After being skipped over during the roll-out of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, all four VA Medical Centers in West Virginia were selected to receive the initial doses of the recently-approved Moderna vaccine.
Distribution of the vaccine could start at VA centers as early as next week, according to a news release.
“I’m pleased the Department of Veteran Affairs has acted quickly after my inquiry last week to remedy the situation,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., in a statement over the weekend. “West Virginia veterans have made tremendous sacrifices on behalf of our nation and are one of the most at-risk populations in the country. That’s why ensuring they quickly receive the vaccine is of utmost importance.”
In its initial COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan, 37 VA facilities across the country were chosen to receive and distribute 73,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, none of which were in West Virginia.
Manchin last week wrote a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie criticizing the decision and pressing for more details on how the agency plans to assist with vaccine distribution in rural areas like West Virginia.
“While it may make logistical sense to prioritize VA hospitals with high population density, we [West Virginia] have the most vulnerable population in the country,” Manchin wrote. “Our more than 140,000 veterans are older and have higher levels of pre-existing conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and lung disease that make them especially susceptible to developing a severe illness if they become infected with the virus.”
There are VA hospitals Beckley, Clarksburg, Huntington and Martinsburg, as well as clinics and other facilities across West Virginia.
The Moderna vaccine was approved for distribution by the federal Food and Drug Administration last week. Like the previously approved Pfizer vaccine, the Moderna version is an mRNA vaccine, which is a vaccine based on synthetic genetic material (messenger RNA) that, once injected, creates a virus antigen inside a person’s body that can help the immune system fight the virus.
Due to their makeups, mRNA vaccines must be stored at below-freezing temperatures, but where the Pfizer vaccine needs to be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius, Moderna remains stable at minus 20 Celsius, according to FDA briefs.
Both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines require two shots, weeks apart, from the same vaccine.
In the first week they were available, 15,056 doses of the Pfizer vaccine were distributed to West Virginians, roughly 91% of the maximum 16,575 doses that were sent to the state.
Though this week’s Pfizer shipment was less than initially expected — down to 11,700 — doses of the Moderna vaccine should offset the decrease, as Gov. Jim Justice said Monday there should be a combined 44,000 doses of vaccines available in West Virginia this week.
Marty Wright, chief executive officer at the West Virginia Health Care Association, said on MetroNews Talkline Monday that vaccine distribution across the state’s long-term care facilities was going much quicker than initially expected, with 8,100 doses administered across 71 facilities.
For weeks, West Virginia has reported continuously rising COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Over that same time, Justice has hung hopes on the vaccine easing spread as the holidays pass with potential risks for heightened infections.
“We’re administering the vaccines as quickly as we get them,” Justice said. “The hesitation to take the vaccine, or stubbornness, is going to lead a lot of people who aren’t willing to take the vaccine to die.”