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West Virginia Seniors Under 80 Wait for Word on Their Turn for a COVID Shot

Photo Provided David Barger and Connie Miller of Putnam County, pictured during happier times, await news of when they can receive a COVID-19 vaccination.

CHARLESTON — Seniors waiting their turn for a COVID-19 vaccine said they were pleased to learn Wednesday that West Virginia is following federal guidelines on getting the vaccine to seniors most at risk for infection.

David Barger and Connie Miller, residents of Teays Valley in Putnam County, anxiously follow the news every day to see when their turn would come for a COVID-19 vaccination. David is 72 and Connie turns 72 next month.

Speaking by phone, Barger said he was relieved when he heard that Gov. Jim Justice was opening up vaccinations this week to West Virginians ages 80 and older. Residents age 70 to 79 will be next once people in their 80s, 90s, and 100s are vaccinated, with people ages 60 to 69 after that.

“That’s wonderful, absolutely wonderful,” Barger said. “I am excited that I don’t think I’m going to have to wait much longer.”

Both Barger and Miller have tried to remain self-quarantined in their apartment as much as possible over the last 10 months, limiting their excursions outside due to David’s health issues, including kidney disease.

“We definitely don’t want him to get the COVID,” Miller said in a phone conversation with the couple one day before Justice’s announcement.

“I’m trying to avoid the COVID issue totally because of health issues,” Barger said. “Even if I was in prime health, if you do catch it, you’re still rolling the dice if you make it through or not.”

Both hope to get the vaccine as soon as possible in order to feel comfortable going out into the world more and enjoying their remaining years by being around family, friends, and their community.

“I am a social person,” Barger said. “I like to get out, but this self-quarantine has kept me in the house to keep me healthy and everything like that. But like I say, I’m a social person. I like to go to the lodge. I like to visit with people and the sooner we can get the vaccine, the better.”

Tom Zurbuch, a 78-year-old Wellsburg resident, is used to remaining active, going to the Howard Long Wellness Center in Wheeling and playing golf. A diabetic and prostate cancer survivor, Zurbuch has cut back on his normal activities and contact with friends over the last 10 months to limit his exposure to the coronavirus.

“I don’t go with my friends. Hell, I’ve had about 10 of them die,” Zurbuch said. “Yes, I’m anxious and I want to get the vaccine over with. I can’t see why they can’t do it. Why do we have to wait so long?”

Zurbuch didn’t know about Justice’s Wednesday’s announcement until informed by this reporter, but he was thrilled that the state was moving forward with vaccinating seniors.

“… Somebody has talked to Justice and got him straightened up,” Zurbuch said. “Whatever the reason, it’s good. I’m very happy.”

MORE THAN STATISTICS

The data provides weight to Zurbuch, Barger, and Miller’s concerns, as seniors 65 and older have suffered the most during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to data from the U.S. Census COVID-19 Impact report using population estimates from the 2014-18 American Community Survey, West Virginians between the ages of 65 and 89 make up 18.8 percent of the state’s 1.8 million residents. According to the information gleaned from daily COVID-19 updates from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources since the start of the pandemic, residents between 65-89 make up 68.6 percent of all COVID-19 deaths in the state.

Residents between the ages of 80 and 89 make up 4.4 percent of the state’s population but account for 31.9 percent of all COVID-19 deaths. Residents between the age of 70 and 79 are 7.9 percent of the population, but account for 26.9 percent of coronavirus fatalities. Residents between65 and 69 account for 6.5 percent of the population and 9.8 percent of fatalities.

West Virginia has one of the nation’s largest population of seniors. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, one in five people in West Virginia is age 65 or older, with the state ranked third in senior population.

OPERATION: WARP SPEED

West Virginia is proceeding at warp speed through its vaccination plan with a focus on essential workers over age 50.

According to the Department of Health and Human Resources, the state received 86,800 vaccines as of Dec. 14, with 37,862 vaccines already administered as part of phase 1 of the state’s vaccine distribution plans. More than 43 percent of the received vaccines have been administered and more than 2 percent of the state’s 1.8 million residents have been vaccinated, making West Virginia the top state for vaccine distribution.

West Virginia is in phase 1 of its two-phase vaccinate distribution plan created by the West Virginia Joint Interagency Task Force for Vaccinations and approved by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Phase 1 is broken down into four categories, with phase 1-A – hospitals, long-term care residents and staff, and pharmacies – already completed.

Phase 1-B includes community infrastructure, emergency response, public health officials, and first responders. Phase 1-C includes other healthcare workers, such as home health providers, with a focus on workers age 50 and older. Phase 1-D includes teachers and education staff, other workers in critical services and infrastructure.

Justice announced Wednesday that the state would start vaccinating teachers 50 and older over the next two to three weeks, as well as start vaccinating the senior population in phases.

Phase 2 – estimated to start by March – includes the general population. Seniors were originally part of phase 2-A, which was focused on those in high-risk COVID-19 categories and prioritized by age 60 and older. Priority would then be given according to pre-existing medical conditions with a note from a physician. Phase 2-B will focus on workers who did not get a vaccine in phases 1-C and 1-D. Phase 2-C will be the remaining general population.

AGE BEFORE BEAUTY

West Virginia’s plan to vaccinate seniors is in line with CDC recommendations for states released just prior to Christmas to move residents age 75 and older up in vaccine priority to the same category as teachers and other essential workers.

The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices released its updated recommendations on Dec. 22. In the CDC’s phases, residents age 75 and older would move to phase 1-B, with residents between the ages of 65 and 74 moving to phase 1-C.

The CDC’s recommendations are just that — recommendations. While nearly all states have prioritized long-term care facilities and frontline healthcare workers, several states are incorporating the CDC age recommendations into their vaccination plans. Some are even going beyond the CDC recommendations.

All of West Virginia’s bordering states other than Virginia have prioritized the older population.

According to a roundup by Forbes, West Virginia joins Alabama, Maine, and South Carolina in following the CDC guidelines. Texas, Florida, Hawaii, Oklahoma, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee are prioritizing older residents after long-term care and healthcare workers but before essential workers. Delaware, Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Utah and Colorado are prioritizing a combination of essential workers and older residents.

The remaining states have not released specific plans for their second round of shots.

AARP, a national advocacy organization for people age 50 and older, released a statement Monday calling for older Americans to be moved in vaccine priority. According to AARP, 95 percent of U.S. COVID-19 deaths have occurred in people older than 50.

“With remarkable speed, vaccines have been developed, and continue to be developed, and now it’s time to put them to good use.,” said Nancy LeaMond, executive vice president and chief advocacy and engagement officer for AARP. “AARP is fighting for older Americans to be prioritized in getting COVID-19 vaccines because the science has clearly shown that older people are at higher risk of death. We urge public health officials at the state and local level, as they decide on vaccine allocations, to rely on the evidence and make plans backed by science.”

DECISION TIME

State officials have made it clear of the last several weeks that their focus is on “age, age, and age.” Gov. Jim Justice has encouraged all older West Virginians to immediately get tested for COVID-19 at the onset of a mere sniffle in order to avoid them getting sick with serious coronavirus symptoms, being admitted to a hospital, and even dying.

Justice said Wednesday that there was no time to delay in getting vaccinations into the arms of West Virginia’s senior population.

“The faster that we can get shots in arms of people, especially of significant age, the more lives we’re going to save,” Justice said during his Wednesday coronavirus briefing. “This is boiling down to minutes, not days.”

Some residents took that message literally, with some health departments reporting lines of people in their 80s looking for the vaccine before they were ready, resulting in state officials urging the public to be patient and wait on health departments to announce times to receive the vaccine. Patients at federally qualified health centers will also be notified when vaccines are ready, and the West Virginia National Guard will soon administer vaccines at their armory locations across the state.

Zurbuch said the past 14 months have been hard for him, first with the death of his wife in October and now the coronavirus limiting his mobility and causing the death of his friends. With vaccinations for seniors starting, Zurbuch is relieved he won’t have to wait until March.

“I’m 78, so it’s not going to be that long,” Zurbuch said. “It’s been very stressful. I lost my wife over a year ago and then I went into this damn thing. It’s just been very stressful.

Barger and Miller praised the work the state has accomplished, especially with how fast the vaccine was being distributed.

“Everything that Justice is doing and (West Virginia National Guard Maj. Gen. James) Hoyer is doing and the state is doing, I’m just really happy.”

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