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TOP STORIES OF 2021: The Year in COVID-19

Photo by Derek Redd - Elm Grove Elementary third-grader Dalton Wiethe squeezes a stress ball as nurse Leah Minch administers a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic at Madison Elementary School. Widespread availability of COVID vaccine was a major boost in the fight against the virus this year.

The Ohio Valley’s experience with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021 mirrored much of how the region dealt with it the year prior.

Warmer months provided a respite from high infection rates, with that rest ending as the weather grew colder and forced people back indoors.

Yet one significant difference between this year and last year provided a new weapon for many to combat the virus — widespread availability of COVID vaccines.

Ultimately, residents had choices between the two-shot Pfizer and Moderna versions and the one-shot Johnson & Johnson version. And by the end of the year, vaccine doses were available to people as young as age 5.

Early in the vaccine rollout, West Virginia was lauded as one of the most proactive of the 50 states. High priority was given to people in the highest-risk categories, such as first-responders and people age 65 and older. Doses were distributed rapidly through senior living facilities and outbreaks in those facilities became less common.

By the summer, infection rates had plummeted, which led governments to allow outdoor festivals to return and made festival coordinators comfortable enough to welcome patrons back to the events that were shuttered the summer before due to the pandemic. This past summer saw the return of staples like the Upper Ohio Valley Italian Heritage Festival, Belmont County’s Blame My Roots country music festival, the Wheeling Feeling Chili Cookoff and the Grecian Fest. Thousands of locals returned to those sites throughout the Ohio Valley to eat, drink, listen to music and be back around friends.

“It feels like coming back home,” said Karen Rutana, whose hot apple dumpling stand made its return to the Italian Festival this past summer. “It’s absolutely wonderful to see everybody. We love it here.”

Yet, as the year went on, the pace of vaccinations in West Virginia slowed. To re-energize the drive to put shots in arms, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announced a series of lotteries, titled “Do It For Babydog” after the governor’s English bulldog.

Vaccinated residents could register to win prizes ranging from hunting and fishing licenses to college football and basketball season tickets to cars to huge cash prizes. One round of the lottery focused on children getting vaccinated and included prizes like $25,000 educational savings funds.

Even with those incentives – along with regular pleas from Justice and other state officials to get vaccinated – the pace never returned to the heights of the start of the rollout.

Justice often pulled no punches in discussing the potential consequences of being lax with getting the full complement of COVID shots, such as a few weeks ago, when the number of state residents over age 50 that received COVID boosters was at 23.9%

“They might as well cock a gun right at their heads,” Justice said during a COVID briefing. “Those people we know, without any question, their immune systems are tremendously reduced from when they got their second vaccine. Those people are exposed beyond belief. We know if they get (COVID-19), there’s a good chance they’ll die.”

The latest totals on the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources COVID-19 dashboard had 60.4% of state residents with at least one shot, 49.6% who were fully vaccinated and 16.5% who have received booster doses. Ohio County has been at the forefront of the vaccination effort, with numbers well beyond the state totals. According to the dashboard, the county has 66.6% of residents with at least one shot, 57.6% fully vaccinated and 23.6% with boosters.

According to the dashboard, in 2021 there have been 174,987 confirmed COVID cases, 53,970 probable cases and 3,252 deaths. There have been 248,512 confirmed cases, 70,523 probable cases and 5,251 deaths in the state since the pandemic began in March 2020.

Those 2021 numbers included a surge at the end of the year due to the emergence of the delta and omicron variants of the virus. The rate of infection for both is much quicker than previous variants. Yet, due to the vaccines, the Northern Panhandle and the rest of West Virginia weren’t subject to the wholesale lockdowns instituted during the earlier days of the pandemic.

Among the brighter spots found in the gloom of the virus were the return to in-person schooling this year following months of students learning remotely with varying degrees of success. Also, many small businesses were able to weather the storm by finding unique ways to peddle their wares even during lockdowns.

“It’s not really surprising because entrepreneurs obviously have grit to become entrepreneurs,” said Del. Erikka Storch, R-Ohio, who served as Wheeling Area Chamber of Commerce president before taking a new job late in the year. “They’re the ones that make the world go around. Small businesses are the largest part of our employee base. It’s not for the weak of heart. COVID of course was a huge wave to ride, but so many said that nobody is going to be responsible for my making it except for me, so I’m going to make it.”

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