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Portsmouth Fire in training to assist health department with vaccinations

The state health department shows less than 900 vaccine doses administered in Portsmouth, but officials are ready to pick up the pace with the help of firefighters.

PORTSMOUTH, Va. — The pace of vaccine distributions in Portsmouth trails other Hampton Roads districts, but health officials hope to quicken the process with the help of the local fire department.

As of Friday in Portsmouth, 862 vaccine doses had been administered, and 17 people were fully vaccinated, according to the Virginia Public Health Department. The numbers are of the lowest in the Hampton Roads region. 

For reference, Chesapeake administered 4,577 doses with 85 people fully vaccinated. Norfolk tallies 3,535 and 109, respectively.

“We have to pace ourselves,” said Dr. Lauren James, director of the Portsmouth Health Department. “We first wanted to make sure that we did the process appropriately.”

Dr. James said the health department only began to administer vaccines last week. The department wanted to ensure the safety of its distribution plan and properly train team members, she said.

“Our first week, we offered a limited amount of vaccinations, but only 30 to 40 percent of people agreed to take it,” said Dr. James. “We can offer, but it is up to those people to decide what is best for them.”

Another issue, according to James, concerned a limited number of nurses in the district. However, the Portsmouth Fire Department agreed to help provide a boost.

“We’ve had 20 of our paramedics trained to be vaccinators,” Portsmouth Fire Chief Nestor Mangubat told city council members Tuesday. “And we look forward to working with the health department to really get into the public vaccination process.”

Mangubat said the fire department completed vaccinations for its members in Phase 1A, including some firefighters and paramedics. Police, fire, hazmat, and other essential sectors that pose a higher risk of exposure to COVID-19 and cannot work remotely are of the earlier prioritized groups in Virginia’s vaccination distribution plan.

Mangubat said the roll-out for people in Phase 1B should begin around January 25. The group also includes persons aged over 65 years and older, people living in correctional facilities, homeless shelters and migrant labor camps, as well as people aged 16 through 64 years old with high-risk medical conditions or disabilities that increase the risk of severe illness from COVID-19, according to the Virginia Department of Public Health website.

“They are already medically trained, but with any government agency, they have to undergo additional training,” said Dr. James. “It’s not an easy undertaking for them.”

Paramedics partnered with the health department to learn how to administer doses and to document people who have been vaccinated using new computer systems.

“This type of partnership, that’s what moves it forward, moves our pace of vaccinations forward,” said Dr. James.  “Training takes time, and now that we have more vaccinators, we can do additional days, additional numbers.”

Dr. James said roughly 10,000 people in Portsmouth fall under Phase 1B, and the health department will depend on partnerships with other agencies to administer the vaccine and communicate with the community. For instance, Dr. James said nursing homes will be vaccinated soon through pharmacy partnerships. 

Since last March, the Portsmouth Fire Department has also partnered with local schools on supplies, like disinfectant wipes, which helped to keep fire stations and other city buildings clean.

Mangubat said emergency management assisted with the distribution of 20,000 masks and hand sanitizer bottles for the vulnerable populations, with the health and equity group in Governor Ralph Northam’s office. The department's emergency management helped with COVID-19 testing with the National Guard.