Now months into the effort to vaccinate West Virginians against COVID-19, state leaders said Friday the state has “hit a wall” in the process, and the time has come for more creative thinking to overcome the challenge.
Roughly 40% of eligible West Virginians have yet to receive a vaccine, totaling 588,000 people, according to state data. Gov. Jim Justice said this was the inspiration for the state’s newest vaccine initiative: “Beat 588 Bad.”
Justice said he gave “his people” 24 hours from Friday’s COVID-19 briefing to propose a “wish list” of “creative” ideas to help expand vaccinations across the state.
According to an Axios-Ipsos poll based on surveys taken between January and April, 23% of people in West Virginia and the surrounding U.S. Census division are estimated to be hesitant about taking the vaccine.
No similar study or survey has been released by the state government.
As of Friday afternoon, there were 150,693 confirmed COVID-19 cases in West Virginia, 7,330 of which are active, and 2,813 COVID-19 related deaths. The state has administered 81% of the vaccine doses it has received from the federal government, totaling more than 1.2 million doses.
Average weekly vaccine distribution rates are lower this week in West Virginia than at any time since vaccinations became available, according to state data. James Hoyer, who heads West Virginia’s COVID-19 response taskforce, said Friday that is the cost that came with the state being ahead of most other places when it came to early distribution — especially to vulnerable populations.
“We were ahead in delivery [of vaccines], so we’re first to hit that wall, but others are coming,” Hoyer said.
This is another opportunity for the state to set the precedent for the country, Hoyer said. If West Virginia is successful in increasing vaccination rates among those who might be hesitant, he said he hopes whatever model is used can be replicated elsewhere.
Justice was light on specifics for this new effort, but said plans were being developed and would be implemented as soon as possible.
Hoyer said he recently met with Ric Cavender, executive director of Charleston Main Streets, to discuss bringing vaccines to customers and employees of downtown businesses. Justice hypothesized holding vaccine events in Walmart parking lots or setting up vaccination tents at fairs, festivals and sports events.
The state also is requesting that the federal government send vaccines in smaller vials, if possible, to reduce waste. Hoyer said the amount of vaccines the state is receiving is fine but, because so many doses are in one vial and they have to be used within a certain time frame, some doses are going to waste.
The push for more vaccinations comes as variant COVID-19 strains are becoming more common. Hoyer said West Virginia is typically two to three weeks behind other areas for detecting variants.
Dr. Clay Marsh, the state’s coronavirus czar, said Friday the strains are especially concerning because they can be more contagious and are making people sicker.
Recently, West Virginia has seen an uptick in the U.K. variant, and at least two new cases of the Brazilian variant have been detected, Marsh said. The variants also are more dangerous to children, as pediatric hospitalizations related to those cases are on the rise worldwide, Marsh said.
“I want the parents to listen carefully,” he said. “This is a disease that has really changed. This variant can make children very sick.”
Only children 16 years and older are eligible for COVID-19 vaccines.