Last week, Gov. Jim Justice said he would be rescinding his executive order that masks be worn inside businesses and public buildings by West Virginia Day — June 20. The caveat is that West Virginia’s population must hit a COVID-19 vaccination rate of 65%.
It’s an admirable goal, and offering an incentive to hit that mark (ditching the, as Justice has put it, “egg-sucking masks”) could pay off, to the benefit of public health.
The feasibility of the proposition needs to be examined, though.
There’s the question of whether 65% is enough of a vaccination rate to resume life without masks and, presumably, social distancing, along with limits on gatherings. It’s hard to come up with a definitive answer here, because federal guidelines and opinions on the topic have shifted, although the most consistent number has been 70%. West Virginia COVID-19 czar Dr. Clay Marsh said he believes 65% is good enough.
That might be a wait-and-see type of issue. First, West Virginia has to get there.
The latest numbers released by the Department of Health and Human Resources show the state is on the cusp of a 38% full vaccination rate — meaning 680,025 West Virginians have either received both shots of the two-dose Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, or the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. It’s about a 2% increase from late last week, showing a slow climb of around half a percent per day. Some days are busier than others, and the weekend seems to be an especially slow time for vaccinations, but this incremental gain from day to day has been the norm for a while now.
West Virginia has 40 days to get another 27% of its population vaccinated to hit Justice’s benchmark. If the state rate is only growing by 0.5% a day, by June 20 West Virginia would be about 7% shy.
That’s not to say the daily rate won’t go up. And maybe the goal of getting rid of the mask mandate will encourage such a change. However, Justice again sent mixed signals last week when he unveiled his plan. When asked if he would extend the mandate if it became clear the state wouldn’t hit the goal, Justice seemed to indicate he’d lift the order anyway, before again saying that he might have to “pivot” if not enough people are getting vaccinated.
If the governor is going to lift the mask mandate by June 20 no matter what, that doesn’t do anything to encourage more West Virginians to get vaccinated. To then go on and suggest he might extend the mask mandate sent a vague and confusing message.
Perhaps Justice doesn’t want to dampen enthusiasm about what he sees as an attainable goal, but straddling the fence doesn’t help. The governor needs to be clear and firm on what the goal is, and what happens if it isn’t met.