West Virginia: First to worst in COVID-19 vaccine efforts

KENOVA, W.Va. (AP) – When COVID-19 vaccines first became available, Ric Griffith’s family-owned pharmacy was among 250 mother-and-pop pharmacies that helped West Virginia get the fastest start of any state by vaccinating their residents.

Republican Gov. Jim Justice went on national news shows to declare West Virginia – a place that regularly ranks near the bottom in many health indicators – “the diamond of the rough.”

Nine months later, those days are a distant memory. Demand for the vaccine has almost dried up, the question of whether to get a shot has become a political hot-button, and West Virginia’s vaccination rate has plummeted to the lowest among states.

The governor, who spent months preaching the vaccine’s virtues to reluctant West Virginians, still does, but is also promoting a new law that will allow for some exemptions from employer-imposed vaccination requirements.

And those shots? They are mostly on shelves.

“I’m afraid we, while taking a lap of victory, discovered that there were several laps left in the race,” Griffith, who is also a Democratic member of the State House of Representatives, said Monday about West Virginia’s descent from first to worst. The doctor has since turned his attention to preparing 3,000 pumpkins for a major Halloween event that was settled by the pandemic last year.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 41% of West Virginia’s 1.8 million people are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, while 49% have received at least one dose. The state rate of about 89,000 doses administered per. 100,000 inhabitants is the worst in the country. Nationwide, 57.5% of the population is fully vaccinated and 66.5% have received at least one dose.

In West Virginia, it was not because of a lack of experimentation. For several months, Justice offered a selection of giveaways to encourage people to get vaccinated. He drove his pet bulldog around the state, handing out cash, cars, pickup trucks, ATVs, lawn mowers, tickets to athletics events at the university, and scholarships.

It provided good photo opportunities. But the state’s vaccination rate barely shifted.

By the fall came a new wave of sickness and death. Hospitals experienced a crush of patients, and the number of active cases, which had dropped to less than 1,000 in early July, rose to nearly 30,000 in mid-September before falling sharply. The death toll from the outbreak has risen to around 4,400.

West Virginia has the country’s third oldest population, with nearly 20% of the population over 65. Health officials said most of the virus deaths have involved people in the vulnerable age group.

The governor continues to urge residents to wear masks and stay away from the crowds and has scolded the unvaccinated. “We should be very respectful of others,” he said recently. “The more of us who get vaccinated, the fewer die.”

Griffith said he was proud of Justice’s nonstop efforts to push vaccines “and the obvious love he has for the people of West Virginia.”

But Justice also ended a nationwide mandate for indoor masks in June and has opposed vaccination and mask requirements ever since. And in October, he pushed the GOP-controlled Legislative Assembly through bill to allow workers to use medical or religious exemptions to get out of employer-required COVID-19 vaccine mandates. The law will enter into force in January.

The bill was tabled after President Joe Biden announced plans to require federal contractors and employees of all U.S. companies with 100 or more workers to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Partly due to distrust of the government and doubts about the vaccine’s safety, interest in COVID-19 vaccinations has waned in a state where President Donald Trump led all counties in the 2020 election.

Christopher Holmes, 44, of Sissonville, said he and his family were determined not to be vaccinated. So in June, Holmes got the virus, spent 80 days in a hospital and lost 110 pounds. He had to learn to walk again and is still undergoing rehabilitation.

When he entered the hospital, his daughter was the only vaccinated person in the family. When he came out, everyone had their shots.

“I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through,” Holmes said. “I hope everyone gets the shot, because you do not want to take it home to your family. If you save one life, it’s worth it.”

Last January, the demand for the vaccine at Griffith & Feil Drug in Kenova along the Ohio and Kentucky line was so high that Griffith and his daughter, pharmacist Heidi Griffith Romero, had to limit the number of daily customers.

According to state data, at least 7.4% of West Virginia’s population received the first of two doses that month, and the vaccination rate per per capita was higher than in any other state.

In the spring, reports emerged of rare but potentially dangerous blood clots from the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. After a brief pause, the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration recommended that the single-dose vaccine be allowed to resume.

But “public confidence never seemed to get over it,” Romero said.

She now sees only five to 10 people a week coming in for their first doses. The pharmacy also administers shots at nursing homes for two to 10 people a week.

Romero said people are uncomfortable because claims about the safety of the shots have not been supported by years of study.

Griffith said he will have the floor at this weekend’s Pumpkin House show and ask the expected thousands of visitors to wear masks and get their first shots or their boosters.

He called the state’s low vaccination rate frustrating and acknowledged that dizziness in the early days may have been premature.

Griffith was led to paraphrase his favorite quote from Mark Twain.

“I have studied the human race,” said the pharmacist, “and I find the results humiliating.”

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