BIG STONE GAP, Va. (WJHL) – Virginia is nearly one month into Governor Ralph Northam’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for state employees.
Those workers are required by Executive Directive 18 to either provide proof of their vaccination status or submit to weekly testing for the virus.
In Southwest Virginia, COVID-19 spread rates are more than double that of the state, and the vaccine uptake among adults is much lower.
In Southwest Virginia, 49% of adults are fully vaccinated compared to 67.5% of adults across the state.
At Mountain Empire Community College (MECC) in Wise County, Financial and Administrative Services Vice President Ron Vicars said that the faculty and staff are taking the virus and vaccine seriously.
“The mandates from Richmond, of course, are helpful in providing a structure for people to actually report and say, ‘Yes, I am,’ or ‘no I’m not,’ but we have seen that our faculty and staff have been proactive as soon as the vaccines were available,” Vicars said.
The Human Resources Department at the community college reported a roughly 88% vaccination rate among the staff and faculty of around 350 people — both full-time and adjunct.
“We are continuing to wait on a few that are getting their second dose, within the next couple of weeks, and we expect to have our faculty and staff over 90% vaccinated,” Vicars said.
He explained that the college provides a testing kit to those who choose to remain unvaccinated, or a month’s worth of testing kits can be obtained at once.
“Do those either at home or here at work, and they actually dropped those off at our bookstore, which is then mailed off and they received the results back by mail. Now of course they’re required to get back on report to the state, the results of that test, and provide documentation of that,” he said.
The kits are sourced through a company called Let’s Get Checked. Vicars explained that it is the nose-swab kind of COVID test.
The testing kits are not cheap, Vicars explained, coming in at around $70 to $80, per test.
“It is a part of the state agency budget, so it’s a part of the college budget. The VCCS in Richmond has basically said that we will provide those tests free of charge, through December 31. So it gives them an opportunity to continue to get tested for this year, and then also gives them a little particular time to weigh their options about whether they personally want to be vaccinated or not during that time, and allows them to go ahead and get fully vaccinated,” he said.
He said the timeline leading up to the last day of 2021 would allow unvaccinated state employees to reach the fully vaccinated status.
The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) outlined that a person reached that fully vaccinated status two weeks after receiving the second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or the Johnson and Johnson single-dose vaccine. All in all, the Pfizer and Moderna process takes weeks.
“It’s a little challenging and disheartening when you see how low the vaccination rate is around here because a low vaccination rate correlates with high hospitalizations and a high death rate so it’s kind of all connected,” Allie Phillips, Population Health Manager for Cumberland Plateau and LENOWISCO Health Districts said.
Vicars explained that MECC has had a good professional relationship with VDH since the vaccine became available.
“We knew that the vaccine was going to be given to Wise County and LENOWISCO health district and we reached out to them to say that we want to be one of the first ones to provide them an opportunity or an area, so over Christmas break, we opened up our campus to the public for them to provide those vaccinations to first responders first,” he said.
Vicars added that it has been rewarding to open up the campus for public health purposes.