Just in time for this year’s unprecedented high school football season, which starts Monday, Feb. 22, Gov. Ralph Northam announced Wednesday that outdoor sporting events can have up to 250 spectators as long as everyone maintains social distancing.
Northam also announced that summer sleep-over camps can operate in Virginia. He said state officials are working on a plan for outdoor events, many of which were canceled amid crowd restrictions last summer.
“We’re moving on that as well. And we’ll be working with stakeholders to move forward safely over time,” Northam said during a press conference in Richmond. “But I need to be clear. The basic safety needs will stay in place for the foreseeable future,” he added, noting that mask-wearing and social distancing protocols will remain in place for now.
Northam held his press conference mostly to announce Virginia’s new statewide pre-registration system for the COVID-19 vaccine, which launched Tuesday. The state also now has a hotline in place with 750 dedicated call-takers to sign Virginians up for the pre-registration list via phone in case they don’t have internet access, feel more comfortable speaking with someone over the phone or don’t speak English.
The call center has both English and Spanish speakers available as well as a call-back service in more than 100 different languages, according to a press release from the governor’s office.
Virginians can pre-register for the COVID-19 vaccine online at vaccinate.virginia.gov or by calling 877-VAX-IN-VA or (877) 829-4682.
More than 240,000 people registered for the vaccine on Tuesday, and about 1.6 million existing records were transferred from local waiting lists. That means there are about 1.8 million Virginians currently on a waiting list for the vaccine.
Virginia’s rate of vaccination is improving, Northam noted; the state has so far administered more than 1.4 million vaccine doses and that 12.4% of Virginians have received at least their first shot.
“That puts us twelfth in the nation. We’re the 12th largest state, so that’s exactly where we should be,” Northam said.
“The commonwealth has also so far used 87% of the vaccine doses it has received, which puts us seventh in the nation,” Northam said.
The state is administering about 34,000 shots a day but has the infrastructure to ramp up to its goal of 50,000 shots a day once supply increases. “We have the infrastructure to do that when we can get the supply… Supply is the key to getting this vaccine into everybody’s arms,” Northam said.
Virginia is receiving about 120,000 vaccine doses a week from the federal government. Additionally, about 26,000 doses are being administered each week at CVS pharmacies throughout the state.
It is expected to take several months to reach all individuals who want to be vaccinated. The state is prioritizing individuals who are most at risk of contracting COVID-19 and those who work in certain critical industries, based on public health guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Northam’s press release said.
Virginians who qualify for priority groups 1a and 1b are currently eligible for vaccinations. This includes health care personnel, residents and staff of long-term care facilities, people aged 65 and older, frontline essential workers, those living and working in homeless shelters and correctional facilities, and individuals with underlying medical conditions or disabilities that increase their risk of severe illness from COVID-19.
On lifting more COVID-19 restrictions, Northam said Virginia's COVID-19 metrics of community spread "aren't there yet."
The state's percent-positivity rate remains at about 10% -- double the target 5% rate -- and its rate of infection per 100,000 residents is above 30. Anything above 20 is considered "very high."
Northam also said the state is watching the COVID-19 variants, particularly the variant that first appeared in the U.K., and said the state does not want to see the same spike in cases Virginia saw in December and January.
Northam noted the spike "looked like the Empire State Building" on the Virginia Department of Health graphs.
"We don't want to go back there, so we're going to be watching the data and moving forward as carefully as possible," Northam said.