Not long ago, West Virginia was in rarified air. The state was leading the nation in distributing and administering COVID-19 vaccines. Gov. Jim Justice was a regular on the cable news circuit, explaining how little, old West Virginia got it right while so many other states were stumbling out of the gate.
Now, however, West Virginia finds itself in more familiar territory. The state ranks 42nd in percentage of vaccines administered, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Active cases and hospitalizations, which saw a steep decrease from mid-January to mid-March, are rising again.
Some of this was to be expected. Like many other states, West Virginia prioritized vaccine doses for the most at-risk populations — the elderly and the chronically ill — when the inoculations first became available in December. As public health experts have explained, those populations are easier to reach, because so many of them live in nursing homes or assisted living facilities. The vaccines could be brought to them.
Getting people to come to the vaccine is a little more difficult. West Virginia, like just about every other state, has had some minor misadventures organizing a system to make sure everyone gets an appointment, and those who want an appointment had some misadventures navigating that system. That’s another problem that was likely anticipated with such a large-scale immunization effort.
But public health officials in West Virginia also blame vaccine hesitancy for the drop in administered doses. Some West Virginians are unsure about the safety of the various COVID-19 vaccines, while others simply refuse to get it for reasons that defy explanation, ranging from political to religious.
Some will point to the pause of administering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as validation. But it’s important to keep in mind that particular vaccine was halted out of an abundance of caution. Out of 6.8 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, a rare potential side effect was found in six individuals. That doesn’t even register as a meaningful percentage. But public health officials want to make sure this is an anomaly before resuming. There’s nothing wrong with precaution. Don’t forget, West Virginia closed its schools, canceled athletic events and went into lockdown last year days before the first COVID-19 case in the state was reported.
As for rising cases, some of that can be attributed to vaccine hesitancy, along with resuming high school sports and lifting certain restrictions when case numbers hit a low point in March. Exacerbating the problem is the arrival of variant strains of the COVID-19 virus, some of which, as West Virginia health officials have explained, are easier to catch and transmit, especially among younger people between the ages of 10 and 29, previously thought to be at little to no risk. In fact, that age group made up about 33% of the 2,700 new cases reported in West Virginia over the past week.
The solution comes back to following proper public health guidelines and more people — including younger West Virginians — getting vaccinated, Dr. Clay Marsh, state coronavirus czar, said during a briefing Monday.
Anyone can find reasons not to get the shot. But they need to ask themselves what those reasons are based on, and how their decision will affect not just their health, but the health of family, friends, loved ones and even strangers. Don’t throw away your shot before taking an honest, serious look at the science and the situation.