James F. Witko

Dr. James F. Witko, a pulmonologist with Sentara Halifax Regional Hospital takes the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine in December.

The demand for the COVID-19 vaccine far outweighs available supplies as Halifax County residents eager to start putting the pandemic behind them try to schedule appointments via phone through the Virginia Department of Health.

Those phone calls are often met with busy signals or messages of full mailboxes since the Southside Health District continues to experience high call volumes after announcing last week a vaccination expansion. On Monday, the district moved into a new phase that makes residents 65 and older eligible for first of two doses of the now sought-after vaccine.

However, the health department is still coordinating efforts for those in the first phase that includes health care workers who come in contact with COVID-19 patients and residents and employees of long-term care facilities.

“We appreciate everyone’s patience as we work diligently to get everyone in Phase 1a and 1b scheduled for a vaccination appointment,” Brookie Crawford, a spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Health, wrote in an email to The Gazette.

She didn’t have an exact number of appointments available per day, but noted they are currently focused on vaccinations for the first phase and the highest priority groups for the second phase.

Phase 1b is the second group eligible to receive the vaccine approved in late December. It includes police, fire and hazmat response personnel; those living and working in correctional facilities, homeless shelters and migrant labor camps; childcare/K-12 teachers and staff; food and agriculture workers; manufacturers; grocery store workers; public transit workers; mail carriers; anyone 65 years and older; and those individuals 16-64 years with high-risk medical conditions.

These local clinics aren’t open to the public. Those 65 and older and residents with high-risk medical conditions should call 434-738-6545 to schedule an appointment. They then will be instructed when and where to go to receive a shot.

Health department officials are reaching out to employers who fall into the latest phase to coordinate efforts.

“We vaccinate as many people per week as our resources allow,” Crawford said of the local health department’s efforts.

It’s not known how long it will take to vaccinate those who fall in Phase 1b, suggested by Gov. Ralph Northam to include about half of the residents of Virginia.

“We are working to quickly and effectively get the vaccine into the arms of Virginians,” Crawford said.

But there are severe logistical issues at play, including supply, staffing and equipment. That’s on top of a limited quantity of vaccines allotted to the state.

“Demand is greatly outpacing supply,” Crawford wrote in the email. “It is safe to say that all Americans — hospitals, private providers, pharmacies and local health departments — want more doses than are currently available.”

She said the health department’s allocation process is focused on “ensuring equity and efficiency, and that will not change.”

The numbers

Halifax County added 17 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday morning for a total of 1,756 since March. This comes after record-setting days last week when an outbreak at Halifax Correctional Center surfaced.

As of Tuesday, the Virginia Department of Corrections reported 127 active cases among inmates and 11 employees or contractors testing positive for COVID-19. There are 131 total inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic started. That figure also includes inmates who have recovered from the illness.

There are no hospitalizations among inmates, according to Lisa E. Kinney, a spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Corrections told The Gazette on Tuesday.

Kinney said each facility follows COVID-19 medical guidelines. Those inmates who test positive are placed in what she calls medical isolation so they don’t infect others.

“Treatment follows the department’s COVID medical guidelines,” she said. “ We treat symptoms as they arise, just as you would in any primary care setting. We can provide many things, including oxygen, on-site. If they require an inpatient level of care, they go to a hospital.”

Across the Southside Health District — an area that encompasses Halifax, Mecklenburg and Brunswick counties — the number of cases assigned with outbreaks hasn’t increased since the local correctional center’s figures were added last week.

The health department reported 17 Halifax County residents fully vaccinated as of Tuesday’s data. To be fully vaccinated, a person must receive two doses.

Health officials recently said online figures likely are not up-to-date since providers have 72 hours to submit data. It then takes time for the health department to record those vaccinations.

A total of 734 doses have been administered to Halifax County residents.

Fatigue sets in

“Healthcare providers are seeing an increase in people who are feeling defeated, burned out and engaging in risky behaviors that can increase the spread of the coronavirus due to COVID-19 fatigue,” Crawford told The Gazette.

“Now is not the time to let our guard down,” she said. “Cases and hospitalizations in Virginia and the United States are rising.”

Last week’s report by the University of Virginia said what’s known as pandemic fatigue likely will be the determining factor over the next few weeks for cases.

The report noted it’s a challenge for people to continue living in near isolation.

“It is important now more than ever to follow recommendations that we know can protect our families and ourselves and slow the spread of COVID-19,” Crawford said.

Crawford offered the often-preached methods to prevent transmission of the virus including:

  • Staying at least 6 feet from others;
  • Wearing a mask;
  • Washing hands; and
  • Avoiding large crowds and gatherings.

She also provided tips to make COVID-19 safety measures easier:

  • Make a commitment: Behavior changes can start with having a clear intention and making a promise.
  • Stay flexible as recommendations change: New scientific insights about the virus that causes COVID-19 change experts’ recommendations day by day, which causes confusion. It’s hard — but important — to keep up.
  • Use stories to understand risks and consequences: For many people, getting sick with COVID-19 is an abstract idea, something that happens to other people in different parts of the country. But the reality is that COVID-19 can affect anyone.
  • Practice precautions until they’re second nature: With COVID-19 protection, commitment is the key.