Starting Friday in Virginia, health departments and hospitals will hold large-scale vaccination clinics, fueled by 69,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Montgomery County on Wednesday expanded vaccine eligibility in its county-run clinics to include people 65 and older, as well as teachers, grocery store workers and the homeless.
The developments come as infection rates in the greater Washington region have leveled off after a post-holiday bump that preceded a steep decline in cases. The rolling seven-day average of new cases Wednesday stood at 2,501 in D.C., Maryland and Virginia.
Virginia reported a record 383 daily deaths Wednesday, which officials say continues to be part of a large backlog from earlier in the year. Virginia health officials said the state did not have the capacity to investigate all fatalities during a December and January surge and are relying on the review of death certificates, a slow and cumbersome process. They expect to be caught up by the end of this week.
The region reported 2,386 new cases Wednesday, including 1,549 in Virginia, 786 in Maryland and 51 in the District. In addition to the Virginia deaths, Maryland reported 14 fatalities and the District reported four.
This week will be the last time D.C. residents will have to scramble for a vaccine appointment on a Thursday or Friday morning.
Starting next week, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced Wednesday, the city will scrap its much-maligned system of opening batches of vaccine appointments twice a week in favor of a new system based on preregistration.
District residents will be able to sign up online or by phone by providing their age, health conditions, work role and Zip code. The health department will process the requests and send residents an email or a text message or call them when a sign-up is available.
Bowser said in a news release that the system will continue to prioritize residents of certain Zip codes. A spokeswoman said Bowser will provide more information Thursday about how the health department will determine who gets vaccines first under the new system.
In the meantime, D.C. residents who qualify for the vaccine — including those at least 65 years old and all adults with certain health conditions — will have access to the current free-for-all system twice more. About 5,750 appointments, the largest yet, will be open each day at 9 a.m. Thursday and Friday.
Bowser said the city had made improvements to its website to avoid the numerous technical glitches that frustrated residents who used the system last week. No longer will a captcha code be required after that step in the process broke down.
After 3,000 people enter the area of the website where users search for open appointments, all subsequent users will enter an online waiting room, where they can see how many people are on the site and await their turn.
Bowser said the vaccination website and phone line, for one week, will be open only to D.C. residents based on age and health. It comes after a large portion of D.C. doses had gone to Maryland and Virginia residents who work in the District.
Thursday’s appointments will be reserved for residents of certain Zip codes, and Friday’s will be open to those across the city who are eligible.
When those residents register, they will see which manufacturer’s vaccine they will receive, Bowser said. A spokeswoman said the city plans to open two or three vaccination sites to distribute the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, while commercial pharmacies currently administering shots will keep using the two-dose Moderna vaccine.
Bowser also said people who are fully vaccinated no longer have to quarantine after they travel out of the region.
In Virginia, officials are preparing to step up vaccine distribution efforts in the coming weeks, thanks to the promise of a large influx of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and continued steady increases in the vaccines from Moderna and from Pfizer, which also requires two doses.
Hospitals and health districts across the state will hold large-scale vaccination clinics from Friday through early next week to administer 69,000 doses the state should receive by Thursday, state vaccine coordinator Danny Avula said Wednesday.
Despite the increased availability, for now, residents still must preregister with the state or their local health district and wait for an email or phone call inviting them to make an appointment, Avula said.
In Northern Virginia, Inova Fairfax will receive 4,000 doses, Alexandria 1,400 doses, Arlington 1,500 doses, Loudoun 1,500 doses and Prince William 1,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, Avula said.
Some have been hesitant to receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because data shows it is 72 percent effective at preventing cases of moderate to severe covid-19, which is lower than the other two options. Avula noted those results represent a moment in time before variants were a concern in the United States and cautioned against making an “apples-to-apples” comparison.
However, he said, the state health department decided to administer the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at large sites to learn who will accept the vaccine and adjust accordingly.
“This is extremely effective and absolutely preventive against the outcomes that matter most,” he said.
He said the state is on the verge of a turning point in vaccine distribution and expects that everyone in priority category 1B can be vaccinated by the end of April. Everyone should be able to get their first dose by the end of May, he said, echoing a Wednesday announcement from the Biden administration.
“Later this month, of March, we’re going to be in a much different place in terms of supply,” Avula said.
Montgomery County expected to begin sending out vaccine registration links to certain essential workers and those 65 and older starting Wednesday, officials said.
The shift, which expands eligibility to all of the county’s priority group 1B and part of 1C, will affect public transit workers, teachers and grocery store workers, along with the homeless and people with developmental disabilities.
While hospitals and pharmacies in Montgomery County already have begun vaccinating residents in categories 1B and 1C, officials say the county health department has moved slowly to manage demand and maintain equity.
Montgomery County Health Officer Travis Gayles said the county is preparing to receive 1,600 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine from the state, then begin administering shots Thursday.
“All of the vaccines are viable and effective. They accomplish the goal of what we want a vaccine to do,” Gayles said. “It’s important to understand that getting one versus the other is not an inferior or a second-class opportunity.”