RICHMOND - Virginia will not be allowing open walk-ins at its vaccination clinics anytime soon to limit the possibilities of out-of-town residents flooding sites outside of their locality.
Dr. Danny Avula, the state’s vaccine coordinator, said in a news conference Friday that previous attempts in Lynchburg and Danville showed doing so only amplified accessibility barriers in low-income areas once people in other health districts found out through social media.
Some reportedly were from other states.
The Virginia Department of Health is floating the idea of requiring proof of residency to minimize the chances of residents traveling hours for a dose and potentially flocking toward predominantly Black or Latino areas and harder-hit neighborhoods with low vaccination rates — an issue clouding every state’s rollout.
But that comes with its own issues.
An advantage would be health districts expanding their resources to scale up vaccinations could be assured those efforts are helping people within the localities and curbing “vaccine tourism.” Ensuring geographic equity could allow for further outreach into communities, Avula added.
A drawback is its potential to worsen accessibility obstacles among people without an address or identification card and undocumented immigrants who could perceive that as requiring “permanent resident status” and risking federal agencies being flagged. Avula said the change also would be an administrative hurdle. No decision has been made yet.
Other states that have required proof of residency are Indiana and Florida, but that didn’t include locality.
Another complicated detail is how the state doesn’t have the ability to control a federal registration system that offers Virginians appointments 50 miles from where they live. Pharmacies, which are vaccinating people through a federal partnership, are out of the state’s control, too.
Avula said Friday pharmacies no longer will pull from Virginia’s pre-registered list to offer appointments and will instead use their own schedulers while abiding by state guidelines. Pharmacies will begin the second phase of vaccinations April 18.
States have equally wrestled with the difficulties of proving eligibility in the pre-registration process, and how that could be another deterrent. Virginia leaders haven’t expressed interest in requiring proof instead of an honor system, but Avula acknowledged people could have been “disingenuous” in signing up.
“We just hope that’s a minority of people and not a majority,” he said.
Variability in which health districts are in what phase has contributed to people traveling toward a locality where they’re eligible, and with no more than a last-minute indication of when a health district is heading into Phase 1c, it’s prompted confusion.
Fairfax and Prince William County, two of the largest health districts in the state carrying a heavy COVID-19 caseload, remain in Phase 1b. They’re among the last to head into the final vaccination stage for essential workers, about two weeks before Gov. Ralph Northam’s promised date where all adults will be eligible for a dose.
Nearly 4 million doses administered later, Avula said Virginia’s best chance at prioritizing equity when April 18 rolls around is continuing the wide-ranging strategies of manually registering people, reserving slots for high-risk communities and launching clinics specifically for Black, Latino and immigrant populations.
“I really just think it’s going to be more and more work on the ground in communities and we need to recognize that that is harder work and it takes more resources,” Avula said. “So that’s what we need to shift to if we’re going to hit those targets.”
Virginians wishing to pre-register for the COVID-19 vaccine can do so in English, Spanish and American Sign Language at vaccinate.virginia.gov. or call (877) VAX-IN-VA to sign up over the phone.