News

Vaccine Rollout In F.C., Fairfax Underway

U.S. Congressman Don Beyer, Jr. received his coronavirus vaccine last week, joining the initial surge of elected officials who got the vaccine to boost confidence in it. (Courtesy Photo)

Vaccines against Covid-19 are beginning their gradual distribution locally, and that will soon make eager heads turn toward the resumption of normal life.

Fairfax County’s Health Department, which runs the Fairfax Health District that includes the cities of Falls Church and Alexandria, began receiving their first shipments of the Pfizer vaccine last week and were expecting their initial shipments of the Moderna vaccine by the end of last week or the start of this one.

“Starting the week of Christmas, we’ll have two vaccine manufacturers delivering doses as they come off the assembly line and they’re going to all 50 states,” Colin Brody, the assistant public health emergency management coordinator at Fairfax County’s Health Department, told the News-Press. “They’re being allocated from there. We’re not waiting until we get enough for everybody, we’re getting it shipped to us as they have it available for us.”

Once the logistics arm of the federal government’s Operation Warp Speed team ships the vaccines to the states, Brody explained that the Virginia Department of Health will allocate the supply each health district will get based on population.

He said the supply of the vaccine will be measured in the thousands locally, with the INOVA health systems and Reston Hospital Center receiving shipments at first. The two health systems will then disseminate the vaccine to health care providers in their network. On the public health side, Fairfax Health District’s staff and volunteers will also send the vaccine to community health care providers.

Given how much interest there is in acquiring the vaccine, Brody did not share which community health care providers the county will be giving dosages to.

Neither the health care systems nor the community providers will diverge much from the priority populations recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, per Brody. The three primary categories — healthcare personnel and long-term care facility residents (1a), frontline essential workers and those over 75 years old (1b) and people from 65 74 years old, people between 16 – 64 years old with high risk conditions as well as all essential workers not recommended in the previous phase (1c) — will each get their access to the vaccine as it becomes available.

While the hospitals and community health care providers manage their own vaccine distribution, every long-term care facility in Virginia is part of the Pharmacy Partnership for Long-term Care Program. Brody said that this program tasks the directors of each facility with scheduling a day where pharmacists can come and provide the vaccine to anyone who wants it. That would likely start with residents first, Brody added, but once there is a sufficient number of the vaccine it would quickly move to staff since he said they are typically the source of any Covid-19 outbreaks among seniors.

Fairfax County is also developing a strike team through its Emergency Medical Services to vaccinate high risk populations at an even quicker rate. Paramedics will be trained and authorized by the health district to treat those at long-term care facilities, according to Brody, who can accommodate senior living communities that couldn’t schedule through the federal partnership at a preferred time frame.

Brody said the vaccine itself makes use of a spike protein, or messenger RNA, that sits on the exterior of the virus in order for recipients to develop immunity.

“[The spike protein] is a way to introduce the mRNA instructions into a cell, and once that instruction package gets into the cell, our cells read the instruction packet like a book and…produce a viral protein,” Brody said. “It basically fakes your body into mounting an immune response into the exact spike protein that would be on the Covid virus, but it does it in such a way that your body is never given the virus itself, either live or inactivated.”
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are historic firsts that use mRNA to deliver the immunity to hosts, which is also why there’s been some concern. Combine that with how the vaccines came about in less than a year — as opposed to the multiple years it usually takes to examine enough virus samples to produce a vaccine — and its compounded some natural apprehension to the breakthrough medical achievement.

Brody held the same position echoed by medical professionals at all levels, saying that the mRNA spike protein never interacts with the DNA inside the nucleus of the cell. He called the fears over the vaccine tampering with one’s genetic material “a bit of a Hollywood concern,” but has said leaders at nonprofits, houses of worship and local politicians are getting the word out to show that the vaccine is safe and effective.

It’s believed by Brody that, right now, the vaccine will provide immunity for at least a year, though he didn’t want to rule out that it would need a booster shot, similar to the flu vaccine. But if everything tracks in terms of the public achieving herd immunity, or 60 – 70 percent resilience to the virus through either vaccinations or antibodies, Brody thinks it will be late spring or early summer when life can start its return to normal.

Currently, Brody estimated that just shy of 10 percent of the Fairfax Health District’s population has had the coronavirus. As of Dec. 23, the City of Falls Church has 159 confirmed cases of Covid-19; a 57 percent jump in the past month. According to VDH data, Falls Church has a seven-day average of cases at just under two (1.82) as of Wednesday as well.

The desire to speed up that timeline will only intensify as the mainstream population gets access to the vaccine. And when “normal” is around the corner, some companies are already looking at how to virus-proof individual buildings and grow the region more holistically.

PMM Companies is a commercial cleaning firm that, prior to the coronavirus cases taking off in March, focused mainly on office cleanings. The arrival of Covid-19 had its client base expand to schools, restaurants and houses of worship, with disinfecting becoming a larger portion of its services as well.

Mitch Lustig, PMM’s executive vice president, said that it primarily dealt with the aftermath of Covid outbreaks in offices — which is consistent with the findings of Washington, D.C.’s own contact tracing investigations that found 22 percent of cases originated in offices.

But his firm has also advised its increasingly diverse customers on how to deter viral outbreaks in the future. Lustig gets a potpourri of responses to PMM’s suggestions.

“There are some people that will follow the best practice and use caution, and there are others that won’t.” Lustig said. “You can’t spend other people’s money, but for the most part, if you really want people to come in, people want some assurity.”

A nonprofit that’s looking even further down the road is Connected DMV and its report about its Strategic Renewal Task Force. The nonprofit’s overarching goal is “the creation of long-term economic renewal that delivers equitable growth,” per the report. It focuses on improving areas such as cybersecurity and data protection as well as pandemic prevention, contact tracing and flexible work options.

Stu Solomon, the president of Connected DMV, said that the task force’s 51 members can take on such a diverse set of tasks thanks its members’ backgrounds ranging from government officials in D.C., Maryland and Virginia to leaders in public transit, academia and businesses big and small.

Despite being focused on the long game, Solomon sympathizes with the businesses that have been deemed non-essential and had their operations curtailed by their local elected leaders. He understands that makes it hard for them to look ahead when the present moment is so challenging.

Still, Solomon said the report offers some short-term solutions to reopening, such as its Safe Environments initiative that instructs businesses on sterilizing techniques through innovations in lighting, HVAC adjustments or surface-coating, which essentially scotch-guards an area from germs.

He said plainly that “Connected DMV is not an advocacy organization, we’re a delivery organization,” so it would defer to local politicians’ orders when it comes to the pace of reopening. But Solomon did note that the group’s initiatives and how efficiently it handles them could hasten that process.

“We’re in uncharted waters. Everyone’s learning as they go,” Solomon said. “But from an integrated community perspective, if we can accelerate [reopening], that’s to everyone’s good. We believe that we will help make decisions to open sooner, better and faster.”