Retired Major Gen. James Hoyer, director of West Virginia’s interagency task force on the COVID-19 pandemic, has been providing some disturbing perspective on the situation as it stands, with vaccinations stagnating and cases continuing to rise with the emergence of the delta variant.
Toward the end of a media briefing Wednesday, Hoyer noted that the 2,956 COVID-19 deaths recorded so far are six times more than the number of people who died from the flu in West Virginia in 2017. He added it was also several times higher than the number of West Virginians who died in car accidents that year.
Gov. Jim Justice jumped in with one of his darkest colloquial mental images since the pandemic began, by stating if you lined all of those coffins up, they would stretch on for nearly six miles. This had us doing some of the most macabre math we’ve ever done, but the governor, apparently going off the top of his head, was close. Depending on the size of the casket or plot, it would be anywhere from 3.6 to 4.5 miles. Of course, that’s getting longer every day.
These comparisons might seem frivolous, especially to those who haven’t been touched by the pandemic through illness or the loss of a loved one. But that kind of perspective actually shows how significant the death rate of this pandemic has been. Approaching 3,000 deaths would seem like a low number anywhere else, but it’s fairly comparative with rates in other states when you consider how small West Virginia’s population is. When a pandemic is stretching into its 18th month, new ways to drive home the urgency of the situation are needed.
The main problem, though, remains the same. Only 56.7% of the state’s eligible population (12 years old and up) is fully vaccinated. And it’s the younger age groups that are bogging the rest down. Protecting the state’s elderly population was the highest priority when the pandemic began. An impressive 79% of West Virginians 65 and older are fully vaccinated. Those rates plummet the younger the demographic gets, and it’s simply not moving.
Justice and state Schools Superintendent Clayton Burch announced there will be $50,000 prizes for the schools that get the most of their eligible student population vaccinated. It’s hard to say if that will motivate anyone. Justice’s cash prizes of up to $1 million and giveaways of trucks and firearms haven’t inspired any great rush to get vaccinated.
The governor and others have offered plenty of carrots, but seem hesitant to use a stick. On Wednesday, Justice again danced around talk of resuming public health mandates to stop the spread of the virus in the face of flagging vaccination rates. He simply repeated the plea to get vaccinated and warned of the danger of cases exploding with school set to resume as early as next week in many West Virginia counties.
Burch said public health decisions involving schools would largely be made by local school boards, but many no doubt wonder if it will stay that way. The state board mandated all elementary and middle schools return to in-person learning in January, when the first wave of the pandemic was at its height in West Virginia. Mask policies also seem to be a local decision so far, though the state board’s guidelines might reveal more in that department.
The solution to all of this is to get vaccinated. As Justice and his team have explained time and again, almost all of the new cases, especially the more serious ones that require hospitalizations, involve patients who have not gotten the vaccine. The governor can only plead to better nature for so long. He clearly doesn’t want to have to intervene in any way, but if things continue the way they’re trending, he’ll have no choice but to consider more drastic action.