Virginia’s mass vaccination sites for vulnerable communities are faltering. Why is there still a gulf in vaccine rates?

Virginia’s mass vaccination sites for vulnerable communities are faltering. Why is there still a gulf in vaccine rates?
Syringes are prepped with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine before being administered at Richmond Raceway in Richmond, Va., February 2, 2021. (Source: Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Over the last month, state and federal officials have directed thousands of COVID-19 vaccines to large-scale clinics in vulnerable communities with high rates of coronavirus cases — all in areas with significant or majority Black and Latino populations.

The sites have been touted by leaders as a core strategy in expanding access to vaccines among communities of color, where immunization rates are consistently lower than they are for White Virginians. “We have done a very good job in the commonwealth in addressing this issue,” state Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said at a news briefing last month in response to questions over vaccine equity.

“We have brought on staff in our emergency support team that is doing outreach in these communities,” he added. “We’ve put boots on the ground in all 35 of our health districts and those teams are doing your basic sort of community organizing — door to door, working with faith leaders, community-based organizations to bring people from these vulnerable populations to our vaccination sites.”

But data from the clinics, provided to the Mercury by the Virginia Department of Health and Federal Emergency Management Agency, show participation at the sites have been mixed — and in some cases is declining — despite a steady flow of doses. Supply to one clinic in Danville was cut dramatically from 3,000 doses a day to 250 as residents failed to fill available appointments. Those uneven results, coupled with a degree of vaccine hesitancy that experts say will take more hands-on effort to overcome, are impeding the larger state goal of vaccinating as many Virginians as possible, as quickly as possible.

FEMA’s site in Norfolk, for example — operated and supplied by the federal government in partnership with state and local agencies — recently opened for walk-ins after local health officials struggled to add more residents to the district’s pre-registration list.

There’s been an uptick in shots since the change in policy, but the site is still operating below its planned 3,000-dose-a-day capacity. By how much often varies — the clinic delivered 2,314 shots last Friday but only 947 two days later, according to FEMA spokeswoman Corey DeMuro.

Data from state-run sites can be equally underwhelming. A community vaccination clinic at a former Gander Mountain store in Prince William is currently receiving 4,000 doses a day despite administering fewer than 3,000 daily shots for most of April. On two days in late March, fewer than 70 people showed up for doses at Danville’s clinic in an old JCPenney.

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The Virginia Mercury is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.