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As vaccination rate increases slowly, Fairfax County officials try to reach those hesitating

FCPS employee prepares to get COVID-19 vaccine (Photo by Karen Bolt/Fairfax County Public Schools)

While Fairfax County’s COVID-19 vaccination rate has only incrementally crept up over the last several weeks, county officials believe their campaign to get as many people vaccinated as possible still has a ways to go before it hits a ceiling.

About 75.5% of people over 18 have had at least one vaccine shot in the Fairfax Health District, which includes the county and the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church. About 67% of all residents over 18 are considered fully vaccinated.

Both those numbers are above the national and state rates, but they have only gone up a couple of percentage points over the last month.

“Vaccination numbers are increasing more slowly than previously but we would not define it as ‘plateauing,'” Dr. Benjamin Schwartz, Fairfax County’s director of epidemiology and population health, said.

Schwartz says national data suggests that about 15% of the population say they definitely do not want to get a COVID-19 vaccine, but that percentage is “likely much lower here.”

“So there still are many in the county who are open to getting vaccinated,” writes Schwartz. “The challenges are addressing people’s concerns about the vaccine and making vaccination easy for people who may be less motivated [and] for whom vaccination just isn’t a priority.

Messaging is key, says Dr. Amira Roess, a professor of epidemiology at George Mason University, when it comes to local jurisdictions concentrating their efforts on helping those folks get vaccinated.

“75% of folks being vaccinated is really good…and higher than the national average,” Roess said. “But…we have to shift to look at which groups have lower vaccination rates…find out why they haven’t gotten vaccinated and what are their questions.”

County data shows that, in terms of age, those over 55 years old have gotten their vaccine at a higher percentage than those in their 20s and early 30s. About two thirds of adults from 25 to 34 years old have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine compared to more than 80% of those over the age of 55.

While older folks becoming eligible for the vaccine earlier due to their increased vulnerability to the virus is likely a factor in that difference, it remains a concern that younger residents are less likely to get the vaccine than the county average.

To address that gap, county officials say they are doing targeted outreach at venues like barber shops, fraternities, sororities, and hair salons as well as placing ads on Tiktok and other social platforms.

Additionally, the county enlisted MC Bugg-Z of cicada rap fame for a new hip-hop song and video about the need to get vaccinated.

Health data also indicates that Black and Latinx county residents have gotten vaccinated at lower rates than white residents.

Roess says it’s on officials to better understand the concerns that have produced racial and ethnic disparities in who has received the vaccine.

“For a lot of African-American populations, they are part of this culture, this decades-long experience of being experimented on in really unethical trials,” Roess said. “So, there’s some real legitimate concerns there because of the history.”

She also notes that many folks work all day and are only available at night.

Fairfax County officials say over 300 sites currently offer the vaccine, including pop-up clinics every day of the week at schools, libraries, and apartment complexes. The county also employs 18 “vaccine navigators,” who go out into communities, food distribution events, and places of businesses to address concerns and help people sign up to get the vaccine.

However, in recent weeks, some services that were previously offered have ended, including a free shuttle service to the Mount Vernon Square vaccine equity clinic as well as several community clinics.

In addition, the clinics are only open to 7:30 p.m. at the latest. Most close between 5 and 7 p.m.

With nearly all COVID-19 cases, deaths, and hospitalizations now occurring among unvaccinated people, health officials are racing to expand vaccinations to counter the growing prevalence of variants that could spread more easily and cause more severe illness.

Of particular concern is the Delta variant, which is thought to be more contagious. As of Friday (July 9), Northern Virginia had reported 617 infections stemming from variants of concern, including 23 cases linked to the Delta variant.

Roess says the fear of the Delta variant may lead to more people getting vaccinated, but it could already be too late.

“It’s a…race between the Delta variant spreading and the vaccination rate,” Roess said. “What we might end up seeing is that by the time [more] people end up getting vaccinated, they are already exposed or infected by the Delta variant.”

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