Is West Virginia’s COVID-19 Vaccine Goal Within Reach?
WHEELING — As West Virginia works toward vaccinating enough people against COVID-19 to reach Gov. Jim Justice’s target percentage by June 20, local health officials worry about the effect that lifting the mask mandate will have.
Justice aims to have 65% of all eligible West Virginians at least partially vaccinated by the Mountain State’s birthday. As of Friday, the state Department of Health and Human Resources’ website lists 60.6% in that category, leaving the state in the neighborhood of 65,000 people shy of the governor’s goal.
Justice said that, in rescinding the Statewide Indoor Face Covering Requirement for all residents on June 20, health experts projected that 65% of eligible residents would have at least their first shot by then. Those who are now fully vaccinated already can shed their masks.
Wheeling-Ohio County Health Administrator Howard Gamble said he worries that the set deadline to lift the mask mandate will remove the incentive to push the last few percent over the finish line, and have consequences for public health as summer returns.
“By not hitting a larger percentage of people vaccinated, the disease will be more easily transmitted,” Gamble said Thursday. “It’s not going to be more controllable. We won’t be managing cases; we’ll be responding to larger issues.”
Marshall County Health Department Threat Preparedness Director Mark Ackermann, on the other hand, wonders if the observed lack of masks in public spaces would mean that the spike may be less than expected.
“As many people right now, who already are not wearing a mask, we don’t know if we’ll see a spike,” he said. “The governor said if you’re fully vaccinated, you don’t need to wear a mask in public, and how many of those people at this moment, not wearing masks, are not fully vaccinated? We don’t know.”
Summer’s arrival, Gamble said, was a turning point for the pandemic last year. People attempted to resume their usual activities, and in turn the disease spread more freely among what was, at the time, a completely unvaccinated population.
“Not getting a lot of people vaccinated, we will have to deal with more cases,” he said. “For public health, that means disease investigation, testing, vaccination.”
Ackermann hopes that even though the mandate will be lifted, people will still continue to be smart about their interactions with the public — wearing a mask if unvaccinated, keeping a safe distance if that’s the case and not thinking twice about being cautious.
“We hope that people would continue to be as careful as they possibly can; just because the mandate is lifted doesn’t mean you have to stop wearing it,” Ackermann added. “A lot of us are still wearing our masks when we go out into stores, but we’d stress to people to be as careful as possible.”
Disease rates are dropping, Gamble said, because of those vaccinations, and more inoculations would bolster the protection against the virus.
Gamble said his opinion was that, at this point, there were comparatively few people undecided on whether or not to get the vaccine, or delaying for other reasons. The remaining number, Gamble mused, were steadfastly opposed to the vaccine, rather than not yet sold.
“There’s not a lot of undecided. I think we have the extremes now: ‘We’re vaccinated, we’re protected, and we’re moving on with life,’ and … ‘I’ve made a stand, I’m not getting it because of my reasons,’ and there’s not much public health incentives or rules are going to do to make this person change their mind.”
Hitting a wall with vaccinations, Gamble said, is something the health community has seen in the past as well.
“You look back historically on public vaccination programs, this is what you typically have. You get to a point where the acceptance of a population can only go so far. Then you have the holdouts, and that’s why all 50 states have requirements for back-to-school vaccinations. There’s options to opt out medically, philosophically, legislatively. We have those because we need to ensure schools, going forward, are protected.
“It’s tough. We’re running into the hardcore individuals: ‘I’m not going to get it because of my belief in whatever that is.’ It’s just that when you have something very simple — the vaccine is free. It’s available every day, and still is, … it doesn’t take that much time, and it works extremely well.”
Ackermann said the Marshall County Health Department had given out around 55 doses of vaccine this week, mostly second shots among the youngest eligible demographic, but some new faces in other cohorts as well. Ackermann was slightly more optimistic, armed with that knowledge, that there were still some people sitting on the fence regarding getting the shot.
“I think we’ll still continue to see a few people who are going to change their minds. Maybe these incentives that the governor is giving out will get people to get vaccinated,” he said. “But we don’t see large-scale numbers of people calling in right now.”