MARION, Va. (WJHL) – The COVID vaccination rate in Southwest Virginia outpaced the state’s numbers through the first two months of the year — but that trend reversed and a public health official said state plans to allocate more vaccine to places with more elderly and otherwise vulnerable people haven’t yet materialized.

Much has been made of vaccine hesitancy levels in rural and conservative areas. But Mount Rogers Health District Director Dr. Karen Shelton said so far, the region hasn’t had enough supply to find out whether that will be much of an issue here.

“We’re giving our vaccine every week, what we’re given,” Shelton said. She’s also interim director over the Cumberland Plateau and Lenowisco districts and said the health departments are operating 16 different community sites.

“We were able to originally ask for all the vaccine that we could give, and we could give a lot of vaccine,” Shelton said of the early phases of vaccine efforts. “We jumped out early with our percentages and were able to meet the needs of our community.”

Indeed, on Valentine’s Day two months ago, the eight-county region tracked by News Channel 11 had seen 15.2 percent of its people receive a first dose of vaccine. Virginia as a whole was at 11.8 percent.

Shelton said that allowed the region to become one of the first in the state to get teachers vaccinated, for instance.

“But at the end of January as the ability of others within the state rose to give vaccine and the demand of people to give the vaccine outstripped the supply because the supply did not rise as quickly as was anticipated, they really cut our supply in the Southwest as far as the numbers of vaccines we were given,” Shelton said.

So much so that by Wednesday, that significant advantage from two months ago had become a gap in the other direction – with 37.5 percent of Virginians now having had at least one dose to just 32.8 percent of Southwest Virginians.

That lag has occurred despite a stated aim of getting a disproportionate amount of vaccine to communities with high risks according to the “social vulnerability index.” Many of those risks, including a higher percentage of elderly, higher poverty rates and more people with chronic health conditions, are prevalent in Southwest Virginia.

Those risks and how they justify a change in allocation are something State Senator Todd Pillion (R-Abingdon) said he has been trying to make clear in Richmond.

“The formula for vaccine distribution changed near the end of January when Virginia shifted to a population-based model,” said Pillion, a dentist who has served as a volunteer vaccinator.

“Since then, I have been consistent about how this strategy ignores the true need in our communities,” he said, noting the demographic data proving the area is more at-risk than many parts of the state.

“Our distribution model should reflect that need if we are striving for fairness and equity and I implore the administration to move back in that direction as quickly as possible,” Pillion said.

He referenced a mass clinic he worked in Abingdon in March that resulted in nearly 2,000 vaccinations. He said he’s been told the local health departments can push through more vaccine than they’re getting.

Shelton said a vulnerability based allocation system has supposedly been forthcoming for a good while.

“We were told that there would be increased vaccine allocated to … communities who had more elderly or more vulnerable but quite honestly those strategies are still being discussed and planned and here we are several months later.

“And so we have had relatively fewer vaccines coming into our community than in some areas of the state.”

Grateful for what they do have and planning for next steps

Shelton said she’s thankful for the amount of vaccine that’s come into the region and gone straight into arms. The federal partnership with pharmacies that boosts the amount of vaccine coming into communities beyond that provided through the Virginia Department of Health has been a plus.

“We have relied on that strategy that the state has used to provide us with these federal partnerships to increase our vaccine supply,” she said, adding that the extra supply allowed the region to work through the “1B” phase — including people with medical conditions and those in high-risk occupations — faster than would have happened with just the weekly state supply.

Shelton did acknowledge vaccine hesitancy is one of the numerous challenges public health and other partners will confront as the work to vaccinate as many people as possible in a region that’s experienced a higher proportion of deaths and hospitalizations than Virginia as a whole.

“We are actually kind of in this next phase of having met this biggest demand of people kind of beating down our door to get the vaccine,” Shelton said. “How do we turn now and address our community as far as who may be hesitant, what are the fears what are the questions or concerns.”

She said she understands people’s hesitancy about a vaccine that lacks a long track record, and hopes people in that camp will take the time to talk to their health care providers and listen to what they say.

“We know for generally healthy people that this is a very safe and effective vaccine, and for those with medical conditions who are high risk of the devastating effects of COVID we also know that this is a safe and effective vaccine for most of them.”

Just as challenging in Shelton’s view are challenges related to income, geographic isolation and other factors.

“We do have to look and see where the pockets in our community that have not been educated (about), touched, accessed, given opportunity for vaccine. What about the walkups, what about not just having to schedule appointments but being able to go to a place and get a vaccine?”

She said the department is hiring summer interns with an eye toward broadening its strategy beyond the fixed “points of distribution” and appointment-only approach. Mobile units will very likely be part of that effort, she said — with walk up accessibility a likely option.

For now, though, waiting on a significant supply boost is part of the weekly routine.

“It’s been a slow incremental increase and we’ve had more partners that we’ve been able to give it to, but we are trying to meet the demand and trying to plan for more demand.”