The first doses of COVID-19 vaccines are tentatively scheduled to arrive in Charlottesville around Dec. 15.

Those initial doses will go to the University of Virginia Medical Center and will be available exclusively to staff who work directly with COVID-19 patients. 

From there, Charlottesville — like other communities across the country — will have a tiered approach to distributing the vaccine, with more vulnerable populations given access first, followed (probably several months later) by everyone else. 

The Thomas Jefferson Health District and the Medical Center are in the midst of creating their distribution plans. Their hope is to be ready to move as soon as the Food and Drug Administration approves the first vaccine. 

That approval is expected as early as next week.

“So right now, we’re in a holding pattern,” said Jessica Coughlin, the COVID-19 mass vaccination manager at the TJHD. “At the local level, we are getting all of our materials ready, we are getting staffing ready, we are in information sharing meetings throughout the state just planning what this will look like through various different scenarios that could play out.”

Though many details are still lacking, the Health District plans to generally follow state and federal guidelines that divide distribution into three distinct phases.

Phase I — Hospitals and long-term care facilities

Two COVID-19 vaccines are now poised to receive FDA approval: the first is from Pfizer, and the second from Moderna. At their heels are at least three more vaccines nearing the end of their clinical trials that may receive approval in the coming weeks.

Pfizer’s vaccine is set to be the first to enter distribution.

Virginia expects to receive around 70,000 doses from Pfizer immediately after the FDA gives the green light, Gov. Ralph Northam said Wednesday at a COVID-19 briefing. Those doses are earmarked for hospital staff and patients at long term care facilities.

The Medical Center expects to receive between 2,000 and 3,000 doses in the first wave.

“At UVA we’re going to take a phased approach,” Wendy Horton, CEO of the Medical Center, said Wednesday at a virtual forum to discuss plans to immunize the hospital’s workforce. 

“We will be giving the highest priority at the onset to healthcare workers who are directly interfacing with COVID patients and the support teams who are also directly interfacing with the COVID patient population.”

That includes doctors, nurses and other staff working in the COVID wards and the emergency department. The hospital has identified 12,000 people who fit these criteria, so only about a quarter could be vaccinated using the initial Pfizer shipment.

The timeline following that first shipment is unclear. UVA plans to continue ordering more vaccines — either from Pfizer or from one of the other companies with vaccines in the works as they become available.

Once staff who work directly with COVID patients receive a vaccination, it will become available to the other essential workers who enter UVA Health System buildings. Around the same time, it will go to Health System workers who are considered medically vulnerable. That’s roughly 5,000 people. 

After that round is complete, it can become available to the rest of the hospital system.

Meanwhile, local long-term care facilities will receive vaccines from pharmacies, like CVS and Walgreens, that are approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to distribute the vaccines, said Kathryn Goodman, a spokeswoman for the TJHD. 

It’s unclear how many local pharmacies will become vaccine distributors or how quickly those vaccines will be delivered to care facilities.

Phase II — Essential workers, medically high risk and over 65

Once all the healthcare workers and patients and long-term care facilities are given the vaccine, the state will open it up more broadly to “critical infrastructure staff,” adults with high-risk medical conditions and anyone over the age of 65.

“Critical infrastructure staff” are the essential workers who can’t do their jobs from home, people like teachers, utility workers, police officers, firefighters, corrections officers or bus drivers.

The timeframe for this phase is unclear.

Phase III — The general public

Next comes everyone else.

It’s impossible to know when exactly there will be enough vaccine to widely offer it to the general public — but it will likely be months from now. The TJHD is tentatively planning for a mass vaccination effort to go underway sometime in spring 2021, TJHD’s Coughlin said.

When it begins, the Health District plans to do vaccinations exclusively at drive-thru clinics, Coughlin said. Drive-thru clinics are the only method the health district has found that allow for sufficient physical distancing.

“It [will be] pull in, wait in line, fill out your paperwork, get your vaccine,” Coughlin said.

These drive-up clinics will be held in various locations (mostly large parking lots) around the region. 

At the same time, an unknown number of area pharmacies and medical offices will also be offering vaccinations.

Because several different vaccines are expected to receive FDA approval in the coming weeks and months, it’s impossible to know which will be broadly available in the TJHD once phase III arrives.

“We just don’t know what we’re going to have available,” Coughlin said. “We don’t know which ones we’re going to get.”

The TJHD will develop a more detailed distribution plan in the coming weeks as more information on the various vaccines now in clinical trials become available, Coughlin added.

Regardless of which vaccines are ordered, the Health District expects they will be distributed for free.

Have a question about the COVID-19 vaccines? Email reporter Jessie Higgins at jhiggins@cvilletomorrow.org.