed that the expansion of the vaccinations wouldn’t lead them to drop their guard. Quarantine protocols, testing, intensified cleaning and other precautions will continue.
The Botetourt County Jail has reported no COVID cases to date.
The Roanoke Rescue Mission, the largest homeless shelter in the region, said it, too, is awaiting more information about when it can begin offering vaccines to its clients.
The city-run homeless assistance team said the state contacted it recently to begin developing an estimate of how many doses would be needed. The Phase 1b criteria are specific to people who are living in homeless shelters.
“We are so excited to be working with the health department to get this done,” said Kevin Berry, a spokesman for the Rescue Mission, adding that shelters serve a population that doesn’t have easy access to health care and may struggle to get the vaccine outside of this partnership.
“It is so important to bring this service to where they are and where they stay,” he said.
The Rescue Mission, which sheltered 181 people Sunday night, has been able to continue offering a safe environment through numerous precautions, Berry said. Organizations across the region also partnered to create quarantine quarters for clients who need it and drew on grant money to book hotel rooms for those with heightened risk factors.