Gov. Ralph Northam said Wednesday he feels the frustration of Virginians who cannot get a clear answer on how to obtain the COVID-19 vaccine.
Northam said he told the Virginia Department of Health to launch a central website and phone center for people to register, but that it is not yet ready.
“I have heard from a lot of people asking me the same questions: Where can I get a shot and how do I sign up?” he said during a media briefing. “These were questions we expected to address in February, but like every state we expanded eligibility much more quickly than we originally planned. This has led to confusion about where to sign up and when. That confusion is justified because the answer has not been clear. We are going to have this fixed very soon.”
Virginia is now in what is considered Phase 1b of vaccine distribution, which includes front-line essential workers and everyone 65 and older, as well as younger people with chronic illnesses. Initially, that phase started at age 75, but Northam said he expanded it when the Trump administration urged the states to do so or risk getting fewer doses of vaccine.
Within days, the promise of increased doses did not come through. So while half of Virginians are eligible to receive the vaccine, the state continues to receive between 100,000 and 110,000 weekly doses.
Northam said the Biden administration is promising the states an immediate increase of 16% in their next shipments and a guarantee that the supply will be stable for the next few weeks.
Virginia began this week to distribute doses to each health district based on population, and the health districts have to figure out how best to get it into arms and how to let people know when doses are available.
The Roanoke City and Alleghany Health Districts have about 10,000 people on a waitlist, and the New River district has about 25,000 preregistered.
Directors for the three districts are attempting to vaccinate people 75 and older first, as they at greater risk of having serious outcomes from COVID infections.
Dr. Noelle Bissell, director of the New River district, said during her weekly briefing Wednesday that at the rate of doses now coming into the district, about 2,000 a week, it will take all of February to vaccinate those 75 and older.
The process also makes it challenging for people who are uncomfortable doing business online to both preregister and to stay on top of notices.
Some people registering for Roanoke clinics have not received confirmation emails, and some in the New River Valley have not answered phone calls from the health department because their caller ID says the calls are spam.
Northam said the fragmented system will be corrected.
“I take this seriously. I know that people just want answers even if the answer is they can’t get an appointment for a month or two. It’s important that everyone knows where to go and how to sign up,” he said.
He said a central system would be announced “soon” but did not offer a date.
Northam also said the health department would update its online dashboard to provide more transparency about where the vaccine has been distributed in Virginia and where it has been used. The website now includes the number of doses shipped to each health district, and it provides a breakdown of how many first and second doses have been received by hospitals, local health departments, pharmacies and medical practices.
As of Wednesday, 1.16 million first and second doses have been brought into Virginia, and about 67% of first doses and 21% of second doses have been administered.
Virginia is now reporting the 153,000 doses designated for long-term care facilities separately from its totals. These doses are handled by CVS and Walgreens through contracts with the federal government. The chains report giving 74,371 doses in Virginia since Dec. 28, and executives from both companies attended the briefing to say they are on track to finish within weeks.
Northam also announced that he would extend until the end of February restrictions on restaurant capacity and social gatherings that were set to expire this week.
“This is not the time to let down our guard,” he said.