BOYCE — Hundreds of people waited hours in the cold Monday at the Boyce Volunteer Fire Company's social hall for the first local coronavirus vaccinations for senior citizens.
Jesse and Mary Joan Longerbeam, 78 and 76, respectively, said they arrived at 10:15 a.m. and waited in line until 11:45 a.m., when they were assigned numbers to be vaccinated. Mary Longerbeam said they then waited in their car and walked back to the fire hall parking lot a couple of times to check on the progress of the line. They ended up getting the first injections of the two-shot Moderna mRNA-1273 vaccine around 3 p.m.
The Longerbeams, of Berryville, said the vaccination process was poorly organized, but they said Lord Fairfax Health District officials tried to move the line along as fast as possible to get people inside.
"There were just so many of us," Mary Longerbeam said. "We're just thankful that it's here. It was definitely worth it."
A total of 910 people got the free shots, according to Dr. Colin M. Greene, district health director. The shots were for people 75 or older, although younger domestic partners of those age 75 and up were allowed to get shots. There is a minimum 28-day period between the first and second shot to ensure there are no adverse effects in the patient from the first dose. The second round of shots will likely occur the week of Feb. 7-13.
Mary and Warren Watts, ages 65 and 80, respectively, of Martinsburg, West Virginia, were among those getting their first dose of the vaccine. Warren Watts said his physician notified him about the free shots. The Wattses arrived in line at 7:35 a.m. and waited about four hours to get injected.
They said they were grateful for the shots and said health officials distributed hand warmers to the crowd. The couple said there was a lot of camaraderie in line, but they worried about some of the more frail people in line.
"If they had a heated place to wait and get a number, it would be better," Walter Watts said. "But the bottom line is we appreciate them being here for what they did."
The event was scheduled from 8 a.m. to noon and at least 200 people were in line at 8 a.m. For hours, traffic was slowed on Greenway Avenue (U.S. 340), and parking around the fire hall was hard to find. The event ended about 4:30 p.m.
Boyce Mayor Richard Kibler said a lack of parking led to illegal parking in some residents' yards and that there was "mass confusion" in front of the fire hall. Kibler said he was angry that health officials didn't inform him about the event, which was announced in a news release on Friday by the Virginia Department of Health, which oversees the district.
Greene said he didn't notify Kibler, but Boyce fire officials, Clarke County Administrator Chris Boies and Clarke County Emergency Services Director Brian Lichty were contacted.
Numerous senior citizens contacted The Star's newsroom on Wednesday morning to report that long lines at the fire hall, coupled with a lack a parking, deterred them from getting their first dose of the vaccine on Wednesday. Those who called were from Winchester, Stephens City and Lake Frederick. They said they were disappointed and that they hope officials improve the process for seniors, who are particularly vulnerable to the virus. Many who called said they have been self-isolating for months as a precaution against COVID-19 and are looking forward to their lives returning to normal once they are fully vaccinated.
With six deaths through Sunday, sparsely populated Clarke County has the least amount of COVID-19 fatalities in the Lord Fairfax Health District, which includes Winchester as well as the counties of Frederick, Shenandoah, Page and Warren.
Despite the relatively low amount of deaths, Greene said Clarke County was chosen as a vaccine distribution site to help get shots to traditionally under-served people. He noted there are two majority African-American churches within walking distance of the fire hall. About one in every 1,000 Black Americans has died from the coronavirus compared to about one in every 2,150 white Americans, according to the American Public Media Research Lab, a nonprofit public health think tank.
Delays on Monday mirrored problems around the nation. Despite being called Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration's distribution of the vaccine has moved at a snail's pace, with logistical problems and medical staffing shortages contributing to delays. Greene said the nationwide delays have been frustrating, and with 375,000 Americans dead from the virus — including 204 in the local health district through Sunday — he said it's imperative that vaccinations speed up.
"We need to get these vaccines into people's arms," he said. "We need to stop worrying about and arguing about exactly how it's done and just make it happen. As safely as possible, obviously."
Greene conceded staff underestimated the turnout on Wednesday in Boyce and that plans to hold another vaccination clinic at the fire hall on Friday are being reconsidered. Greene said it may be moved. Conventional or drive-thru vaccinations at the Clarke County Fairgrounds in Berryville, which Kibler suggested, is being considered, said Greene, who noted that at least 5,000 people in the district have been vaccinated.
Like Kibler, town Treasurer Linda Bishop was angry about traffic backups and said only Clarke County residents should have been vaccinated. But Greene noted the virus doesn't stop at county borders and checking IDs would've further delayed the process. "The more people vaccinated, the fewer people who spread it," he said.
Greene said staff wanted to make vaccinations on a first-come, first-served basis rather than by online appointments because a lot of senior citizens aren't comfortable with using the internet. The vaccine has to be stored at 4 degrees below zero (-20 Celsius) and must be used within six hours of being unsealed, so Greene said giving out shots at doctors' offices is impractical and would likely lead to wasted doses.
He said shots are likely to eventually be given at doctor's offices and pharmacies. "That'll be necessary in order to meet the kind of numbers we need to meet to vaccinate the [entire] population," he said.
Starting Wednesday, Valley Health plans to host COVID-19 vaccination clinics at several sites, but the community still has no way to sign up for appointments.
The health care system announced late Friday that it would begin offering all-day vaccination points of dispensing (PODs) at Warren Memorial Hospital, Shenandoah Memorial Hospital, Page Memorial Hospital and Shenandoah University’s James R. Wilkins Jr. Athletics & Events Center in Winchester.
Registration is required to attend Valley Health’s vaccination PODs.
A Valley Health news release on Friday states that a statewide vaccination registration system was being developed and was expected to be available starting Monday at valleyhealthlink.com.
The site, which could be available starting today, is being constructed by PrepMod online software system through the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association, Carol Weare, a Valley Health spokesperson, confirmed.
In a Monday evening email, she said the Valley Health team had "just gotten access to Prep Mod" and was entering POD information into the site in hopes of beginning registering individuals today.
Valley Health is asking the community to be patient during this process.
"[A]ppointment times will vary by site and vaccine availability," the email states. "Evening appointments will be available. ... Individuals will need to verify eligibility during the registration process."
These vaccinations will target people age 75 and older, law enforcement/corrections personnel, K-12 educators and staff, and child care and homeless shelter workers.
Shenandoah University plans to hold a press conference this afternoon about the vaccination effort.
Reporter Mickey Powell contributed to this story.