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Northam Greenlights Vaccines for Anyone 65+ or With Preexisting Conditions

Northam speaking
Gov. Ralph Northam speaking during his COVID-19 briefing. (Screenshot from briefing)

Gov. Ralph Northam announced Thursday that the state will begin to vaccinate Virginians aged 65 and older as well as people 16 and older with preexisting conditions against COVID-19.

Northam said these groups will be moved to Phase 1b of the commonwealth’s vaccination rollout, which large parts of Northern and Southwest Virginia have already begun. The Richmond area is set to enter the phase on Monday.

Dr. Danny Avula, director of the Richmond City Health District and point person for the state’s vaccine rollout, said the expansion will give vaccine administrators the flexibility needed to meet the state’s goals.

“If we’re going to get to 50,000 doses a day, which is what we need to do if we’re going to get herd immunity in the commonwealth… we’re going to need to do more,” Avula said, outlining plans to establish National Guard staffed vaccination sites across the state.

Currently, just under 12,000 Virginians are getting vaccinated each day, as of Jan. 10.

Northam has long called vaccines “the light at the end of the tunnel” for ending the spread of the coronavirus but has often noted it can only be effective if most get vaccinated. The state has invested heavily in outreach programs to Black Virginians, who are often seen as hesitant towards vaccines. While a recent poll from the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation found Black Americans were the racial group least likely to say they would get a vaccine, rural Americans were found to be most resistant to vaccination.

Joining the governor’s COVID-19 briefing was Washington, D.C. Deputy Mayor of Health Wayne Turnage. Turnage, who is Black, shared his story of vaccination. He said he participated in a vaccine trial, but later found out he was in the placebo group and has since received his first dose of vaccine. He said he hoped to quell the fears of Black Americans. 

“Our reluctance is understandable, for it is born of a justifiable mistrust of medical experiments that were once implemented in the Black community,” Turnage said. “Notwithstanding this egregious history and based on personal experience, I stand before you to bear witness to  the process that produced the U.S. vaccines.”

Despite increased safeguards to prevent medical abuses that mirror past wrongs such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, Black Americans still suffer from disparate health outcomes, notably in maternal health. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has ruled that the vaccine is safe and effective for all racial groups..

Northam also addressed the state’s schools, urging local school districts to finalize their plans for opening for in-person instruction. He announced the Virginia Department of Education will release new guidance for school districts Thursday afternoon.

“The emphasis will change. Instead of schools should be closed, we’re going to approach it from the starting point of, schools need to be open, and here are the ways to do that safely,” Northam said.

Teachers are included in Phase 1b of Virginia’s vaccine protocol, meaning teachers in parts of the state have already begun getting inoculated. Northam repeated his claim that while vaccinating teachers is not necessary to open schools, it will make it easier.

The president of the Virginia Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union, James Fedderman, however, pushed back on this, continuing his association’s call to vaccinate all educators before opening schools. He also urged all Virginians to do their part in making it safe for schools to operate.

“If you are anywhere indoors and not wearing a mask, you are not helping us to reopen our schools to in-person learning,” he said. “We need to make sure that the health and safety of our students, their families and communities, and our educators is our top priority.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to worsen in Virginia. In the previous week, an average of 5,023 Virginians tested positive for the disease. That’s more than six times greater than the beginning of October. An average of 50 Virginians died each day at the hands of the virus last week, the highest that number has been at any point in the pandemic.