Compromise Virginia budget plan heads for final vote

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam talks at a COVID-19 vaccination event at Richmond Raceway in Richmond, Va., on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. (Dean Hoffmeyer/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)

Gov. Ralph Northam announced that the phone line for the state’s central COVID-19 vaccine pre-registration system was up and ready as of Wednesday afternoon.

The phone number is 877-829-4682, or 877-VAX-IN-VA.

Northam asked residents to only use the phone line if they do not have access to the internet, are having trouble with the online form, or are not comfortable using a computer.

He said a dedicated call center has been established and 750 people hired — 69 of whom speak Spanish. There is an option to receive a callback in 100 other languages, Northam said.

“This is a starting point. We will hire more people to meet demand,” he said during a press conference.

Callers 75 and older and Spanish speakers will be prioritized, according to Northam.

“Please remember, and this is so important, the vaccine doesn’t cost you anything,” Northam said. “Don’t respond to anyone asking for money to reserve your shot.”

Virginians who have already pre-registered through their health districts do not need to re-enroll since that information carried over into the central system, according to a Tuesday press release from the Virginia Department of Health. Those who have pre-registered with health districts are advised the transfer of information will take several days.

On Tuesday, the state central website for vaccine pre-registration, www.vaccinate.virginia.gov, went live and quickly became inundated with interested residents, Northam said.

“At its peak, the new site was getting 300 registrations per minute, and it averaged 150 registrations per minute,” he said.

Northam said he was one of the 240,000 Virginians who used the new central system to pre-register for a vaccine since it launched on Tuesday.

“That tells us the system is working and it’s meeting a demand,” Northam said.

Area residents without access to email or internet ran into barriers trying to pre-register. On Jan. 18, the Central Shenandoah Health District announced those eligible for the vaccine at the time could begin pre-registration by email, leaving area residents without broadband or computer access without a way to sign up.

In response, Rockingham County Fire and Rescue staff, like health district staff, stepped up and have been taking calls from city and county residents who were unable to send emails to pre-register for vaccine appointments, either due to lack of internet access or ability to use a computer.

“I commend those fire and rescue departments for helping individuals, ‘cause that does go beyond the call of duty for them,” Northam said Wednesday.

Anyone can pre-register through the state’s new central system, something that could not be done through the Central Shenandoah Health District, according to Laura Lee Wight, district spokesperson.

“We were keeping our pre-registration really only for folks in the phase 1A and phase 1B tiers to help not overwhelm our system,” Wight said.

She said staff have pre-registered “well over 30,000” residents of the health district.

The new phone line means district staff can increase focus on tackling other issues.

“People were asking for it, and as I said before, Virginia responded,” Northam said. “It’s a logistical challenge, as you might imagine, to have a central registration system, but we’ve had a lot of talented people working around the clock to make it happen.”

Now, calls for registration should be directed to 877-829-4682, or 877-VAX-IN-VA, instead of the health district, Wight said.

“This is going to help significantly decrease the burden,” she said of demand on health district staff.

Rockingham County Fire and Rescue staff will still answer phones to help local callers get pre-registered even with the new central system, said Jeremy Holloway, director of COVID-19 response in the county and chief of Rockingham County Fire and Rescue.

Wight also said the online central system is case-sensitive for email addresses and may cause some who have pre-registered to appear as if they aren’t in the system if they don’t put in the same information in the same format. She said the state is working on fixing this issue.

“It’s going to be easier over time, especially with vaccination outreach,” Wight said. “Through an equity lens, we’re really going to be able to tell which communities have pre-registered and which haven’t.”

One more Rockingham County resident was reported as having died from the virus on Wednesday, bringing the county’s total death count to 77 since the first fatality on April 11, according to VDH data. In Harrisonburg, 68 residents have died from the virus, most recently on Feb. 11.

New cases in the state have been trending downwards as vaccinations have been increasing, but officials continue to urge caution.

“We still are not out of the woods yet,” Northam said.

At least 14,612 doses have been administered to Rockingham County residents and 6,788 doses administered to Harrisonburg residents, according to VDH data from Wednesday.

At least 1,707 city residents and 3,783 county residents are fully vaccinated, according to VDH data.

Supply of vaccine doses has become a major issue in getting more doses administered.

At the Rockingham County Fairgrounds on Wednesday, there were 700 vaccine appointments, but only half of the doses were available because of shipping delays, according to an email from Wight.

“CSHD was only able to dispense 350 second dose COVID-19 vaccines today due to the fact that the district did not receive this week’s shipment of Moderna vaccines on time,” Wight said.

The 2,200 vaccine doses, 350 for Wednesday’s mass vaccination clinic, were delayed by the federal holiday on Monday and inclement weather. The health district had informed those with appointment delays by noon, she said.

“Anyone whose appointment slot was after 3:48 p.m. was notified that their second dose was postponed and that the district will be in touch with them within 36 to 48 hours to reschedule their second doses,” Wight said.

Contact Ian Munro at 574-6278 or imunro@dnronline.com. Follow Ian on Twitter @iamIanMunro

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