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As Vaccinations Continue, County Officials Are Trying To Find Ways To Move Quicker

(Updated at 11:45 a.m.) Arlington County Board members are asking why vaccinations are not going faster, amid a pace that would take more than two years to dose the county’s adult population.

This past weekend the county got the go-ahead from the state to start vaccinating those in the Phase 1b priority group. But questions remain about how exactly the county will push forward and why less than 2% of the county’s adult population has received a vaccine dose so far, one month after the first vaccine was authorized for use.

Arlington County public health director Reuben Varghese told the County Board yesterday afternoon that, while the county is looking to vaccinate 1,200 people a week, it has yet to hit that number.

The reason, he said, is that the county is still establishing infrastructure to do it. It’s a tough task since considerable space is needed due to social distancing, he said, but the health department is trying to rectify that.

Arlington Public Schools has agreed to allow use of an auditorium at the Syphax Education Center on Washington Blvd. There, Varghese says, they’ll be able to have up to 19 vaccinators and vaccinate residents every two to five minutes.

More large spaces are being discussed, including working with more pharmacies and setting up vaccination stations in community centers. There’s also thought of opening a weekend clinic, particularly to vaccinate childcare workers and teachers.

“Obviously, I’d love the Pentagon parking lot, but that’s probably not going to happen,” says Varghese.

It’s a balancing act or an “art,” he said, between public demand, getting doses from the state, and having the ability to actually vaccinate.

County Board member Takis Karantonis said he heard from a number of eligible residents that they have registered, but are getting mid to late February vaccination dates.

Varghese responded that this made sense. In order to get more doses from the state, the county needs to show the state their the ability to vaccinate matches the number of doses being provided.

“The state is trying to make sure we are not hoarding vaccine,” he said. 

Going forward, Varghese says he’s trying to make vaccinating more efficient and lower the administrative burden. This includes perhaps not delineating between and consolidating certain subsections and phases. Virginia’s Phase 1c, for instance includes older residents, those with certain health conditions, and 12 separate categories of essential workers, including lawyers and bankers.

The next groups set to be vaccinated are food and agriculture workers, grocery store employees, mail carriers, public transit workers, and county officials. But the federal government is advocating to start vaccinating individuals over 65 and those with chronic medical conditions now. Those folks are technically in Phase 1c.

Varghese agreed with the federal recommendations.

“When you start looking at who falls into all of these categories in Phase 1c, there’s a lot of individual overlap with the general public,” he said. “My personal observation is that we just ask ‘who’s interested?’ and move forward with the general public. The advantage of that is you don’t have to send out lists or figure out organizations. You can just… ask for all-comers.”

At a time when health department staff is stretched thin and overworked, it would be helpful to simplify the process. Even with changes, however, widespread vaccine distribution may still be months away.

As of Wednesday morning, 3,653 vaccine doses had been administered in Arlington, according to Virginia Dept. of Health data. With an average vaccination rate of just over 225 doses per day over the past week, it would take the 843 days to administer a dose to the remainder of Arlington’s adult population.

That’s happening amid a backdrop of the deadliest days of the pandemic in Virginia. An additional death, along with 75 new cases, were reported in Arlington overnight. The trailing seven-day total of local cases hit a new record on Tuesday and stands at 857 today. In total, the county has recorded 10,277 confirmed cases.

During the work session, Varghese continued to express his worry about the increase in COVID-19 cases in Arlington.

“There’s been an unrelenting increase in cases… at least since October,” he said.

Simultaneous crises are also a major obstacle. After the U.S. Capitol riots, there have been increasing threats of violence on Inauguration Day. As a result, Arlington made the decision that the county will not be providing vaccinations on that day (Jan. 20).

“I can’t have the bandwidth of vaccination and possibly thinking about a BioWatch incident on Inauguration Day,” said Varghese.

During the meeting, it was noted that some county health department employees worked through the Christmas holiday. County Board Chair Matt de Ferranti defended Varghese and the seeming lack of advance planning for mass vaccinations.

“So much has happened so quickly… these last 6, 8, 10 days, it’s been another sprint in midst of this marathon,” de Ferranti said.

Screenshot from VHC video

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