Hope, excitement and relief as more Valley residents get vaccinated

By Katelyn Waltemyer, contributor

Now that this part of the Valley has officially shifted to vaccinating people in Phase 2, area adults — including college students — are lining up to get their shots.  

The Central Shenandoah Health District spent three months working to vaccinate those in Phase 1b, which included first responders, grocery store workers, food processing and agriculture workers — including those who work in area poultry plants — and adults with underlying health issues and all those over 65. It only took 10 days to get through those in Phase 1c, which includes other essential workers, in the area because it was a smaller group and vaccine doses were more available. 

Now, the Valley is in Phase 2 thanks to a continued increase in vaccine supplies, said Central Shenandoah Health District’s Population Health Community Coordinator Laura Lee Wight. 

“January-February was frustrating,” Wight said. “We didn’t have vaccine supplies that we needed to really get the ball rolling.” 

With the Johnson & Johnson vaccine pause, its 14,800 vaccines that were supposed to make their way to Virginia next week have been replaced with 15,000 doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. In Harrisonburg, nearly 20% of people have been fully vaccinated. Statewide, about 2 million people as of Thursday have been fully vaccinated in Virginia out of the state’s more than 8.5 million population. 

Within the Central Shenandoah Health District, Wight said, partnerships with local organizations to get people vaccinated have been crucial and will continue to be as vaccines become more readily available. Schools and doctor’s offices have been key players when it comes to creating and hosting vaccination clinics. 

A mix of relief and excitement

Caitlin Fernandez, a sophomore graphic design major at JMU, said she had the biggest smile on her face when she got an email saying she was eligible for the vaccine last week. As a student employee, Fernandez fell under 1c.  

“This is kind of crazy,” Fernandez said. “We’re a part of history.” 

When Caitlin Fernandez got to JMU’s Convocation Center to get her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, she said it looked like a Black Friday sale because of the long line outside. But unlike being stuck in endless lines of shoppers, she only waited for a few minutes. Once in the building, Fernandez was ushered along and checked in. She was greeted along the way by a white table filled with snacks and water bottles. 

She sat in the bleachers for about 15 minutes after getting the vaccine in case of a reaction. Several people monitored them in case someone became ill. However, Fernandez didn’t have a reaction — other than a sore arm and fatigue later that day — and left once her time was up. 

“I’m just looking forward to in-person classes,” Fernandez said. “It makes a huge difference being in a room with people and, like, having more interactions instead of through a screen.” 

Her friend Sophie Castro, who’s a freshman psychology major, said she has felt the effects of COVID-19 in many ways. Since coming to JMU, Castro tested positive and spent time in an isolation dorm. And with online classes and events, Castro said she hasn’t felt the “college experience” yet.  

Castro was vaccinated under Phase 2 on Monday and said she’s looking forward to things going back to “normal,” but she’s interested to see how it will play out since her first year of college was stripped away because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“You’re going to be a freshman when everything comes back to normal but not really normal, you know?” Castro said. 

JMU’s next vaccination clinic was supposed to be held Friday, but it was postponed because of the Johnson & Johnson pause. Tim Miller, JMU’s vice president for student affairs, said in a recent email to students that JMU will notify the community when future vaccination events arise. 

On top of JMU’s clinics, Wight said her office works with doctors’ offices and family practices in the Shenandoah Valley to administer the COVID-19 vaccine. 

“We’re definitely working with our local healthcare providers … to get them onboarded and able to provide the vaccine to their patients … as part of their immunization program,” Wight said. 

Hope for children getting vaccinated 

When local K-12 schools shut down because of COVID-19, Harrisonburg resident Adrienne Eaton said her life was put on pause after her 6-year-old daughter was sent home from school and began her online education journey last spring. 

This past year has been difficult, Eaton said. Despite the news of vaccine rollouts and even after getting the vaccine herself, she said it has been challenging to focus on the positives at times. 

“It’s hard to be hopeful,” Eaton said. “We’ve gone through so much.” 

Pfizer recently released results of a study it conducted on the vaccination of children ages 12-15-years-old. The vaccine was administered to 2,260 children and there was a “100% efficacy” response, as none of the vaccinated subjects tested positive for COVID-19. 

That has given Eaton hope. She said she is excited about the possibility of eventually vaccinating her child.

“I hope that all the trials go well and that we can get her vaccinated and her friends vaccinated as soon as possible so they can get back to normal life,” Eaton said. 

Wight said the Pfizer study’s findings are encouraging, but she emphasized the FDA must first approve the vaccine to be used on children under 16. She said she hopes that will happen by the fall. 

“Going to your doctor, your pediatrician, your local pharmacy, that’s where those vaccine opportunities are going to be really key,” Wight said. 

While the Central Shenandoah Health District is in Phase 2, Wight said individuals in groups 1a, 1b and 1c are prioritized for vaccines. Anyone in Virginia can register for the COVID-19 vaccine online. 

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