Gov. Jim Justice announced Friday that he intends to lift an executive order requiring face masks to be worn indoors on West Virginia Day, if the state’s lagging vaccination rates improve.
Justice said he will lift the order if 65% of eligible West Virginians have had at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine by June 20, although he indicated he’s likely to do so even if the state fails to reach that threshold.
“On June 20, we’re rid of these things,” the governor said during Friday’s state COVID-19 briefing, holding up a face mask. “I’ve got to have you really help me.”
Asked if the June 20 date to end the mask mandate is set in stone even if the vaccination goals are missed, Justice said, “I think it’s set in stone. We’ll be close enough, for sure.”
He added, “Anything could happen. This thing could whiplash on us, and be terrible. Then we’d have to do like in the past, and pivot.”
The goal for unmasking, to coincide with West Virginia Day, might be ambitious. According to the Department of Health and Human Resources dashboard, 44.5 % of all West Virginians and 54% of West Virginians age 16 and older have had one dose of vaccine. Statewide, vaccination rates have fallen to daily averages of less than 2,000 doses in recent weeks.
It also seemed to be a case of moving the goalposts, since the governor previously has said medical advisers have told him that a 70% vaccination rate is needed to safely end the face mask mandate.
Justice said Friday that, in addition to a 65% overall vaccination rate, he wants to see that 75% of West Virginians age 50 and older, and 85% of West Virginians age 65 and older, have received at least one dose of vaccine by June 20.
As of Friday, 79.7% of the 65-and-older age group had received at least one dose, according to the dashboard.
Dr. Clay Marsh, vice president of health sciences at West Virginia University and the state’s COVID-19 czar, said Friday he is comfortable with the 65% threshold, given the high level of effectiveness of the vaccines and evidence the vaccines provide higher levels of immunity than having had the virus provides.
Justice seemed to take a swipe Friday at President Joe Biden, who has set a national goal of having 70% of eligible Americans vaccinated with at least one dose by July 4.
“President Biden is targeting July 4. We can surely beat that,” the governor said.
Justice said the 65% goal does not mean state officials believe that 35% of West Virginians are refusing to be vaccinated, placing what he called the “hell-noers” at closer to 15% of the population.
He said the remainder of the state’s vaccine hesitant either have misapprehensions about the vaccines or are simply too busy to go get their shots.
Also during Friday’s briefing:
- Dr. Ayne Amjad, the state public health officer, addressed misinformation being spread about the vaccines, particularly a rumor that the vaccine can cause infertility. She said there is no data to support that claim, but noted pregnant women who contract COVID-19 are at higher risk of miscarriage.
- Justice was 17 minutes late to Friday’s briefing, a delay he attributed to doing an interview with NewsMax, the conservative cable news outlet.
The governor went on a tirade after being asked why he is perpetually tardy to the COVID-19 briefings, resulting in late starts for all briefings conducted over the past 14 months, including a one hour, 11-minute delay on Wednesday.
He blamed that delay on miscommunication with his staff, which had failed to advise him the starting time for the briefing had been moved up one hour, to noon.