New vaccine appointment system will allow for more flexibility and choice, Fairfax County officials say

Fairfax County residents will soon book COVID-19 vaccine appointments through Vaccine Finder instead of the county health department, a change that officials say will “allow greater flexibility and choice of where residents receive their vaccine.”

The health department announced last night (April 14) that it will no longer manage or accept appointments through their registration system after Fairfax County moves to Phase 2 on Sunday (April 18).

The county says the new system will lead to greater access, choice, and awareness of vaccine availability as it moves to vaccinating all residents over the age of 16.

“The Open Scheduling process allows easier access to vaccine sites closer to home,” Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Jeff McKay told Reston Now in an email.

Developed by Boston Children’s Hospital, Vaccine Finder shows available doses from approved vaccine providers across the county, including the health department clinics, pharmacies, hospitals, and some private practices, according to the Fairfax County Health Department’s blog.

Information about the switch will be disseminated in a variety of ways, says county officials, including their blog posts, social media, English and Spanish text alerts, countywide mailers, flyers, news media, and working with the county’s outreach team.

While the Vaccine Finder is not available in other languages, McKay says the county will film videos in “at least 7 different languages” explaining how to use the system. They are also encouraging folks to change their web browser settings to their desired language.

Residents will also be able to contact the county and Virginia Department of Health call centers to get assistance when registering for a vaccination.

Earlier this week, the county implemented a new call center system (703-324-7404) that will assist residents in registering in the new appointment system. However, the county warns that wait times for callers could be long.

Fairfax County residents can also now call the state call center (1-877-829-4682) for help in multiple languages. McKay says this gives residents “an additional resource,” since the state previously routed calls about Fairfax County back to the county’s call center, which is still available to provide help in multiple languages.

The county health department says that it will still schedule appointments for everyone who is registered in their system and on the waitlist (i.e. individuals who were eligible for the vaccine in Phase 1) prior to the system closing at 11:59 p.m. on April 17.

They should expect to be contacted within approximately a week about scheduling their appointments.

As of 3:30 p.m. today, there are 24,059 people on the waitlist.

Additionally, the county health department will continue to offer “Vaccine Equity Clinics” in neighborhoods with limited access to health care resources.

These are being arranged separately from the appointment systems.

Registration for the equity clinics are being coordinated by faith leaders, community workers, school staff, and health care providers in under-resourced communities. Because those vaccine appointments are being reserved for targeted communities, the clinics will not be visible in Vaccine Finder, a health department spokesperson told Reston Now.

The Fairfax County Health Department had operated its own vaccine registration system since January. The county’s decision to opt out of Virginia’s statewide registration system in February caused some confusion at the time.

McKay warns that, when the county moves into Phase 2, demand will grow while vaccine supply will continue to fluctuate, leaving potentially longer waits to get an appointment particularly in the earlier weeks.

“We are excited to take the next step to Phase 2. While our scheduling in Phase 1 went well, I am confident that the new scheduling process in Phase 2 will help since everyone will become eligible,” McKay said last night. “However, I want to set expectations. The high demand for vaccination in Fairfax County combined with the available vaccine supply will continue to be a challenge, especially in the initial weeks of Phase 2. With patience and care, we will get everyone vaccinated.”

While the county is meeting Gov. Ralph Northam’s goal of making everyone eligible by April 18, officials have not committed to the May 31 goal of being able to offer vaccines to everyone who wants one.

County officials said in March that they could not know if there would be sufficient supply of the vaccine.

At the moment, Fairfax County — along with every other Virginia jurisdiction — will not use the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to supplement their supply “until further notice,” following the advice of the state and federal government.

While officials say that this was only going to have a “minimal” impact on their vaccination efforts at the moment, the J&J vaccine was seen as a crucial part of the county’s efforts going forward. This pause and a production mess-up at a Baltimore manufacturing plant have complicated that plan.

Many states, including Virginia, were expected to have their orders for the J&J vaccine significantly cut anyway, to be about one-tenth of the number of doses that had been provided last week.

“We don’t know the future to determine when supply will match demand,” McKay said. “The pause in the J&J vaccine for example could not have been predicted. It is anticipated that vaccine supplies will begin to increase throughout the spring and summer.”

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