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Virginia has invested more than $20 million in vaccine outreach. But demand is still dropping.

COVID-19 cases in Va.
COVID-19 cases in Va.(Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)
Published: Jun. 7, 2021 at 10:21 AM EDT
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On a warm day in May, Garry Wakely strode vigorously down the streets of downtown Bristol, Virginia, stopping just short of a 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 percent 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 for people who are vaccinated in North Carolina, their vaccine numbers are not reflected in our state numbers,” she said. Still, national data suggest 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.

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

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