The move by the administration of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) follows frustration over vaccinations in the Washington region that has accompanied a federal shortage of doses. Available appointments on pharmacy websites and at mass vaccination sites have been snapped up in minutes amid crushing demand.
Virginia health officials stopped accepting new registrations for vaccine appointments at 5 p.m. Friday to start integrating names and other information in local health district systems into the centralized registration system.
Residents can still preregister through their local health districts, officials said. But instead of a mishmash of registration systems that collected residents’ details and reserved their place in line, every health district — except Fairfax — will use the same online form, officials said.
The merger will not cause those whose names are on local wait lists to lose their place in line, officials said.
The state also will launch a call center next week staffed by 750 people for those without Internet access or who don’t speak English.
“I don’t think that this should cause much concern for the public because whether you entered your name on Friday or entered it on Tuesday, there’s still, unfortunately, thousands of people ahead of you,” Danny Avula, Virginia’s vaccine coordinator, said Friday.
Avula said some local health district systems didn’t align with federal and state guidelines, while others had conflicting details for the same terms.
For example, the phrase “underlying conditions,” to indicate a preexisting medical problem that makes someone more vulnerable to the virus, was interpreted in multiple ways, he said. The state’s new form “creates a much more consistent application of the VDH guidelines,” Avula said.
The biggest perk is that the new system will send out weekly reminders to residents that they are still in the queue, he said.
Fairfax’s health district — which also covers Fairfax City, Falls Church, Vienna and Herndon — is not under the state health department’s jurisdiction, giving officials there more flexibility in how they handle vaccines.
Jeff C. McKay, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, said the county’s system has been functioning well, noting that about 100,250 residents have been fully vaccinated, according to a vaccine data dashboard launched Friday.
“We invested a lot of resources into our registration system and worked out the kinks to ensure we continue to process more people than any other health district in the state,” McKay (D) said in a statement. “At this point, I am glad we can maintain our system that residents are familiar with to cut down on confusion.”
Avula predicted Fairfax eventually will join the rest of the state in the new system.
“I think when they see the product roll out, it’ll be a short while before they hop on as well,” he said.
Arlington County announced Friday that it will start scheduling appointments for residents older than 65 who already have registered with the county’s health department.
Virginia officials on Friday reported a case of the variant first identified in South Africa and a case of the variant first identified in the United Kingdom in the eastern part of the state, although it was unclear whether the discovery of the variant first identified in the U.K. was the same one reported earlier in the day by the University of Virginia. University officials said its average number of new daily infections tripled over the past week to 36 on Friday. The Charlottesville college has 222 active cases, officials said.
“If cases continue to increase, our isolation and quarantine capacity will become strained and we will be forced to consider stricter measures, including a shift to ‘Short-Term Restricted Operations,’ which would include moving all classes, meetings and gatherings online,” the officials said. Travel on and off campus could also be limited, they said.
Demand for vaccine across the Washington region continued to outstrip the doses available.
In Maryland, 16,800 appointments that opened Friday at the Six Flags mass vaccination site in Prince George’s County were taken within 45 minutes, said Michael Ricci, spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan (R).
Frederick County health officials sought to minimize confusion Friday by announcing the county will use its weekly allotment of vaccine doses only on residents older than 74 who have preregistered for an appointment. The doses will be doled out in alphabetical order, by first names, officials said, adding that the county eventually will expand the list of eligible recipients to people older than 73.
Maryland had administered 818,478 vaccine doses as of Friday, with 499,000 people fully vaccinated, according to state data. Virginia has administered 1,243,231 doses, with 270,738 people having received their second dose. In the District, at least 67,688 people had been given at least one dose as of last weekend, the latest data available.
Following Thursday’s White House announcement that deals were finalized for an additional 200 million vaccine doses, Hogan said he and a group of governors and mayors met Friday with President Biden and Vice President Harris to emphasize the need to get the doses into local health officials’ hands.
Although the virus’s spread through the region has been slowing since mid-January, reports of more contagious strains have heightened concerns over a potential spike in cases.
Despite those concerns, the greater Washington region’s seven-day average for new cases has dropped by nearly half since Jan. 12, to 4,596 on Friday, while the average number of daily deaths has fallen from a peak of 103 in late January to 69.
Maryland’s test positivity rate fell below 5 percent for the first time since Nov. 7, holding at 4.9 percent.
Erin Cox contributed to this report.