northam press conference_jan 142021

Gov. Ralph Northam held a press conference Thursday afternoon to address the state's vaccine rollout, among other topics.

More Virginia residents will now be eligible for the next phase of the state’s vaccination rollout than previously planned, Gov. Ralph Northam announced Thursday afternoon.

Residents older than 75 had already been included in the 1b group; until today, those over 65 and those with medical conditions were in group 1c, which was not expected to be eligible for vaccines until later.

Virginia residents who work in schools, factories and in agriculture are also a part of the phase 1b group, along with prisoners and staff members in correctional facilities. All of the groups in phase 1b will be vaccinated concurrently.

Northam said that Virginia has been ramping up its efforts to get vaccinations to residents in recent days, but admitted, “Virginia needs to move faster.” The goal, he said last week is to get to 25,000 vaccinations a day sooner than later, and then, 50,000 vaccinations a day. Currently, the number is a little more than 17,000 a day. Virginia has 8.5 million residents.

Eleven health districts have already begun vaccinating Phase 1b, while the rest – including the health district that includes Fauquier County -- are still vaccinating those who fall into phase 1a. The first phase includes health care workers who care for COVID patients and high-risk first responders, as well as long-term care center employees and residents.

Northam said in some parts of the state, health systems, school divisions and county agencies are already vaccinating large numbers of residents. He mentioned Inova Health System, Valley Health System in Winchester and Shenandoah Community Health in particular; one high school site vaccinated 1,500 teachers in one day. At the Fairfax government center, 4,000 were vaccinated in one day, Northam said.

Dr. Danny Avula, who Northam put in charge of Virginia’s vaccination effort, said: “If we are going to get to 50,000 a day, we going to need to do more.”

He mentioned fixed sites for mass vaccinations available six to seven days a week as well as making use of contracted vaccinators, health systems around the commonwealth, the Medical Reserve Corps and the Virginia National Guard.

“Right now we are mapping out places,” Avula said.

Vaccine safety

In an attempt to address fears in the African American community about the safety of the Phizer and Moderna vaccines, Northam turned to Wayne Turnage, deputy mayor of D.C.’s Health and Human Services Agency and director of the D.C. Department of Health Care Finance.

Turnage said that “large numbers of African Americans have shown a stubborn reluctance” to get the vaccine, while acknowledging those feelings are not without a credible history. But, he said, “this vaccine is our primary means to blunt the spread.”

He pointed out that Black people are 1.4 times more likely than White people to contract the coronavirus, 3.7 times more likely to be hospitalized as a result of the virus and 2.8 times more likely to die from the disease.

He assured listeners that the vaccine is safe and there is no way anyone can get the virus from the vaccine. “It’s a new and smart technology that forces your body to make antibodies.” The vaccine doesn’t contain the virus, dead or alive, to encourage that process, he explained.

He said that although the vaccine does elicit some short-term side effects in some people, they mostly include fatigue and other minor discomforts.

Schools

Northam also addressed the need for schools to reopen for in-person instruction. He stressed that mitigation strategies are working and that transmission is not generally happening at high rates in school settings. But the virus is still spreading quickly in the general community.  

He said that although vaccinating teachers is an important step, vaccinations should not be a requirement to open classrooms to students.

New guidelines are being released today, providing specific data on mitigation strategies and prioritization levels for in-person instruction.

Security for the state Capitol in Richmond

Northam also touched on the threat to the Washington D.C. Capitol and potential threats to the capitals of all 50 states. Since the attack on the Capitol in D.C. on Jan. 6, Virginia National Guard troops have bolstered security in both Washington and Richmond. Currently, 2,400 members are stationed in D.C. to protect the U.S. Capitol, part of a contingent made up of security forces from several jurisdictions.

Security around the state capitol in Richmond has also been reinforced as the General Assembly opened for its 2021 session today. He referenced Lobby Day last year, when thousands of armed protesters descended upon Richmond to advocate for gun rights.

“Lobby Day 2020 was unsettling for some because of the firearms, but it remained peaceful protest,” Northam said, adding he expect protests at this year’s legislative session to remain peaceful as well. “Violence and insurrection will not be tolerated in Virginia’s capital.”

Residents should look on the state’s social media platforms for notices about road closures and avoid downtown if possible.

Reach Robin Earl at rearl@fauquier.com

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