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Students drive hours for walk-in vaccinations, officials urge waiting for appointments

Many students learned of the Danville community vaccination center through social media and by word-of-mouth

<p>The Danville vaccination center officially opened March 15 with funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.</p>

The Danville vaccination center officially opened March 15 with funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Students flocked to a recently-opened COVID-19 community vaccination center in Danville, Va. this week to receive vaccine doses on a walk-in basis. While some now have the relief of receiving a first dose, others have voiced concerns over University students taking vaccines from the local community and the effects of mass travel on local residents. Walk-ins at the Danville vaccine distribution center have been halted following a joint statement from the Virginia Department of Health and Virginia Department of Emergency Management clarifying that individuals without appointment or invitation will not be allowed inside community vaccination centers.

“Fluctuating registration numbers in the initial stages of site operations have allowed for walk-ins in some isolated instances, but this is no longer the case,” the statement said Wednesday. “Each clinic in Virginia has a plan for how to administer any unused doses at the end of the day, so that eligible individuals are prioritized.”

The Danville vaccination center officially opened March 15 with funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Located within a JCPenney at the Danville Mall, the vaccination center has the capacity to administer up to 3,000 doses per day. Over the first five days, however, the center only administered 7,493 doses — around half of the total 15,000 doses ready to be injected. A total of over 11,000 vaccine doses have been given as of Wednesday, according to a statement given to the Danville Register and Bee.

Dean of Students Allen Groves emailed students late Wednesday night to share the statement from the VDH and VDEM with students, urging students to follow VDH guidelines regarding vaccine distribution.

“U.Va. is working closely with the VDH to distribute the vaccines that are allocated to our region by the Commonwealth as quickly as we can,” Groves said in the email. “We are hopeful that increasing supplies will permit additional allocations in the near future and that the BRHD will expand eligibility soon. In the meantime, we urge all U.Va. community members to follow this and all VDH guidance.”

The Blue Ridge Health District — which encompasses Charlottesville and Albemarle County — is currently vaccinating all residents in Phase 1a, certain essential workers in Phase 1b, seniors over 65 years old and individuals aged 16-64 with high risk medical conditions. The BRHD has said that it expects to move into Phase 1c shortly, and all citizens will become eligible May 1.

FEMA has provided the Commonwealth $179 million to support vaccine distribution efforts. Three other community vaccination centers were opened in Virginia under FEMA guidance in Portsmouth, Petersburg and Prince William County while others are planned to open in Norfolk and Suffolk. A center in Southampton County is expected to open this week. These center locations, which include Danville, were chosen due to their proximity to communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the virus, such as seniors and people of color.

The Communications Divisions staff for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management said that the operation of these sites is “based on the need” and is “continually assessed” by the Virginia Emergency Support Team.

One day after the Danville center opened, the Pittsylvania-Danville health district expanded vaccine eligibility to include 1c group members, which includes essential workers in the energy, media, food service, housing, construction, waste, transportation, finance, information technology, legal services and public safety fields. 

Students travel to Danville

By Monday, news of extra doses at the Danville center had quickly spread among University students by word of mouth and through social media.

Third-year College student James Orr had heard from a friend on Saturday that a vaccination center in Danville had a surplus of doses and was allowing walk-ins from anywhere, so he planned to go to Danville with other students in his living arrangement to receive the vaccine, citing personal reasons of wanting to reduce vulnerability to COVID-19.

“I pretty strongly believe that every person you get vaccinated makes the community safer,” Orr said.

Orr drove down to Danville early Monday morning with three other students. There was no line at the center, so everyone in his group was able to prepare to receive the vaccine right away. A healthcare worker officially scheduled Orr to receive a vaccine that day. 

First-year College student Matthew Spalthoff traveled to Danville on Monday. Early in the afternoon, his older brother, who is also a University student, called to tell him about the vaccination center. Fifteen minutes later, the two of them left for Danville.

“Ultimately, I think it’s a worthwhile endeavour to get something so important to my well-being,” Spalthoff said.

Spalthoff and Orr both received the first dose of the Moderna vaccine during their visits. While sitting in a waiting area for a short period to confirm he would have no allergic reaction, Orr had the chance to talk to some of the workers at the center, who encouraged Orr to spread the word to other students. One of them mentioned that at least 50 college students had already come in that morning.

“They were saying that they were wasting tons of doses every day, that they weren’t getting nearly enough people in the area or, honestly, anywhere to be able to meet the quantities that they had to get rid of,” Orr said.

Spalthoff heard similar sentiments from the nurse he talked to at the center.

“The nurse told me that she was very happy there were U.Va. students coming and getting vaccinated,” Spalthoff said.

Second-year College student David Bass first heard about the community vaccination center on Sunday night from another student. He drove down on Tuesday morning with four other students.

“I probably would not have gone to get vaccinated if it were just me, but I was willing to drive if a bunch of other people wanted to get vaccinated, and I could help them out,” Bass said.

When Bass arrived at the center around 9 a.m., he estimated over 100 college-aged students were in line, many of whom were wearing University-branded clothing. After waiting for approximately 45 minutes, he and his companions also received the Moderna vaccine. During that time, Bass noticed that individuals who had previously scheduled an appointment at the Danville center were immediately moved to the front of the line. 

VDEM stated that Virginia’s community vaccination centers administer all FDA-approved vaccines.

Spalthoff said that workers at the Danville center wanted to distribute extra doses to anyone and said he has promoted the center to other students.

“I think it’s important for communities, especially like college campuses, to get vaccinated because we live in such close quarters,” Spalthoff said. “It’s important for those people to get vaccinated so we get one step closer to returning to a sense of normalcy.”

Orr, Bass and Spalthoff were all told they would receive an email within a week of the vaccination with instructions on how to schedule their second dose.

The Blue Ridge Health District said in a statement Wednesday that individuals who receive their first dose in Danville must return there for their second dose, citing a limited number of doses available within the BRHD. This contradicts rumors on social media that students could receive their first dose in Danville but get their second closer to Grounds.

“We ask everyone to respect Va.'s guidelines for getting vaccinated,” the BRHD said. “The phases were created to ensure people at greatest risk of COVID-19 get a vaccine first.”

Costi Sifri, director of hospital epidemiology at U.Va. Health, also encouraged residents to follow the BRHD’s advice on Twitter.

Keeping Danville residents in mind

Accompanying the dissemination of news about Danville is discourse surrounding the effects of mass student travel on the Danville community. As University students discussed the vaccination center, many locals were unaware that a community vaccination center had even come to their community.

Third-year College student Justin Ephraim is from Danville and first heard about the center on Monday through Twitter. After talking with friends and family, he soon discovered that they were hearing about the center for the first time through him. One friend who works at the Danville Mall said he did not even know vaccines were being administered there.

A similar situation occurred with fourth-year College student Karla Ortiz, who is from Martinsville, which is about a 25-minute drive away from Danville. Ortiz learned Monday night about the center. Her family in Martinsville and friends in Danville were all surprised to hear a vaccine center was at the mall.

“They were questioning how U.Va. [students] knew about this when they’re two hours away,” Ortiz said. “They knew about this before their own locals did.”

Both Ortiz and Ephraim — who plan to get vaccinated in Danville —  did not discourage students from travelling to Danville. Instead, they encouraged students to look at the situation as more than an opportunity to get vaccinated — specifically, Ortiz said she hopes for an increase in awareness among students of the privileged position University students are in to be able to receive Danville vaccines.

“We as a community can advocate getting these vaccines while also advocating being mindful of stepping into these marginalized communities and taking away their resources,” she said.

At least 51.5 percent of the Danville community identifies as Black or African American, according to the 2019 U.S. Census, while 47.5 percent of Martinsville residents identify as Black or African American. COVID-19 case rates for Black Virginians are 1.3 times higher than rates for white residents, according to a VDH report from March 8. The same report also found that as of Feb. 26, Black Virginians also receive vaccinations at a rate 0.6 times less than the rate of white residents. 

“It’s very problematic that a large number of Caucasian, not high-risk students from U.Va. — most of whom are not from southwestern Virginia — are going to Danville and taking resources without making that effort to get the locals to know about it,” Ephraim said.

In Danville, approximately 2,768 Black individuals have been vaccinated and 3,734 white individuals have been vaccinated as of Wednesday. The vaccination rate per 100,000 population for Black residents is 0.60 times the rate for white residents.

Second-year College student Gaby Hernandez expressed concern with how students have reacted to attempts to promote mindfulness of entering an unknown community to get vaccinated.

“A lot of U.Va. students refuse to listen to voices like Karla’s — people who are from the area or from the surrounding — especially considering the fact that Karla is a woman of color,” Hernandez said. “It’s just really frustrating because I feel like it’s nothing new.”

Concerns have also arisen over how the implications of excess doses in Danville could stereotype the community. Ephraim expressed concern that Danville residents may be seen as “backward country people that don’t want the vaccine,” considering that rumors on social media suggested that the extra doses are there because members do not believe in the vaccine and large numbers of students driving near Danville may see Confederate flags posted. Danville was the final capital of the Confederate States.

Ortiz and Ephraim both made the point that communities of color in Danville are not refusing to get vaccinated — rather, poor publicity has left them informationally stranded.

“Those are very ignorant phrases to say because it completely disregards people of color who are living in these areas and are just unaware that this service is being provided for them because of the lack of publicization,” Ortiz said.

Ephraim hopes students who travel to Danville help the community in some way.

“I think we should call it what it is — people are going to go take advantage of the resources that were allocated to a marginalized community,” Ephraim said. “If you’re going to do that, you should at least give back to the marginalized community or make an effort to get as many people in my city vaccinated as possible.”

One way students can contribute, according to Ephraim, is by donating to non-profit organizations in Danville. Such groups include the Haven of the Dan River Region, God’s Storehouse, the Danville Community Bail Fund, the Wendell Scott Foundation and the Danville House of Hope. A more comprehensive list can be found here.

Ortiz and Hernandez are working together to spread awareness of the Danville vaccination center among local residents by creating promotional material like flyers to distribute among local schools. Individuals interested in helping can contact Ortiz through her student email, available through U.Va. Internal People Search.

A bioethical perspective

Assistant Nursing Prof. Ashley Hurst works with Jim Childress, an ethics and religious studies professor, to provide the U.Va. Health System vaccine team with ethical guidance. Hurst said she cannot speak for staff members at the Danville community vaccination center, but encouraged students to follow guidelines for receiving vaccinations as published by local and state governments.

“The VDH single registration system was developed to ensure all Virginians have an equitable opportunity for vaccination by following the priorities developed by the state,” Hurst said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “People who followed the state guidance are disadvantaged when students go to Danville without an appointment.”

Hurst also shared concerns with Hernandez, Ortiz and Ephraim regarding the perpetuation of stereotypes.

“Some of what has been shared on social media is playing into harmful stereotypes about persons who live in the Danville area, perpetuating unfounded biases about others,” she said. “One cannot ethically justify their decisions and actions based on biases about others, even if you are simply repeating what someone else has said.”

Students should check what they hear through social media and rumors with “respected sources,” Hurst advised.

“When we read or hear things that seem too good to be true, they often are,” Hurst said.

She also mentioned ways students can help facilitate an equitable vaccine distribution in the BRHD. Some students are already involved in calling and registering community members for vaccination appointments, and other volunteer opportunities are available locally. Ensuring fellow students are educated on state and local vaccination priorities is another way individuals can support BRHD efforts, Hurst added.

“Continuing to follow masking and physical distancing protocols to support efforts to reduce transmission are also important steps students can take while all those involved in vaccine efforts around the state work diligently to vaccinate people quickly, safely and equitably,” she said.

Virginia residents can pre-register for the vaccine online or by calling 1-877-VAX-IN-VA. State-by-state vaccination information can be found online as well.

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