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With state COVID-19 vaccination rates dropping precipitously in recent weeks, Gov. Jim Justice called on the 650,000 eligible West Virginians who have not been vaccinated to step up and do their part.

“I don’t get it. Why are we not finishing this thing up?” Justice said during Friday’s state COVID-19 briefing. “Why are we not finishing the race when the race is ours to win?”

West Virginia dropped to 42nd Thursday on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccination tracker. It initially was among the top states in vaccine administration.

The state’s COVID-19 dashboard showed that West Virginia had administered 13,667 vaccine doses since Sunday, less than half the 28,432 administered during the same period last week and about a third of the 39,974 administered during that period two weeks ago.

Asked about a New York Times story showing red states, such as West Virginia and Alaska, falling behind blue states in vaccine rollouts with distrust of government and vaccine hesitancy sapping demand, Justice said, “Red state, blue state, it doesn’t matter. We need to lead the way.”

Part of the decline is simple math, he said, as 680,000 of the approximately 1.35 million eligible West Virginians 16 and older already have had at least one dose.

“The low-hanging fruit, the people really, really wanting to get the vaccine, they’re already out of the way,” Justice said.

James Hoyer, head of the state Interagency Task Force on Vaccination, said a drop-off in vaccination rates was to be expected after the state started off “fast and furious” to vaccinate those most gung-ho to get their shots.

“Right now, supply is above demand,” Hoyer said. “So our efforts are to educate people, and make it easy to get.”

State officials are encouraging businesses, churches, parent-teacher groups, garden clubs and other organizations to host vaccination events, he said.

Justice downplayed the possible role of politics in the vaccination rate plunge. He said misinformation is being spread about the shots. Some state employees are declining to be vaccinated because of a rumor that PEIA, the state insurer, will not pay life insurance claims for people who die after being vaccinated, since the federal Food and Drug Administration has given only emergency-use approvals to the vaccines.

“This is completely and totally false,” the governor said of the rumor.

Justice said he was dumbfounded to learn that none of the players on the Greenbrier East High School girls basketball team he coaches accepted an offer to be vaccinated. One player tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this week. He said that could result in an abrupt ending to the team’s season for a second year in a row.

State health officials said vaccinations are critical, as new variants of the virus reach West Virginia. That includes the first known case of the highly infectious Brazilian variant, reported in Berkeley County.

Dr. Clay Marsh, vice president of health sciences at West Virginia University and the state’s COVID-19 czar, cited CDC figures showing that of the 77 million Americans who have been vaccinated, only 5,800 have contracted the virus.

He said COVID-19’s overall fatality rate of 1.8% drops to less than one-10,000th of 1% in people who have been vaccinated.

“We know these vaccines are incredibly effective and incredibly safe,” Marsh said.

Justice was exasperated at the lower vaccination numbers.

“We’re begging West Virginians to not die. We shouldn’t sit here and be begging and pleading with people to go get their vaccinations,” he said. “What are we waiting on, the ambulance showing up at the house? I’d hate to think that the only thing that is going to snap us into reality is the body bags. We’re not concerned nearly to the level we should be.”

Reach Phil Kabler at

philk@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1220

or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.

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