Gov. Jim Justice set a new mantra for himself at his COVID-19 briefing Wednesday: “Beat 588 Bad.”
He was referring to the 588,000 eligible West Virginians who might be refusing to get vaccinated, based on estimates that upward of 40% of the state population might have vaccine hesitancy.
If that estimate is accurate, and the vaccine hesitant cannot be persuaded to change their minds, Justice said that would keep West Virginia from ever reaching a 70% vaccination rate — a threshold where many health experts believe mask wearing and social distancing mandates could be lifted.
“We’ve got a problem to really get after it, to educate more and more folks,” Justice said. “If we don’t, we’re not going to get rid of these masks.”
He added, “We can’t stand for 40% of the people not wanting to take it. We must double down and work it.”
State vaccination rates have plummeted in April, going from an average of more than 17,000 vaccinations a day at the end of March to fewer than 2,500 vaccinations a day in the past week.
On the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccination administration tracker, West Virginia has dropped to 47th of the 50 states and Washington, D.C., in vaccination rates. That’s down from 43rd on Monday.
Numerous surveys have shown that Republicans, evangelical Christians and residents of rural areas have the highest percentages of vaccine hesitancy, potentially posing a daunting combination for West Virginia.
After initially being a national leader in vaccine administration, state demand has spiraled in recent days, with percentages of West Virginians who’ve had at least one dose of vaccine plateauing at under 40% of the total population, and about 50% of those age 16 and older.
James Hoyer, head of the state Interagency Task Force on Vaccination, said just over 748,000 West Virginians have had at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, about half of the roughly 1.45 million West Virginians age 16 or older.
Dr. Clay Marsh, vice president for health sciences at West Virginia University and the state’s COVID-19 czar, said redoubling vaccination efforts is critical at a time when more infectious and deadlier variants of COVID-19 are entering West Virginia.
“We know the window to have our population protected is right upon us,” he said.
Marsh warned that children and young adults are more susceptible to the variants than they were to the original virus, noting that, in Brazil, half of all COVID-19 patients hospitalized in intensive-care units are under age 30.
To date, West Virginia has had one confirmed case of the Brazilian variant.
“The truth is, we are not dictating to the virus,” Marsh said, “the virus is dictating to us.”
Justice, in his closing comments, was more blunt, telling those refusing vaccinations, “How many of your family, loved ones, are going to have to die? How many people you know are going to have to die for us to awaken to the fact these vaccines are safe and necessary?”
“How many are going to die before you get vaccinated?” he asked on a day when the state COVID-19 death rate reached 2,800.