JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – With two COVID-19 vaccines recently approved for emergency authorization by the FDA, the rollout of the vaccine in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia is now underway.
With doses being distributed, it poses the question of who gets one, when, how, and where? Most of these vaccination efforts are being run by county health departments, but for the James H. Quillen Mountain Home VA center, they are able to coordinate their own distribution.
It was the Christmas gift of the year, a vaccine for the virus that ruled a majority of 2020. COVID-19 closed businesses, changed the way we conduct our daily jobs, and altered lives. Now, with a vaccine, there is hope, especially for those more vulnerable populations such as veterans.
Shortly after Christmas, officials with the James H. Quillen VA Medical Center posted to social media stating they are one of 113 VA facilities that have received Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine. Officials said they received the doses on December 22nd and within a few hours, were able to vaccinate their first employee.
While area health departments are stressing registration prior to receiving a COVID-19 vaccine, the VA care teams will be contacting Veterans directly, so there is no need to go to the facility to sign up, but how does the process work?
Officials told News Channel 11’s Kelly Grosfield that the vaccine will be free to all veterans who want one and are currently under their care. According to information regarding the vaccine distribution on the Department of Veterans Affairs website, officials are working with the CDC and other federal partners regarding a phased plan, since the number of vaccines does remain limited at this time.
Their goal is to do the most good for the most people during this time by currently offering vaccines to two groups which include veterans living in their long-term care facilities, and VA health care personnel. Vaccinating their personnel helps them continue providing care for veterans.
The plan is based on criteria set by CDC guidelines which factor in the risk of becoming infected with the virus, risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19, risk of spreading the virus to others, and risk of harm to society if essential workers, including health care personnel, are unable to work.
After the first two groups, VA staff will begin to offer vaccines to more veterans who are at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19.
If you’re eligible to get a vaccine, your VA health care team will contact you, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs website.
Terry Miles, a veteran and local Commander for VFW post-2108 said while he doesn’t fall into the criteria for the vaccine yet, he knows some people who have already received it through the VA.
“There’s one or two out of here who have gone up there and got their vaccination the other day. They said it went pretty well, one guy only had about 30 people ahead of him,” said Miles.
He said he hopes it’s a speedy process, unlike other distribution efforts he’s seen recently. Miles said speed is important because this age group, along with their ailments cannot be kept waiting in cars for hours on end for health reasons. He said he plans to get his vaccine at the VA when his time comes.
“We’ve got that benefit, why not use it? We have, I would guess, a lot fewer people that go to Mountain Home than live in Sullivan County. So that’s the route I’m going to take because I think it will be quicker,” said Miles.
Dr. Brian Esters, the pharmacy program manager and medication safety specialist at the VA said they are following CDC guidelines very closely in terms of distribution, currently working in Phase 1B.
“This is the special population group and also we’re at Veterans who are greater than 75 years of age that have co-morbid conditions,” said Dr. Esters.
He said while the vaccine has not yet been extended to all registered veterans yet, those who have received it so far are happy with it.
“Veterans that are coming in are so excited that this vaccine is here and they’re happy to be here, they’re lining up, they’re ready for the vaccine,” said Dr. Esters.
He said so far they’ve distributed more than 2,500 doses and are on track. Dr. Esters said they vaccinated through the holidays, only closing their offices on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.
Dr. Esters encourages those still waiting their turn for the vaccine to continue following safety guidelines such as mask-wearing, social distancing, and hand washing to limit the spread.
He said the vaccine is the best tool we have in the fight against this virus. “I think it’s highly important that people adhere to this tool and they take the COVID vaccine when it is made available to them based on the CDC guidance,” said Dr. Esters.
Officials with the VA are encouraging veterans to go to their website and fill out their form with their information. It is not a registration per se, but it will expedite the process of getting a vaccine once you become eligible.