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Editorial: Vaccination map shows rural Virginia falling behind

Editorial: Vaccination map shows rural Virginia falling behind

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Virginia’s vaccination map is starting to look like our election maps.

That’s not a good thing for Southwest and Southside Virginia.

We’re all familiar with election maps of the past few decades — one party’s color for localities in the urban crescent, another party’s color for the rest of the state, particularly rural Southwest and Southside. And we all know who’s usually been on the losing end of that.

The state’s vaccination map — you can find it on the Virginia Department of Health’s COVID-19 page — isn’t about winning and losing. It’s about winning and winning. The more people who get vaccinated, wherever they are, the more we all win — and the closer we are to getting society back to normal.

However, we’ve noticed a worrisome trend in the past week or so: Rural Virginia is starting to fall behind the pace on vaccinations.

It wasn’t always like that. In the beginning, some of the best-vaccinated places in the state were in the western part of the state. The state’s vaccination czar, Danny Avula, told us in February that’s because the Ballad and Carilion health systems were the best prepared to administer community vaccinations and so they received larger number of doses.

Back then, Washington County’s vaccination rate was nearly twice as high as Fairfax County’s. Smyth County’s was twice as high as Arlington.

By late March, the same trends prevailed. We wrote on April 1: “This is the rare statistical category where rural Virginia ranks better the urban crescent. … Franklin County is better vaccinated than Fairfax County … Appomattox County is better vaccinated than both Arlington and Alexandria.”

Today none of those things are true.

Obviously nobody has shown up to squeeze the vaccines out of our arms. All those places are better vaccinated today than they were then. What’s happened, though, is that the pace of vaccinations has surged in the more urban parts of the state. That’s a good thing — a great thing. But what we’re also seeing is that the relative pace of vaccinations in part of rural Virginia — not all — is slower. Is this the “vaccine hesitancy” that we’ve been warned against? If so, now is the time to remind everyone that this pandemic won’t end until we get enough people vaccinated that we don’t have to worry so much about transmitting the virus — the so-called “herd immunity.” This isn’t anything new. This is how we beat polio, the measles, the whooping cough, the mumps, and all the other diseases we get vaccinated against in childhood. Now we just need to do it again with a different kind of virus. Nobody has thought the past year was much fun. The sooner we can get everyone vaccinated (or, more realistically, everyone over 16), the sooner we can put all this behind us. If we were invaded by some foreign enemy, we’d consider it our patriotic duty to take up arms to repel the attacker. Here, all we need to do is offer up an actual arm for a jab or two. Getting vaccinated is really a patriotic duty.

It’s unclear yet just how many people need to be vaccinated to achieve that sought-for herd immunity. The World Health Organization says that 95% have to be vaccinated to break the chain of transmission for measles. For polio, the figure is about 80%. We don’t know yet what it will be for COVID-19, although Anthony Fauci says he hopes it’s about 75% to 80%. Whatever the figure is, we’re still a long way from getting there. Until we do, we’ll still have the restrictions in place that people are chaffing under.

Let’s look at where things stand today.

On March 31, the least-vaccinated localities in Virginia were Portsmouth and Norfolk. As of Monday, they remained the least-vaccinated, if you go by the “fully vaccinated” category — 17.7% in Norfolk, 19.3% in Portsmouth. However, they are not in the bottom for “partially vaccinated,” which suggests they’re starting to make progress at a faster rate. Norfolk is 27.7% partially vaccinated, Portsmouth 28.7%. That now puts them ahead of Prince George County (26.6% partially vaccinated) and ties Norfolk with Carroll County (27.7% partially vaccinated). Norfolk and Portsmouth are also very much the outliers in the urban crescent.

The statewide average gives us a good baseline to work from. As of Monday, 28.7% of Virginians have been fully vaccinated and 42.9% have been partially vaccinated.

Some rural localities are certainly exceeding that rate. Indeed, Lancaster County, by the Chesapeake Bay, has the highest percentage fully vaccinated — 41.5% — and is second among those partially vaccinated at 53.3%. In Northampton County on the Eastern Shore, 40.8% are fully vaccinated, 51% partially vaccinated. In Highland County, the figures are 39.1% full and 45.2% partial. In Nelson County, it’s 37.7% full and 49.3% partial. That puts them in line with Albemarle County, where 36.6% have been fully vaccinated and 55.6% partially vaccinated, the latter being the highest figure in the state.

But what we can say is that, aside from Norfolk and Portsmouth, the places with the lowest vaccination rates are all outside the crescent. As of Monday:

In Wythe County, 19.5% have been fully vaccinated, 30% have been partially vaccinated.

In Carroll County, 19.9% full, 27.7% partial.

In Warren County, 19.9% full, 30.3% partial.

In Lee County, 21.5% full, 27.3% partial.

In Prince Edward County, 21.5% full, 29.9% partial.

In Lynchburg. 21.9% full, 31.9% partial.

In Dinwiddie County, 23.3% full, 32.2% partial.

In Page County, 23.8% full, 30.7% partial.

It would be facile — and wrong — to draw sweeping conclusions. This certainly isn’t as simple as saying that Democratic-voting localities are more eager to get vaccinated than Republican-voting ones. Lancaster, the most fully vaccinated county in the state, votes Republican. So, too, do many other localities that rank high on the vaccination list. There are undoubtedly some racial disparities at work — that might help explain why Norfolk and Portsmouth are so low, but wouldn’t explain the low rates in those Southwest Virginia localities, which are overwhelmingly white.

What we can say, though, is that people in the urban crescent now seem to be getting vaccinated at a faster rate than those in parts of rural Virginia, which is why our rates in the western part of the state are now no longer universally ahead of those in the more urban parts of the state and why the least-vaccinated localities now are now generally in rural Virginia.

If you’re not vaccinated yet, please make an appointment. If you know someone who hasn’t been, urge them to do so. That’s the only way this ends.

The Roanoke Times

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