More than 200 local first responders have received COVID vaccine, although some so have taken wait-and-see approach

By Logan Roddy, contributor

More than 200 first responders and health care workers in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccinations, which includes more than half of the Rockingham County Sheriff’s employees.

“And I think you’ll see that number continue to go up, as more and more people and colleagues are taking it and talking about it,” said Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson.

But not all are jumping at the opportunity to be among the first in the Valley to receive the vaccination. For instance, only about a quarter of the first round of Middle River Regional Jail employees who were offered the vaccine accepted, according to jail officials who made a report to the Regional Jail’s board last week. 

Law enforcement officers and other first responders are among the first group to be vaccinated as part of Phase 1a in the Virginia Department of Health’s Response Plan.

The sheriff’s office employs about 170 full- and part-time deputies and first received access to the Moderna COVID vaccine on Dec. 23. Since then, more than 100 of the staff have been administered their first shot and are in the four-week waiting period for the second.

“A lot of people are just waiting to see what’ll happen before they choose to take anything,” said Hutcheson.

Division Chief of Rockingham Fire and Rescue Steve Powell is coordinating the process between local agencies and the Virginia Department of Health. Powell said his agency offers a vaccine clinic each Wednesday to first responders and healthcare providers in the area.

“We’ve had over 200 personnel get vaccinated between the Harrisonburg city and Rockingham County,” Powell said. “We’ve been working with Valley Urgent Cares, dental and doctor’s offices, as well as the law enforcement officials.”

Powell is also working with the city’s school system to ensure that nurses and teachers in the elementary and high schools are vaccinated as well.

At the Middle River Regional Jail, a portion of their staff who are trained in healthcare were offered the vaccine in early January. Of the 41 employees who qualified, only 10 elected to take the first dose. 

Superintendent Jeffrey Newton declined to comment on reasons for their decisions by those who passed on receiving the vaccine.

“Each public health district is shaping how they’re delivering their available allotment of vaccines,” Newton said. “Some Departments of Corrections facilities are already administering the vaccine to their inmate populations.

But because Middle River Regional Jail’s full staff was not included in the first phase as were full staffs of some other regional jails in Virginia, Middle River isn’t at the same level of vaccination status. Newton said the fraction of his healthcare staff that elected to take the vaccine in this early stage was not unusual.

“From talking with my fellow superintendents across the commonwealth, they’re finding somewhere between 28-35% of their staff willing to take the vaccine,” Newton said.

The Central Shenandoah Health District is working with local correctional and detention facilities to redistribute the vaccine to administer to staff and the inmates.

“The remaining staff and people living in a correctional facility will be vaccinated during Phase 1b,” said Laura Lee Wight, population health community coordinator at the health district. “The transition to 1b in our district is anticipated before the end of January.”

Wight said it is important to recognize that group living or working conditions, such as jails, have potential for  COVID-19 outbreaks.

“Currently, there is limited information about how much the vaccine reduces the transmission of the SARS-COV2 virus,” Wight said. “The vaccine will reduce the possibility of getting ill if someone is exposed to the virus, as well as decrease the severity of symptoms if someone becomes infected.”

Powell, of the Rockingham Fire and Rescue, cited this lack of information as a common justification for why some people have declined the vaccine.

“Some people feel like they don’t know what the long-term effects of the vaccine could be,” Powell said. “However, I also tell them too that we don’t know what the long-term effects of getting COVID are.”

Powell agreed with Hutcheson’s perspective that many people are uncertain about the vaccine because they’re concerned about the speed in which the vaccine was developed and approved. Powell said he’s been trying to reassure people that he doesn’t believe the speedy approval process puts anyone at risk. 

 “While it has been fast-tracked, we don’t see anything where it’s indicating any safety risk,” Powell said. “I think they really just cut through the political red tape to get this out there.” 

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