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Virus Outbreak Greece Schools

State officials say they’re still “prioritizing” vaccinating West Virginia school employees. But, at least when it comes to younger school workers, the state appears to be prioritizing others even more.

More than a week after the classroom reopening date he called for, Gov. Jim Justice still hasn’t provided even a rough estimation of when most school workers under 50 will start being vaccinated.

And he suggested Friday that, if vaccine shipments to the state don’t increase, it could be a while for those employees.

“As soon as I can possibly see my way forward, that we can glean off some of the vaccines that we’re getting,” Justice said, “if we’re able to get more increases in our order size, we’ll go back and get ’em.”

The situation is also uneven from county to county: Kanawha County said it has vaccinated many employees under age 50, while Harrison County Schools Superintendent Dora Stutler said her county has gone down to 40-years-old, plus 15 younger people with serious medical conditions.

Ryan Deems, president of Harrison’s branch of the National Education Association union, said neither he nor his wife, both teachers and both 31, have gotten their first shot.

“Educators were under the impression that we were going to be given the vaccine in a timely manner,” he said.

Angela Cunningham, a Hancock County teacher, said she worries her county will buckle under community and state pressure to increase in-person instruction from two days per week to four or five days without younger employees, like herself, being vaccinated yet.

“I think a lot of people are in the dark,” she said.

The state started inoculating elderly people in the general population, while many younger teachers and other school employees are still waiting.

West Virginia is currently vaccinating people in the general population age 65 and older. Elderly people are more at risk of death.

So, a lot of other people are currently being prioritized.

Justice said school employees are still being prioritized. But he said the 50-and-older school employees, who began being vaccinated Jan. 7 and are getting their second shots, were “super-prioritized.”

Retired Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, director of the state’s Joint Interagency Task Force for Vaccines, said he expects the next vaccine shipment to total 23,600 doses.

“That doesn’t give us a significant amount to work with,” Hoyer said. “We have 350,000 West Virginians by Census data over the age of 65, so we’re working to prioritize those populations, to spread some vaccines out to continue to address ... key groups such as minority groups.”

While officials said the initial mass vaccination of nursing home and long-term facility residents should be complete as of Jan. 29, with those residents getting their second doses, Hoyer said perhaps as many as 400-500 more weekly doses will go to these facilities for those who continue to enter them.

“Everything is focused on what [state COVID-19 czar Dr. Clay Marsh] talked about earlier: We know that 77.5% of our deaths come from people over the age of 70,” Hoyer said. “We know that 14.5% come from the ages of 60-70, and we know that in congregate settings those age groups are our most hospitalized and die the most, so we’re doing the best we can to spread out those 23,600 [doses] plus whatever else they send us going forward.”

Near the start of Friday’s COVID-19 briefing, Justice responded to younger teachers’ vaccination concerns, suggesting misinformation was being spread by “union bosses, or coming from people that have other motivations or ulterior motives as to going to school or going to your job, or whatever.”

“What happens when you have blood spilled on your hands?” Justice said of the possible impact of spreading rumors that the vaccines won’t come.

But, in addition to no one providing an estimation of when they will be vaccinated, a poorly explained change of the distribution method fueled teachers’ concerns.

A letter that Putnam County Schools didn’t confirm or deny distributing said “school systems will not be receiving anymore first round vaccines.” Stutler, the Harrison superintendent, confirmed Friday that, yes, the county school systems would no longer be distributing them.

And unvaccinated school workers were newly directed to pre-register for a vaccination at vaccinate.wv.gov — the website the general public, including those not prioritized, also uses.

WCHS-TV reporter Kennie Bass pointed out to Justice Friday an error where, at the top of the website, in all caps, it told people not to use it if they were already on a waitlist. You’re supposed to register there regardless of whether you’re already on a waitlist.

Deems, the Harrison union leader, said of Justice that, “this is a bait and switch and political gamesmanship on his part.”

“I think that the overarching sentiment of a lot of educators is that we want what’s best for our kids, which is what Gov. Justice wants for our kids,” Deems said. “But we also want to feel safe as we’re providing this education for our kids and for our community and some of the remarks that the governor has made during his press conferences about teachers not wanting to work is really hurtful.”

Stutler said around 800 Harrison school employees were vaccinated at three clinics, but there are 430 more workers who said they wanted it and haven’t gotten it. These are under 40 or are substitutes, she said.

“It’s really been not — not the best rollout and we’re not getting enough,” Stutler said.

“The numbers [of doses] just didn’t come — like I said, this week was sad,” she said.