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U.Va. Health’s COVID-19 vaccination team grows to 600 members

The team performed 1,303 vaccinations on Jan. 19, the highest amount done by the team in one day

In order to accelerate the distribution of vaccines to the community, U.Va. Health has relied on its 600-member vaccination volunteer team — made up of nurses, physicians, EMTs, nurse practitioners, faculty in the Schools of Nursing and Medicine and others who vaccinate within their scope of practice. All members of the vaccination team are paid volunteers and members of the U.Va. Hospital network, and the team has grown in size substantially since vaccinations at U.Va. Health began Dec. 15. 

When vaccinations first started, the team was operating out of an eight-seat clinic with eight vaccinators working — a size that allowed roughly 200 vaccinations a day. Today, the team operates two clinics that allow a total of 20 vaccinators to give upwards of 1,300 vaccinations a day. 

University pharmacist Justin Vesser, who is in charge of vaccine clinic operations, said that the volunteer group is continuing to grow because the work is so rewarding.

“It's great after such a challenging year to be able to do something that feels good, do something that feels hopeful and do something that feels like it's part of the solution to the problem,” Vesser said.

The vaccines, a symbol of hope for many after what has been a challenging year, are entirely safe, according to Mesha Jones, a nurse within the University Health System.

“It’s an individual’s decision to get the vaccine, but it’s safe, and everyone is being transparent about their [symptoms], or if they’re having any symptoms,” Jones said. “But it’s safe, and it’s our chance to move forward and get through this pandemic.”

As of Friday, U.Va. Health has received 25,075 first doses of the vaccine and administered 17,321 of them, meaning that just under 70 percent of the vaccines U.Va. received have been administered. In total, 22,693 vaccinations have been scheduled. 

April Howell, the heart and vascular ambulatory director for U.Va. Health and a member of the vaccination team, said that administering vaccines to members of the community is an honor.

“When we have some patients over 75, and they sit down to get a vaccine and they just start crying because now they have hope and they have this overwhelming sense of relief,” Howell said. “It is such a good feeling.” 

Vaccines for those aged 75 or older began with the start of Phase 1B during the week of Jan 11.

Carole Ballew, fellow vaccination team member and nurse practitioner for cardiac transplant, said she feels like helping to vaccinate the community is part of her patriotic duty.

“I feel like I'm contributing in a positive manner as a citizen — I feel warm and fuzzy,” Ballew said. “ I think that's the general consensus that I've gotten from people, and so it's a good feeling to be doing something that you know is going to be worthwhile in the end.”

Despite Virginia’s poor ranking nationally when it comes to vaccine distribution — ranking 41 out of 50 states when it comes to the percentage of the population that has received the shot — Vesser feels that the vaccination team is “doing well.”

“Our flow, our ability to get vaccinations done through the health system has been very efficient,” Vesser said. “We've had a very smooth process with very little wait time.”

The University Health Center’s roughly 70 percent vaccine injection rate outpaces the pace of the Commonwealth significantly. As of Jan. 24, 1,055,970 doses of the vaccine have been distributed in Virginia, while only 474,979 have been administered — a usage rate of just under 45 percent.

The Blue Ridge Health District, of which Charlottesville and Albemarle County are a part, is currently facing a vaccine shortage. According to a spokesperson for the BRHD, it will “likely take awhile” to vaccinate all members of Phase 1B, which includes Virginia residents who are police, fire rescue, teachers, mail carriers, people aged 65 or older and those aged 16-64 with documented medical conditions putting them at risk for severe infection.

The BRHD is only receiving 2,950 does a week for the next few weeks, limiting the ability of the health center to provide vaccinations. Virginia has shifted its vaccine distribution effort and is now giving out vaccines to local health districts based on their share of the commonwealth’s population, while previous allocations were based on requests from health districts.

Despite logistical difficulties with the vaccine effort, the volunteers know that their work is critical in beginning to end the COVID-19 pandemic.  

“[It feels like] a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Robbin Shifflett, cardiovascular surgery clinic manager and vaccination team member. “Hopefully, we got to get the majority of people vaccinated so we can get rid of this.”


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