Days after taking office, Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin issued a new COVID-19 action plan who is committed to stimulating vaccination without imposing injections.
“My administration’s campaign to increase immunization rates takes a different approach than in the past,” the governor wrote in an editorial published by the Bristol Herald Courier a few weeks later. Youngkin had repeals a directive of former Gov. Ralph Northam who forced vaccines on executive branch workers and hoped that an approach of individual choice — coupled with his own support for the vaccines themselves — might sway skeptical Virginians.
“We will empower the individual with information, provide facts to counter misinformation, and increase access to vaccinations to give every Virginian the opportunity to decide if the vaccine is right for them,” he added. “We will not rely on government to dictate to individuals what to do, using the power of laws, regulations or decrees.”
At least some local health officials, particularly those in rural districts, hoped messages from Virginia’s first Republican governor since 2014 could make a difference when it comes to vaccine acceptance. The Kaiser Family Foundation has repeatedly found gaps in absorption between counties that voted for President Joe Biden and counties that voted for Donald Trump, and rates in many dark red Virginia localities remain well below the state average.
Status data, however, indicates that the Youngkin administration’s approach has failed to boost the state’s stagnant vaccination rates. The average number of vaccines given each day has steadily declined since mid-January and now – well below 1,000 – is lower than at any time since the vaccines came out.
Even the recent authorization doses for children under five failed to drive statewide demand. According to the Virginia Department of Health, 16,207 so-called “baby vaccines” have been administered since the shots were authorized by the Food and Drug Administration last month, or about 3.6% of Virginia’s total population. state from zero to five years.
Despite the declining numbers, The New York Times currently ranks Virginia 12th in the nation for its percentage of fully vaccinated residents — still defined as those who have received both shots of a two-dose vaccine series or one vaccine at a single dose. Just over 73% of the state’s total population is fully vaccinated, according to VDH data, and 83% of adults have received their primary series.
Those numbers have steadily increased since the start of the year, when just over 65% of the state’s total population was fully vaccinated. But with demand plummeting, health experts still say they are concerned about the more than 25% of Virginians who are unprotected from the virus. The state’s low uptake of third-dose shots is also troubling, with only half of fully immunized Virginians choosing to get a boost.
“I would say being fully vaccinated at this point should mean getting three injections of mRNA vaccines,” said Dr. Bill Petri, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Virginia. “If you haven’t had a booster, you are partially but not fully vaccinated.”
“I think we need to start thinking about it, if we haven’t already, like the flu,” he continued. “Every year, anyone aged six months or older is likely to get a new injection.”
The widespread success of an ongoing vaccination campaign, however, remains an open question. Given the lukewarm response to third doses by many Virginians, some health officials predict limited enthusiasm for updated injections, including a omicron-specific booster scheduled for this fall.
And a Republican governor in Virginia is unlikely to change things, many say. As Youngkin pushed for a “return to normal” after two years of COVID-19 precautions — including a successful effort to end masking requirements in Virginia schools — health officials say ‘They saw no interference in local or state efforts to increase vaccination rates.
Since Jan. 15, the state Department of Health has spent more than $33.2 million to support FEMA vaccination projects, including 532 mobile clinics statewide. Local health departments have made increasingly granular efforts to reach unvaccinated Virginians, including Medicaid members. And officials have tried new outreach approaches, including texts to remind people of their eligibility for recalls.
Even Youngkin attempted direct calls. In February, the governor released two public service announcements promoting vaccines, saying he and his family chose to get vaccinated. And he hosted two roundtables with community leaders in Abingdon and Petersburg, aimed at discussing ways to increase local immunization rates.
In St. Petersburg, leaders explained how the continued lack of medical providers had eroded confidence in the health system. In Abingdon, officials asked Youngkin to do even more to encourage vaccination, pushing back against the state’s common refrain that Virginians should contact their doctor with any questions or concerns.
“The idea of ’Talk to your doctor’ is great if you have a doctor and you have the time to do it,” said Breanne Forbes-Hubbard, who attended the discussion as the health manager of population for the Mount Rogers Health District in the southwest. Virginia. “But doctors are busy, it’s hard to get a call back and it’s hard to make the time to do that, let alone if you don’t have a trusted provider.”
Youngkin was engaged at the meeting, Forbes-Hubbard said, but she didn’t notice much of a difference in community demand for vaccines after the roundtable or the launch of the governor’s public service campaign. His experience matches that of many other local health officials, who say they have struggled to convince residents who still haven’t opted in to get vaccinated.
“I think Governor Youngkin’s appeal helped some, but by January 2022 a large percentage of the population was basically done with COVID and even he wasn’t going to change his mind,” Dr. Noelle said. Bissell, director of the New River. Health District and acting chief of three other local health departments in Southwest Virginia, wrote in an email this week.
“The few people we manage to accept the vaccine after refusing it for so long are the ones we interact with about all of the health department services,” she added. “COVID pops up as part of the conversation, but not the only focus.”
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