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What’s Behind Vaccination Lag in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle?

Photo Courtesy of W.Va. Legislative Photography Del. Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, is among the Eastern Panhandle officials wondering why that region isn’t seeing the amount of vaccinations that other regions have.

CHARLES TOWN — Divine intervention.

Look it up in the dictionary and you’ll find that the definition of the term goes as such: “The interference of a deity in human life, popularly extended to any miraculous-seeming turn of events.”

It’s a notion that West Virginia Sen. John Unger D-Berkeley, said he’d like to believe in when it comes to the COVID-19 case numbers reported in the Eastern Panhandle. In addition to representing the state’s 16th District in the State Senate, Unger is also a pastor, so divine intervention is something with which he is familiar.

But how does it relate to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Unger believes the state, at one point, was touting successful numbers in the battle against the virus because it wasn’t accurately reporting the amount of tests it was distributing throughout the Eastern Panhandle. Because the Panhandle is a hub for traffic coming into West Virginia from multiple directions, Unger was certain the cases had to be higher than what was being reported.

“If you don’t test, you have good numbers,” Unger said recently. “I’m not trying to cast any conspiracies; I just find it very disturbing. Right across the border, numbers in other states are skyrocketing and ours aren’t. As a pastor, I’d like to think there’s divine intervention going on, but I just don’t think it adds up.”

COVID-19 cases in the Eastern Panhandle have been at the center of a state-wide discussion recently as numbers illustrating the distribution of the virus’s vaccine throughout West Virginia say that both Berkeley and Jefferson counties lag far behind most every other county in the state.

In fact, while 11.3% of the Berkeley County population has been vaccinated and 9.4% of the Jefferson County population has been vaccinated, those numbers pale in comparison to Kanawha County, which has seen 33.3% of its population receive the vaccination and Monongalia County, which has seen 29.7% of its population receive the vaccine.

The disparity in distribution has raised eyebrows for many local leaders. Unger noted earlier this week that he feels Jefferson County deserves more vaccines if only because the first known case of COVID-19 in West Virginia came from a Shepherdstown resident nearly one year ago.

“Hot spots came first in the Eastern Panhandle before other parts of the state and the reason is because of our proximity to other states and metropolitan areas,” Unger argued. “I’m a pastor and I have a lot of parishioners in their 70s who are still on a wait list, not getting called,” he continued. “It’s just not fair that we aren’t getting our fair share of the vaccine.”

AN IMPERFECT PLAN

To understand the state’s plan of attack toward distributing the COVID-19 vaccine is to understand age. As Retired Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, who serves as Gov. Jim Justice’s head of the Joint Interagency Task Force on Vaccination, explained, the plan that West Virginia established when officials were informed a vaccine was on its way is the plan it continues to stick to today. That plan?

FOCUS ON THE ELDERLY

“We knew back in November, around Thanksgiving, that over 50% of our deaths were from nursing home residents,” Hoyer explained. “We knew that the age range of 70 and above made up 77.5% of West Virginians we lost. From 60-70, it was 14.5%, and from 50-60, it was 5%. So 97% of West Virginians we lost were age 50 and above.

“We knew we had to focus on nursing homes, assisted living facilities and staff, and we knew we had to stabilize the health care workforce population,” Hoyer added. “That became our focus. Clearly, what we did has demonstrated it has worked because in the first six weeks of 2021, death rates dropped 72%. But by focusing on those populations, we created an imbalance across counties.”

At the center of Hoyer’s explanation was Kanawha County, which is among the highest in the state when it comes to vaccination distribution numbers. The reason for that, Hoyer said, is because it is home to 11 nursing homes, as well as a higher number of hospitals when compared with other counties across the state, most notably those in the Eastern Panhandle.

As a result, the task force has established a benchmark of making sure that at least 15.1% of every county’s population will have the vaccine within the next 30 days. Currently, West Virginia has 28 counties — including Jefferson and Berkeley — that do not meet that 15.1% benchmark, so while the order may be tall, Hoyer said that he’s optimistic his team will be able to get it done.

“We did what we did in the beginning not to nefariously take doses away from some,” Hoyer said. “It was based on epidemiology numbers we had. I hope folks in the Panhandle will understand that. We’re looking to balance it out over the next 30 days, and we’re working hard to follow data and get to where we need to be.”

Joe Peal, Hoyer’s deputy, went on to note that in December, when plans were still being considered, they knew that each county throughout the state would not be at the same average right away. He then added it wasn’t until the last month or so that they actually had enough doses to push out to all 55 counties. In the beginning of February, Peal said they were able to distribute 23,600 doses a week. Currently, that number has ballooned to 43,000 doses.

“We use 100% of our doses,” Peal explained. “We are on the path to complete our 65-and-older group by somewhere toward the end of March or the first of April. If you only look at it from a pure, ‘How many doses a county get?’ it may seem it’s not fair, but at the end of the day, once we catch up the 28 counties for over 65, they all cross the finish line at the same time.”

But with Jefferson County reportedly receiving only 300 doses a week thus far, is that even possible?

HELP ON THE WAY

As the numbers kept growing against distribution in the Eastern Panhandle, more and more local leaders took notice. Not only has Unger been searching for answers, but Delegate Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, has expressed concern for the disparity in distribution. Looking for a better understanding of the situation, he recently reached out to Hoyer for a meeting.

“It’s definitely struck a nerve, and rightfully so,” Espinosa said. “I’ve received phone calls and emails and I’ve heard a lot of concerns, but I’m pleased with the indication by Gen. Hoyer that he and his staff have a plan.”

Part of that plan, according to Espinosa, will be increasing the doses that Jefferson County receives each week from 300 to 1,780. Those measures will begin as soon as next week, he said. It’s also worth noting, he said, that 300 additional doses are shipped to Walgreens as part of the federal distribution program, and until Jefferson County is caught up with the rest of the state, those numbers will at the very least stay the same, if not increase.

Hoyer and Peal, meanwhile, acknowledged multiple times that they know they are running what they called an “imperfect system at best” because they aren’t receiving enough doses from the federal government due to what they said are “sins that date back to a year ago.”

That in mind, they have accepted that receiving criticism has become part of the job description — though some counties might be more vaccinated, they have already heard from some of those counties’ leaders about the prospect of additional doses being sent to places like the Eastern Panhandle, and those local leaders aren’t happy about it.

For now, Hoyer explained the state has the capability to distribute roughly 135,000 doses a week throughout West Virginia. Approximately 367,000 residents are over 65 years old and as of Tuesday afternoon, 151,308 had been vaccinated. Because they estimate about 20 to 25% of those in the age group won’t take the vaccine, the total vaccinations needed for those 65 and up come in at about 275,000.

That math suggests another 125,000 vaccinations need to be distributed to the over-65 age group before the vaccination plan can move forward, and Peal estimated that the state should be able to accomplish that in the next four to six weeks.

As for Unger, he continues to wonder about the plan’s fairness — even if Hoyer and Peal acknowledge it’s been flawed for a variety of reasons. One of his major concerns, he said, is that he feels Jefferson and Berkeley counties ostensibly serve as the front lines against bringing the virus into West Virginia, and thus, those counties should be treated with more care. And even if intervention — divine or not — might be on the way, he worries about the state’s ability to take stock of its failures once the pandemic passes.

“I think there ought to be an investigation,” Unger proclaimed. “I just want a second pair of eyes saying, ‘Is it true what we’re seeing here, because it just doesn’t add up.’ We need an after-incident audit. What did we do right? What could be done better? To me, I think it’s a fairness issue. I think our arguments are sound.

“We’re not asking for more,” he concluded, “we’re just asking for our fair share.”

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