On a warm day in May, Garry Wakely strode vigorously down the streets of downtown Bristol, Virginia, stopping just short of flat-out run. In less than 15 minutes, a group of volunteers and employees with the Mount Rogers Health District would pack up the day’s COVID-19 vaccination clinic at the local public library. But nurses had punctured a new vial for a handful of latecomers, leaving three doses left over.
Wakely, the library’s program and marketing coordinator, wanted to use up those shots. A bespectacled man with close-cropped hair and a salt-and-pepper goatee, he lives on the Virginia side of the city and was quick — along with his friends and family — to get vaccinated. “All of us were like, ‘As fast as possible, please,’” Wakely said. Disappointingly, to him, not everyone in the city feels the same way. On a map charting Virginia’s local vaccination rates, Bristol is visible as a fleck of pale blue, with just over 31% of its population fully immunized. In some nearby counties, including Scott and Lee, the rates are even lower.
Dr. Karen Shelton, director of the Mount Rogers and Lenowisco Health Districts, said data from the Virginia Department of Health might not reflect the full reality on the ground. Many counties in Southwest Virginia are closer to the borders of Tennessee or North Carolina than they are to other parts of the state. With fuzzy boundaries and many patients willing to travel for a shot — particularly in the early weeks of the vaccine rollout — Shelton said the system doesn’t always capture every patient who received a dose outside Virginia.“I know for a fact that people who are vaccinated in North Carolina, their vaccine numbers are not reflected in our state numbers,” she said. Still, national data suggests that vaccination rates in neighboring out-of-state counties are lower than they are in Virginia. And on the ground, it’s difficult to deny that demand for vaccines has sharply plummeted.
Wakely approached two construction workers tearing up a strip of asphalt near State Street, the city’s main drag. “Have you been vaccinated?” he asked. No, they replied. “Do you want one?” The men shook their heads. He burst into State Line Bar & Grille, where two servers were prepping for dinner service over the pulsing refrain of Katy Perry’s “Roar.”
“I think everyone who wants it has already gotten it,” one woman told him. “I’m starting to get the same feeling,” Wakely responded. After a couple more stops, he returned to the library. A few minutes later, volunteers trickled out the side doors, unopened vials packed into plastic coolers. The remaining three doses went unused.
For months, health officials have been anticipating a sharp drop in appetite for the same vaccines that some patients once drove hours to receive. But the dramatic dip — particularly in certain areas of the state — still came more quickly than expected.
In Virginia, demand peaked in early April when the state administered almost 110,000 doses in a single day. Since then, it’s been on a steady downward trend, with the exception of one five-day jump in mid-May. State vaccine coordinator Dr. Danny Avula credited a “Statewide Day of Action” that promoted grassroots vaccine advocacy, but it also corresponded with the national announcement that 12 to 15-year-olds had become eligible for the Pfizer vaccine. As of June 1, Virginia was administering an average of 27,087 doses a day.
So far, Gov. Ralph Northam has stayed away from the kind of widespread incentives making headlines in other states, including neighboring West Virginia — where Gov. Jim Justice offered $100 savings bonds in exchange for shots — and Ohio, which notoriously entered vaccinated residents into one of five $1 million lotteries. But the state has invested roughly $22.7 million dollars into outreach efforts meant to connect more Virginians with vaccines — or convince them that it’s worth their time to get a shot…(continued)