The week of March 21, 2021, rumors began circling among students at the University of Virginia and other localities across the Northern regions of the state that a mass Covid-19 vaccination site in Danville, Virginia, was vaccinating all individuals with a valid ID. This practice was not made public, as the Pittsylvania/Danville Health District recently entered vaccination Phase 1c, which expands eligibility for some essential workers, but does not include all adults. College students spread this information via word of mouth and social media posts on Twitter and Reddit.
The Danville mass vaccination site is one of four of its kind that opened across the state last month. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) conducted analyses in collaboration with state governments to install mass vaccination centers in regions where Covid-19 disproportionately impacted residents. As of 2019, nearly a quarter of Danville residents lived at or under the federal poverty line.
By Wednesday of that week, the City of Danville released a public statement requesting that individuals stop visiting the mass vaccination site. Additionally, the Blue Ridge Health District, where UVA is located, stated that any resident who traveled to Danville would have to return to receive their second dose of the Moderna vaccine.
Students became discouraged as they felt they were hearing contradictory information from a variety of sources. Some claimed that the nurses working at the facility wanted more out-of-district individuals to come, fearing wasted doses due to slow vaccine rollout. Others believed that UVA students created an equity issue as wealthy students entered a low-income space to get vaccinated before members of the community. Additionally, others thought that shots in arms are the most important metric of success, and anyone should get vaccinated when given the opportunity.
While the causes for this confusion are not public knowledge, some believe demand in Danville faltered due to residents’ unawareness of the vaccine center, as 28% of Danville’s citizens lack internet access. The primary means of booking vaccine appointments has been via an online system, creating an additional systemic barrier that advantages high-income VA residents.
The past week illuminates issues regarding speed versus equity of distribution and balancing supply and demand in rural and urban areas. It also raises the question of who bears the responsibility of vaccinations: citizens or government officials?
Regardless of the answer to these questions, this situation demonstrates an obvious government failure. Going forward, the state of Virginia and its health departments should aim to increase transparency in who is getting vaccinated and improve vaccine registration.
Generally, health departments and healthcare workers need to be in agreement on policy implementation. While it remains unclear how this miscommunication arose, having workers on the ground act contrary to officially published policies created an information asymmetry between vaccine-seeking citizens, nurses, and government officials. To beat the pandemic, all agents must be on the same page.
If equity is the primary concern, Virginia officials must be more transparent in their demographic collection efforts. The state has not prioritized consolidating demographic information for those who have received vaccines. This information is crucial if the state aims to equitably distribute the vaccine to marginalized populations. Additionally, the state should mandate that vaccine distributors record the home districts of vaccine recipients so they can track whether or not individuals are traveling to receive the vaccine, and so the government can constantly gauge vaccine demand.
If reaching herd immunity is the state’s primary concern, the federal government should allocate doses based on both the population size and the demographics of individuals in jurisdictions. Currently, the federal government distributes vaccines according to the proportion of the population who are 18 and older. The federal government should also consider demographics when allocating resources. For example, areas with higher-than-average populations of essential workers, individuals with pre-existing conditions, or older adults should receive more doses. That way, citizens who qualify for a vaccine will not need to travel outside of their health district to obtain it.
The United States is racing against the clock. The UK variant, known officially as B.1.1.7., is swiftly making its way across the U.S. The mutation is more contagious and is likely more deadly than the original form of the virus. Additionally, the Biden Administration fears a fourth wave of the virus hitting America in the coming months.
However, recent studies find both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to be incredibly effective in clinical trials and the real world. The vaccine, along with social distancing, masks, and handwashing, will bring the world out of this pandemic. However, policymakers and administrators must work together in a transparent, equitable, and efficient manner in order to prevent failures like the one in Danville and to bring about a quicker end to the pandemic.
The views expressed above are solely the author's and are not endorsed by the Virginia Policy Review, The Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, or the University of Virginia. Although this organization has members who are University of Virginia students and may have University employees associated or engaged in its activities and affairs, the organization is not a part of or an agency of the University. It is a separate and independent organization which is responsible for and manages its own activities and affairs. The University does not direct, supervise or control the organization and is not responsible for the organization’s contracts, acts, or omissions.