In the West Virginia Supreme Court’s plan to administer the COVID-19 vaccine to employees who want it, probation officers, magistrates and other court staff who interact with the public take precedence over the justices themselves.
Court officials have established a three-tiered system for the nearly 1,500 court employees statewide to have access to the vaccine. The first set of vaccines for Tier 1 employees is estimated to be available within four-to-six weeks, Justice Evan Jenkins said Monday.
Staff in Gov. Jim Justice’s office are reaching out to officials throughout state agencies to determine how many employees will want the vaccine when it becomes available with some varying results.
While the Supreme Court has a tiered plan, the West Virginia Legislature is still in the process of taking a headcount of who wants the vaccine, spokespeople for the House and Senate said this week.
The Governor’s Office announced the judicial branch’s expected access to the vaccine earlier this month, with Jenkins saying the Governor’s Office has been “in close contact” with justices and court officials.
“The lines of communication are open, and the relationship is excellent,” said Jenkins, who will succeed Justice Tim Armstead as chief justice on Jan. 1. “We have surveyed the judicial employees throughout West Virginia. We have broken them down into three tiers, in terms of engagement with the public.”
Jenkins said probation officers, who are required to make house calls to people serving probation, are in Tier 1. This places them among the first judicial staffers to receive the vaccine. Jenkins and the four other justices are in Tier 3, putting them near the last in line among judicial employees to get the vaccine.
“We thought it absolutely critical that those on the front line that have the most engagement and are absolutely essential get vaccinated, depending on the allotment, first,” Jenkins said.
Staff in the Governor’s Office had not provided the Supreme Court with an exact date as to when the vaccine would be available to the judicial branch, which includes people working in magistrate, family and circuit courts in all 55 West Virginia counties.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has granted emergency-use authorization to two companies, Pfizer and Moderna, to manufacture and distribute their respective COVID-19 vaccines.
Both vaccines require two shots. The Pfizer vaccine requires 21 days between its shots. Moderna requires a 28-day gap between shots, according to a vaccine information page maintained by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources.
The governor and West Virginia coronavirus czar Dr. Clay Marsh announced the state’s distribution plan for the vaccines on Dec. 16. The officials established phases for the vaccines to be distributed, based on a person’s risk for catching the virus, including their age and line of work.
In the Legislature, House and Senate officials haven’t determined a distribution plan among lawmakers and staff who wish to receive the vaccine.
“We are in the process of gathering that information now and asking how many would be willing to take it — respecting that this is a private medical decision that will be up to the individual to make based on their own personal situation and risk factors,” said Jared Hunt, director of communications for the House. “We will rely on the guidance of our state’s health experts to determine when those lawmakers and staff will be vaccinated as part of their continuity of government distribution timeline.”
Legislative staff are working to make the House and Senate chambers safe, in terms of social distancing, for lawmakers when they return for a single-day organization session on Jan. 13.
It will be up to legislators to determine if they have the 2021 regular legislative session, scheduled to begin Feb. 10, or whether to delay the session until a later date, with the hope that the pandemic will have subsided by then.
Senate leaders say lawmakers fall under Phase 1-D of the state’s vaccine distribution plan. That’s after people who work in the continuity of government, according to the DHHR website, said Jacque Bland, director of communications for the Senate.
Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, who is expected to be selected the next Senate president in January, told The State Journal earlier this month that some lawmakers could receive the first round of a vaccine before the 2021 legislative session begins.
Correction: An earlier version of this article listed Justice Beth Walker as chief justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court, a title she held in 2019. Justice Tim Armstead served in the role in 2020.