Uncertainties cloud COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan

Two students pass VCU signage on the Monroe Park Campus. Photo by Jon Mirador

Anya Sczerzenie, Staff Writer

A tentative COVID-19 vaccination plan is taking shape in the Virginia Department of Health, but it is still unknown how VCU fits into the plan for a coronavirus vaccine that could be months away. 

Gonzalo Bearman, an infectious disease specialist and professor of medicine at VCU, said that a vaccine for the virus will probably not be widely available for another six to nine months –– either late next semester or the beginning of fall 2021. 

“In general, distribution must be prioritized to first line responders, healthcare workers, the elderly, and people with underlying chronic medical conditions which increase their risk of worse outcomes from COVID-19,” Bearman said. 

Bearman said that until published information is available on the vaccine, it will be difficult to predict how it will be distributed. However, he said VCU students and staff should be included as part of a “comprehensive, community-wide vaccine strategy” for the greater Richmond community. 

“It’s unlikely that the Richmond community will be vaccinated in isolation from VCU, and vice versa,” Bearman said. 

A COVID-19 vaccine has been in development since the early stages of the pandemic. When the vaccine is finally released –– and health officials say it’s uncertain when this will happen –– the Virginia Department of Health will implement its distribution plan

According to the plan, the initial distribution of vaccines will prioritize nursing home residents and critical healthcare workers. Vaccines will also be distributed to pharmacies, schools and healthcare facilities around the state.

The plan states university students are considered “at increased risk of acquiring or transmitting COVID-19.” Student health centers are mentioned in a list of providers that VDH will target to distribute the vaccine. 

Infographic by Andy Caress

Margaret Roberson, director of VCU Student Health Services, said the vaccine likely will be distributed at VCU similarly to the swine flu, or H1N1 vaccine. During the swine flu epidemic in 2009, students were encouraged to get the vaccine at no charge through University Student Health Services at 1300 W. Broad St. Roberson said the same thing could happen with a COVID-19 vaccine. 

The State Council for Higher Education in Virginia, or SCHEV, oversees colleges and universities in Virginia and provides them with COVID-19 guidance but doesn’t have any guidance yet about the vaccine. 

“We don’t have answers yet, because there isn’t enough information yet,” said SCHEV spokesperson Laura Osberger.

The current VDH vaccination plan is a draft, as it’s unknown when the vaccine will be released and how it can be distributed. COVID-19 vaccines may need to be given in two doses and taken 21 to 28 days apart, according to the VDH plan.

The plan states schools and universities could be used as mass vaccination-distribution centers, which means that VCU buildings could become vaccine clinics depending on need. 

While researchers work to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, many health experts are urging people to get flu shots to prevent this year’s season from overwhelming the health care system. Flu shots are provided by VCU, by appointment only, at no cost to students. Students can make an appointment on the Monroe Park Campus by calling 804-828-8828 or 804-828-9220 for MCV.

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