Equity and Communications Remain Concerns for Fairfax County Vaccine Rollout

Fairfax County has made progress in its efforts to vaccinate priority groups for COVID-19, but challenges remain as officials contend with still-limited supplies while attempting to improve communications and outreach, particularly to minority and disadvantaged communities.

According to a presentation delivered to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Tuesday morning, 53,731 of the 58,825 first doses that the Fairfax County Health Department has received since late December have been administered by either the health department or its partners, which include Emergency Medical Services, the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center, pharmacies, and other healthcare providers.

The county health department has also received 25,800 second doses of the Moderna vaccine. 7,875 of those doses have been administered.

With its weekly allocation from Virginia currently limited to 13,600 doses, Fairfax County has scaled back the number of available vaccination sites. The health department is now only providing first doses at the county government center, reserving local health district offices for second doses.

However, the county has also started working with more partners over the past week, including Kaiser, the first private healthcare provider to get the COVID-19 vaccine, and George Mason University’s Mason and Partners (MAP) clinics.

Fairfax County Health Director Dr. Gloria Addo-Ayensu says partnerships like those will be critical to getting the vaccine to more people in Fairfax County, since not everyone can easily travel to the Fairfax County Government Center and other established vaccination sites.

“The ideal thing would be for us to be able to engage clinicians, private providers when we have sufficient vaccine,” Addo-Ayensu said. “…We do know for sure that more vaccine is coming our way, but we just don’t have dates and timelines. All we’re doing right now is building that capacity by engaging with our partners.”

While acknowledging that supply constraints remain the biggest challenge facing the county’s vaccine program, several supervisors shared frustrations that they have heard from constituents who have registered for a vaccination but have no clear sense of when it will actually be their turn to get an appointment.

Fairfax County Director of Epidemiology and Population Health Dr. Benjamin Schwartz said the health department is currently developing an automated messaging system that will reassure callers that they are on the waitlist and will be invited to schedule an appointment once one is available.

As of Feb. 1, the county health department’s COVID-19 vaccine pre-registration queue had 186,602 people, though Schwartz noted that there are still many eligible people who have not registered yet.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay and Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust urged health officials to provide a dashboard that would let the public see the length of the waitlist and the pace of vaccinations so people could get a sense of where they are in the queue.

“I think it’s a really important thing to do, not only to show our progress, but also to manage people’s anxiety and give them a feeling of the magnitude and scope of what we’re dealing with,” McKay said. “I think a simple dashboard that people could look at would go a long way in alleviating some of those concerns.”

While Fairfax County has not provided detailed demographic data for the populations that have received the COVID-19 vaccine, health officials say preliminary numbers from vaccinations scheduled for adults 75 and older between Jan. 12-16 suggest that Black and Latino individuals have been more hesitant about getting the vaccine than their white, non-Hispanic counterparts.

Virginia Department of Health data shows that more than 325,000 vaccinations have gone to white people, more than all other racial or ethnic demographics combined.

Fairfax County health officials told the Board of Supervisors that they have been using a variety of strategies to improve outreach to underrepresented populations, including virtual town halls, videos showcasing people’s stories about getting vaccinated, and partnerships with community leaders and organizations.

The health department has also started talking with private health providers who primarily serve communities of color, but it has not been able to distribute vaccine doses to them yet because of the limited supply.

“I think that as vaccine production and availability improves, these access issues will also improve, because our goal isn’t to centralize everything in the government center,” Addo-Ayensu said. “It’s to push it out.”

Photo via Fairfax County government, graphs via Fairfax County Health Department

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