A Zoom town hall Saturday evening sought to dispel some myths surrounding COVID vaccines and their rollout.
The town hall was organized by the Psi Rho Omega chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. Panelists included Rep. Jennifer T. Wexton (D-VA-10); County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large); Dr. David Goodfriend, director of the Loudoun County Health Department; Dr. Christopher Chiantella, chief medical officer of Inova Loudoun Hospital; Dr. Tara Gonzales, senior director of medical affairs for Sobi North America; and Pastor Michelle C. Thomas, president of the Loudoun NAACP. Dr. Angela Bess, a Loudoun-based OB/GYN, served as moderator.
With Loudoun reaching 200 COVID-19 deaths just hours after the town hall wrapped up, Randall shared the latest statistics on the pandemic’s local impact. As of late Saturday, there have been 22,000 cases of COVID in Loudoun, including 830 hospitalizations. The county’s 14-day positivity rate was sitting at 8.5%, down from a high of over 19%, but also up from a low of 5.3%. Though 8.5% is the lowest positivity rate since prior to the holidays, “the goal is to keep it under 5% until there is no more community spread,” Randall said.
Activity in hospital emergency rooms has increased, Chiantella said, but current numbers are below a peak in the last six weeks when 67 COVID-positive patients were hospitalized. On a good note, good hygiene practices as a result of COVID-19 have resulted in a remarkably quiet flu season, with Chiantella reporting only one or two positive flu tests a week among those visiting the hospital.
Goodfriend said the county is now averaging about 60 to 70 COVID-19-positive test results daily. Prior to the second surge in winter, the county was averaging 30 to 50 cases a day. At its peak, Loudoun was registering 300 positive cases daily.
More than 58,000 COVID vaccinations have been dispensed in Loudoun County, and almost 16,000 residents have already had both doses of the vaccine, Randall reported. The county currently has two vaccination sites in Sterling, but only one—the former Nordstroms space in Dulles Town Center—is currently active due to a vaccine supply shortage.
“We can vaccinate up to 7,500 people a day. We’re receiving 4,800 vaccines a week, which tells you that the limiting factor right now is not having enough vaccines,” Randall said.
COVID vaccines are also being distributed at the CVS in Lansdowne as part of the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program. There are also two vaccination sites in Middleburg and Purcellville that are dispensing between 100 to 200 shots weekly, she said.
Wexton acknowledged that the slow vaccine rollout has been exceedingly frustrating, and said she has called on the Biden administration to establish a mass vaccination site in Northern Virginia. Such a site would allow the federal government to pick up the tab, and allow a locality to not deplete all of its vaccine supply, she said.
Randall, however, said she would prefer the federal government put more vaccines in the hands of Loudoun authorities since the county has already established a fairly efficient distribution system.
“We don’t need a FEMA site in Loudoun, we need vaccine,” she said. “A FEMA site would be more complicating. If we get vaccine in here, we got this.”
Loudouners who pre-registered for a vaccine have been integrated into the new statewide COVID-19 vaccine system, which launched last week at vaccinate.virginia.gov, Goodfriend said. He said he has been spending a considerable amount of time responding to residents who want to ensure their places in the vaccine queue have been maintained.
Chiantella also addressed the concept of herd immunity, as many have wondered when practices like mask-wearing and social distancing can become a thing of the past when a certain portion of the population has been vaccinated. He said the 75% to 80% vaccinated threshold is when herd immunity arises, and “we are nowhere near that number.”
Panelists acknowledged that there still remain some doubters when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine, and this is particularly true for the minority populations. Thomas said that “education is the key to try to increase acceptance.” She said many members of the population feel that the vaccine was developed too quickly, adding to the reluctance.
Gonzales addressed this myth.
“Messenger RNA technology has been around for awhile. It’s been used for vaccine development for Zika, HIV, even some flu vaccines. Production is faster and it is easier. The FDA allowed [the release of the vaccines] for emergency use. That does not mean they could bypass everything. Manufacturers had to prove they had reached several milestones. Part of the FDA approval process has to do with an external advisory body looking at all the data to make sure it’s safe and effective,” she said.
“We got used to another way of vaccines being developed which was a much less efficient way,” Gonzales continued. “It didn’t make it any better, just less efficient.”
Randall said part of the reason there is distrust regarding the vaccine is the politicization that occurred starting at the federal level when the pandemic took hold last spring.
“When you politicize a virus it’s going to cause people to have higher distrust,” she said.
Randall said she has been encouraging the use of the #melanatedandvaccinated hash tag to encourage the minority community to get vaccinated.
Thomas also pointed out another vaccine myth—that the vaccine requires you to have health insurance, or will cost money out of pocket. She said part of any successful rollout needs to be messaging or advertisements that communicates that the vaccine is free and requires no proof of insurance. Thomas also said that vaccines need to be better distributed in the community, perhaps with mobile units that can go into neighborhoods where minority populations live. She added that assuming everyone has the ability to go on the Internet to register for a vaccine is flawed thinking.
“We’re depending on people to come to us. You have groups that won’t come to you,” she said. “Green cards or not, they’re not coming to you. [They’re thinking] are they going to ask me for ID? What about marginalized people that don’t have ID? If we want to take control and make sure the rollout is equitable we need to drive the bus.”
Thomas encouraged the involvement of local faith leaders and places of worship in bringing together groups of people to get vaccinated.
Going forward, Goodfriend said medical professionals are looking to see how the vaccines react to the different COVID variants that are circulating. He said it was too soon to tell whether individuals would need to get a booster shot annually, like the flu vaccine, to address new COVID variants.
“You can fairly quickly modify what’s in a vaccine to meet the variants that come along,” he said.
Goodfried said fewer people getting infected with COVID-19 will mean fewer variants, and encouraged continued masking and social distancing to slow the spread.