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Liberty University offers Lynchburg rent-free space for mass COVID-19 vaccinations
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Liberty University offers Lynchburg rent-free space for mass COVID-19 vaccinations

Lynchburg taxpayers will not be on the hook for the region’s new mass vaccination center after Liberty University agreed to rent a vacant building to the city at no cost, according to a lease agreement obtained by The News & Advance.

City officials are putting the final touches on the nearly 20,000-square-foot center at Candlers Station, which is expected to serve up to 6,000 people a day once vaccination supply ramps up.

“We hope this convenient location in Candler’s Station Shopping Center serves our neighbors well during these vaccination efforts,” Jerry Prevo, Liberty’s acting president, said in an emailed statement. “God is our refuge and strength, so we pray He continues to bring healing from this pandemic to our region, our nation, and the world.”

Liberty officials initially agreed to rent the empty building, a retail space that once housed a T.J. Maxx, for $1,000 per month, city documents obtained through an open records request show.

But according to Robert Ritz, Liberty’s chief financial officer, Prevo intervened after learning about the lease and instructed university officials to offer the space for free. The updated six-month lease was signed Tuesday.

“It was just another way Liberty wanted to demonstrate its commitment to the community efforts to battle COVID-19,” Ritz said.

According to documents provided by the city of Lynchburg the updated lease agreement for the building was signed just days after Prevo faced a flood of criticism for hosting a campus snowball fight where dozens of unmasked students ignored social distancing rules. In a written public apology released last week, Prevo said the university would rededicate its commitment to tackling the pandemic.

Reid Wodicka, Lynchburg’s interim city manager, said the site was chosen for its central location and ease of access. The vaccination center, which will be open to all residents in Lynchburg and the neighboring counties, sits near a highway and on a city bus line. It also features ample parking.

“Liberty really stepped up for us in a lot of ways,” Wodicka said. “I’m really thankful for that.”

Wodicka said officials also considered City Stadium, E.C. Glass High School as well as other Liberty-owned properties, including River Ridge mall and the Pittman Plaza shopping center, as potential mass vaccination sites before settling on the Candlers Station location.

Local health officials warn it likely will be weeks before the center is open to the wider public due to supply limits. The Central Virginia Health District, which includes the Hill City and the bordering counties, currently is being allocated just 3,050 doses each week.

As of Thursday, more than 30,000 shots have been administered locally and 7,229 people have been fully inoculated with both doses, according to state data. About 260,000 people live in the health district.

As health care workers wait for supply to increase, the center will serve as a central location for inoculating essential workers and other residents currently eligible for the vaccine. Friday will mark the first time vaccines will be administered at the center. About 100 essential employees are scheduled to get a shot.

The center will largely be staffed by paramedics with the Lynchburg Fire Department, according to Fire Chief Greg Wormser. The site will feature at least nine different vaccination stations but could expand to 18 stations if enough vaccines and volunteers become available.

At first, residents will need to schedule an appointment at the center, but eventually officials hope to open the building to walk-in visits. The site is expected to be open 12 hours per day, seven days per week.

Officials are aiming for efficiency. The site is large enough to vaccinate between 5,000 to 6,000 people in a single day. Wormser said residents can expect to spend as little as about 20 to 25 minutes at the center after first walking through the front doors.

“We don’t want people here longer than they have to be here,” he said.

Wormser said any residents in the region interested in being vaccinated should register with the local health district by visiting its website or by calling its office. He also encouraged residents to check with their doctor or pharmacy about available doses.

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