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Virginia Governor Ralph Northam Discusses His State's Plan For A COVID-19 Vaccine

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

There's been a lot of really good news recently about coronavirus vaccines. And while they are on the way, it's worth remembering it will likely be months before members of the general public can get inoculated. There are nearly 330 million people in the U.S., and the government promises just shy of 6.5 million doses of a new vaccine will be distributed to states and available by mid-December. Federal health officials say the nation's governors will decide who receives them first.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has the unique distinction of being both a governor and a physician. So we thought we'd ask him how he's thinking about this task. He joins us now.

Governor Northam, welcome.

RALPH NORTHAM: Well, hello, Sarah, and thanks for having me. And yes, we are really excited about the vaccinations. And, you know, while we have been fighting this pandemic, believe it or not, for close to 10 months, this is a real breakthrough. And I just would remind folks that while we're, you know, logistically working on making sure that there's a safe and effective vaccination, we still have a few months where we have to remain vigilant and continue to keep that curve as flat as we can.

MCCAMMON: Right. So as this first batch of vaccine doses becomes available soon, it looks like, as a physician and as a governor who will be responsible for deciding how to distribute those in your state, the commonwealth of Virginia, how are you thinking about that?

NORTHAM: We've been working on how to distribute this vaccination safely and equitably for a few months now. And we have different phases that we'll use, following the CDC guidelines of, you know, who are the first ones that will receive the vaccination.

But, you know, it's - Sarah, there's a lot of issues that we're working on. First of all, logistically, this vaccination, especially one of them, has to be kept at a very cold temperature. So we've got freezers set up throughout Virginia. And one thing that, you know, hopefully we can talk about a little bit is the trust issue. It's going to be very important in messaging that people are comfortable not only in Virginia, but across this country, that this vaccination is safe and it's effective.

MCCAMMON: We have seen, as you know, resistance around the country to social distancing rules and mask mandates. How worried are you that we'll see more of that when it comes to the vaccine in numbers large enough to diminish its effectiveness?

NORTHAM: You know, it's unfortunate that individuals are not following the guidelines. It's unfortunate it's become political. Certainly, there are going to be some, Sarah, that won't want to receive the vaccination. But I think the majority of people will because I think people are tired. They want to get this in the rearview mirror and get back to a near-normal life. And so I will be glad as governor and as a doctor to let Virginians know when this vaccination is safe. And my family and I plan on being there to take this vaccination as well.

MCCAMMON: As we mentioned, only a little more than 6 million doses will be available nationwide, initially, those being divided up among the states. What do you think will be Virginia's share?

NORTHAM: Well, initially, they're looking at 70,000 doses. We have - you know, if you do the math, we have 8 million Virginians. So - and that's why we will be going to those that are most susceptible - our health care workers and also those individuals that work and live in our long-term care facilities. And then we'll go into phase two, which will be a lot of frontline workers - for example, teachers, food preparers, those types of things. And then the phase three will be the general population and hopefully by, you know, early to midsummer have everybody in Virginia vaccinated.

You know, one other thing I would say - as you probably know, I'm a pediatrician. And we know that the initial studies - they haven't been done on children. And so we're encouraging that we, you know, start those trials with children because they're going to need to be vaccinated as well as we move forward.

MCCAMMON: Another thing I want to ask you about when it comes to distribution - New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said recently that he and other governors had participated in a call with President-elect Biden, focused in part on vaccine distribution. And one of the concerns raised was making sure that it's distributed in a way that is inclusive of minority communities. How are you thinking about how to do that?

NORTHAM: Well, it's absolutely important that we do that. And as the first diversity, equity and inclusion officer, Dr. Janice Underwood - and she has really done an amazing job reaching out to different communities in Virginia with testing, with PPE.

And I'll just give you a quick example of something that we saw and really learned a lot from. We had a testing site set up in Hampton Roads. I believe it's in Chesapeake. And we advertised for it, and only five people showed up for the testing. And I said, well, what is going on here? And so we talked to some of the faith leaders, and they said, well, I'll tell you exactly what's going on. It's a trust issue. And so the faith leaders in Hampton Roads put together a video. They showed it in their churches. And we rescheduled that testing, and hundreds showed up.

And so the point is that in order to, you know, have people either tested or vaccinated, they have to trust what we're doing. And so we're going to pay a lot of attention to that as we move forward because it is an equity issue, and we want to make sure everybody has access to the vaccination.

MCCAMMON: You and your wife, of course, had the coronavirus several months ago. Can I ask how you're doing?

NORTHAM: Well, I appreciate that. We're doing well. My wife and I had - I would classify them as mild cases, which we were fortunate. I lost my sense of smell. It was about six to eight weeks ago, and it hasn't returned. So I'm anxiously awaiting that. But I do worry, Sarah. There are a lot of people that are very, very vulnerable. And obviously, we've lost over 4,000 Virginians.

MCCAMMON: You mentioned that you do plan to take the vaccine when it's available. Of course, there's been a lot of talk about antibodies in people who've already had the virus. Do you have a good handle on how long you have those antibodies? And why have you decided that you believe you should take the vaccine nonetheless?

NORTHAM: Yes, I think we're learning more about the antibodies every day. But as you know, there have been some individuals that have been reinfected. So I think the CDC guidelines as we move forward will be for those that have had the virus - that they still would require the vaccination to be entirely safe. But certainly, we will allow those that are in more vulnerable populations that - they need to be at the front of the line for sure.

MCCAMMON: That's Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and also Dr. Northam.

Thank you so much.

NORTHAM: Thank you, Sarah. You take care and stay healthy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.