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Amid a renewed push, vaccine uptake is still lagging among Virginia Medicaid members

State social services workers signed up homeless residents for Medicaid at a resource fair in...
State social services workers signed up homeless residents for Medicaid at a resource fair in Richmond in 2018(Ned Oliver, Virginia Mercury)
Published: Mar. 16, 2022 at 9:18 AM EDT
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Virginia health officials are still struggling to boost vaccination rates among the state’s Medicaid members, a major concern as the shots, once seen as the path to ending the pandemic, are increasingly the main public health tool for managing COVID-19 as cases persist.

Less than half of eligible enrollees — 41 percent in total — have been fully vaccinated, a figure that includes members age 5 and older according to data from the Virginia Department of Medical Assistance Services, which oversees the state’s public health coverage. Among adults 21 and older, 49 percent have received both shots — still far less than Virginia overall, where 72.3 percent of the total population and just over 82 percent of adults are fully vaccinated.

The wide gulf in uptake between Medicaid members and the general population has been an ongoing challenge as state and national leaders pivot to vaccines as a core strategy in preventing future surges. As case rates have fallen, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have rolled back indoor masking guidelines and eased the agency’s metrics for calculating community transmission levels. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin also repealed a mandatory vaccination-or-testing program for state employees on his first day in office and worked with legislators to end mask requirements in K-12 schools.

While Youngkin has vocally opposed public health mandates, he’s urged Virginians to get vaccinated and boosted as part of the state’s “return to normalcy.” While so-called breakthrough infections can still occur among immunized patients, the shots greatly reduce the risk of COVID-19 hospitalization and death — part of the reason why the CDC rolled back recommended masking guidelines as cases began to decline.

With lower vaccination rates, though, many Medicaid members in Virginia remain at higher risk for severe outcomes if they contract the virus. Neither DMAS nor the Virginia Department of Health has been collecting data on how many hospitalizations and deaths have occurred among the state’s Medicaid population. But enrollees are some of Virginia’s most vulnerable residents, according to DMAS, with lower incomes and a greater likelihood of co-occurring conditions that can increase the dangers of COVID-19.

“There’s a huge overlap between higher-risk health conditions and being a lower-income person and then, therefore, being enrolled in the Medicaid program,” said Dr. Chris Ghaemmaghami,  chief medical officer for the University of Virginia Medical Center and director of VDH’s vaccine outreach efforts for Medicaid members. “Virginia’s not unique, but those are definitely the folks who have been hit the hardest by this.”

The renewed focus on immunization has led to a concentrated effort to reach the state’s most undervaccinated communities. Macaulay Porter, a Youngkin spokesperson, said the administration oversaw more than 1,000 vaccine events across the state between Jan. 20 and Feb. 19. More than 900 events are scheduled through the end of April, she added.

And for the first time, the state Department of Health is pooling data with DMAS and Virginia’s six managed care organizations — private insurance companies that provide coverage to Medicaid members under contract with the state.

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.(Virginia Mercury)

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

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