By Taylor Boyd and Debbie Hall
Less than a month after the state of emergency ended, the entirety of Southwest Virginia is struggling to vaccinate its residents, according to West Piedmont Health District (WPHD) public information officer Nancy Bell.
Virginia’s state of emergency status, in effect since March 2020, ended June 30 due to a decline in COVID-19 cases, Bell said.
Currently, about 62 percent of Patrick County’s population remains unvaccinated, according to the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) website. Data suggests that 38 percent of the county’s population is fully vaccinated.
Vaccine rates also lag in other localities, Bell said of counties like Carroll and Lee, with nearly 37 percent and nearly 35 percent fully vaccinated, respectively.
In adjacent Henry County, 44 percent are fully vaccinated, and in Martinsville, slightly more than 57 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, data suggests.
“We don’t know if” the lower vaccine rates are “due to them being rural, or transportation issues, or hesitation, or false information, or it may be a combination of things. It’s not because they haven’t been available. I think there needs to be some education about the facts versus the rumors,” Bell said.
But getting vaccinated is more important than ever, “especially because the variants tend to be more contagious and more severe,” and because the virus may flare up once the weather gets colder, she
To help with the effort in Virginia, the state health department received $1.5 million from the state to hire community health workers.
“What they’re going to do is dig deeper into the communities and make sure everyone who wants a vaccine can get one and remove barriers like transportation and that sort of thing,” Bell said.
The workers will also go into communities to talk about the facts of COVID-19 and provide information about the vaccines. Bell said the agency hopes to hire six people for this role and encourages people in the area to apply.
She expects this effort to begin late August or early September to ensure the workers are sufficiently trained.
The Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association (VHHA) on Monday said it supports efforts to make the COVID-19 vaccine a requirement for health care workers.
“Many hospitals and health systems across the country have begun implementing COVID-19 vaccine requirements. Hospitals and health systems currently require vaccines against a variety of other diseases and viruses,” the release stated, and added, “given this, VHHA supports hospitals and health systems amending their existing vaccine policies to require COVID-19 vaccines for their health care employees.”
For the unvaccinated, “I would encourage people to get them even if they’re uncertain because uncertainty can be deadly,” Bell said.
While those who are vaccinated can return to life as normal, they should still be aware that there are variants that can have unknown impacts on vaccinated individuals, she said.
The WPHD is also encouraging people to continue to wear masks and practice social distancing, even if they are vaccinated, in settings with large groups of people, and particularly while indoors.
Bell said the mask mandate will continue in schools and on school buses because the child population has not been vaccinated yet.
“It falls upon the individual schools to create their own mask policy, and the school divisions are in charge of enforcing that,” she said.
Although the end of the state of emergency signaled “pretty much a return to normal life with some common-sense mixed in,” Bell said, “people who are currently unvaccinated should not be waiting for it to go away, because it’s not going to go away.”
Questions about the vaccine and the virus can be answered by calling the WPHD, Bell said, and added that vaccines are still free at local health departments and participating pharmacies
For tips on staying safe, visit www.vdh.virginia.gov or www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov.