Dr. Noelle Bissell, health director of the New River Health District, warned in a recent virtual meeting with members of the media that “there is a light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s a long tunnel.”
Bissell said that people must continue to be cautious and follow public health guidelines to prevent the spread of the coronavirus despite an exciting nationwide vaccine rollout. The COVID-19 vaccine is making its rounds across hospitals, long-term care facilities and other health care settings in the New River Valley.
When it will be available to the wider community is hard to predict, Bissell said. Though the district is working on plans to administer the vaccine in a large-scale way, it must follow state and federal guidelines that direct the order in which different groups receive the vaccine.
Vaccination of the groups classified as phase 1B began Monday. The group includes non-health care frontline workers and those 75 and older.
In the meantime, Bissell said during the virtual press conference that the community needs to remain patient.
“I am asking that people give each other a little bit of grace,” she told the media. “It’s a very ambitious effort, and there are multiple parallel avenues by which people are getting vaccinated. We are working through health care providers according to the guidance that’s been set.”
Long-term care facilities are receiving vaccines through CVS and Walgreens, and Bissell said there are efforts starting to involve other pharmacies in distribution once the vaccine is available to the wider public.
The health district received its first shipment of the Moderna vaccine on Dec. 23 while New River Valley hospitals received the Pfizer vaccine in mid-December.
Currently, hospitals are giving second doses of the vaccine, and in two weeks, Bissell said, the health district will administer its second dose of the Moderna vaccine.
Both vaccines are administered in two doses taken approximately three to four weeks apart. People must receive the same vaccine for both doses.
Some who have received the second dose have reported having side effects, but that is a positive sign that the immune system is working, Bissell said.
“That first dose is a primer of the immune system,” she said. “The second dose is when the immune system kicks in.”
Each vaccine vial contains 10 doses, and once the vial is opened, the vaccine must be administered within six hours because of cold temperature requirements. If some people do not show up for a scheduled vaccination appointment, there is a standby list of health care workers that the district will call, Bissell said.
During the virtual meeting, she stressed the need for ongoing vigilance in following public health guidelines. The district continues to offer COVID-19 testing, and it has seen an increase in positive cases following the holiday season compared to levels before Thanksgiving.
Also, she addressed decisions by Virginia Tech and Radford University to begin classes in mid-January, rather than delaying opening dates. Bissell said she does not expect to see the same large surge in COVID-19 cases when students return from the winter break as happened at the start of school in the fall. Largely, college students have been following public health guidelines, she said.
The health district head reiterated that significant coronavirus transmissions in the district have not been linked to university or K-12 classroom settings. That’s because mitigation efforts, such as universal masking and physical distancing, are working, she said.
“Our community transmission right now is community members. It’s not our students,” Bissell said. “I do want to get away from blaming our students for bringing it [COVID-19] or exacerbating it.”
— Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone