DJ West Virginia Was a Covid-19 Vaccine Success Story, but Now Cases Are Surging
2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
By Kris Maher
West Virginia has one of the fastest rates of new Covid-19 cases in the nation, a surge some state health officials say is at least in part due to the state's low vaccination rate.
At 46%, West Virginia has the lowest percentage of its eligible population fully vaccinated of any state, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The low percentage is striking. The state was initially considered a vaccine-rollout success story. In February, it had vaccinated a higher percentage of its population than any other state.
Early on, the state excelled at vaccinating people in nursing homes and others who were eager to get the shot, but then it ran into a roadblock of hesitant people, state officials say. It has joined other states with high numbers of hospitalized Covid-19 patients.
As of Thursday, West Virginia had 109 new Covid-19 cases per 100,000 people on average over the past seven days, the highest rate of new daily cases in the nation, followed closely by Tennessee, according to data compiled by The Wall Street Journal.
On Friday, there were a record 922 people with Covid-19 hospitalized in West Virginia, up from 52 in the first week of July. There are 277 people in intensive-care units now, up from 17 in early July. The state announced 57 new Covid-19 deaths Friday, bringing the total to 3,370, in a state of 1.8 million people.
Clay Marsh, the executive dean for health sciences at West Virginia University, who is coordinating the state's coronavirus response, said the state has been more successful in vaccinating the most at-risk people and older residents. Roughly 81% of people 65 and older are fully vaccinated in the state. But he said that about a quarter of the state's residents, including many younger people, are hesitant to get the vaccine, according to a survey.
Ruby Memorial Hospital, in Morgantown, the state's biggest hospital with about 700 beds, is now keeping patients in pre- and post-op rooms because it has nowhere else to put them, said Albert Wright, chief executive of West Virginia University Health System, effectively the health-care safety net for much of the state.
Ruby typically takes patients from about 65 other hospitals in the state, he said, but it now is turning down most requests for transfers. It has a waiting list of 10 people to be admitted to the ICU.
"Covid is pretty much everywhere," Mr. Wright said. "I just don't think people realize how bad it is."
Some health professionals and state leaders said they want Gov. Jim Justice, a Republican, to reinstate precautionary measures, such as requiring masks among staff and students at K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status, as recommended by the CDC.
But Dr. Marsh said the governor was unlikely to issue any mandates. "He feels at this point that if he started to mandate vaccines or masks he would split the state right down the middle," said Dr. Marsh, one of the governor's advisers on the issue.
A spokesman for Mr. Justice didn't respond to a request for comment.
The governor described the situation as dire recently, as he urged residents to get vaccinated, while saying it was their choice. "This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated," he said at a press briefing, where he introduced the mother of a mixed martial-arts athlete now fighting for his life in one of the state's hospitals.
"If this dread disease can take down this tremendous athlete, a man strong beyond belief and very young in years, can it not take us all down?" Mr. Justice said. "It will not stop unless we absolutely get ourselves vaccinated and we get to a percentage level where we break the chain."
Mr. Justice has left decisions on masking and other measures to local leaders. School boards in roughly 40 of 55 counties in the state have mandatory mask requirements.
Mr. Justice has been offering prizes to residents who get vaccinated since June. Prizes in the sweepstakes, dubbed "Do It For Babydog," after the name of the governor's English Bulldog, include 10 years of free gas and $150,000 to put toward a wedding.
Some hospitals are now requiring vaccinations for staff by this fall. The moves follow an executive order from President Biden earlier this month requiring that workers at companies with 100 or more 100 employees, and healthcare workers at facilities that receive federal Medicare or Medicaid, get vaccinated or be tested weekly.
Amber Robinson, who works at Mountain Health Network, in Huntington, as a clerk in the cytology department, said she would rather lose her job than get the shot. She recently organized a rally to oppose the health system's plan to require staff to be vaccinated by Oct. 31 or submit to twice-weekly Covid-19 testing.
Ms. Robinson, 47 years old, said she doesn't believe the vaccine has been proven safe and that she won't get the shot or get tested. The CDC has said the Covid-19 vaccines are safe and effective, and that serious health problems after vaccination have been rare.
She said she has been criticized by her family, including a nephew who has told her not to come to his house anymore. "That's kind of where the divide is, but it doesn't change my mind," she said.
Zachary Runyon is on the other side of the divide. A third-year resident at Mountain Health, he said he got the vaccine but others in his family refuse to get it.
Part of the problem, said Mr. Runyon, 28, is that the virus has become highly politicized in conversations and people feel pressure at home or in churches and other settings.
"If you support the vaccine, you must be a Democrat, and if you're a Democrat you're going to hell," he said, describing conversations he has had. "If you don't support the vaccine, then you must be a Republican, and therefore you're a racist."
Mr. Runyon, who has had Covid-19, said he chose to get the vaccine despite family opposition. "I got it because I don't want other people to be uncomfortable around me," he said. "I don't want to put anyone else in danger."
Write to Kris Maher at [email protected].com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
September 18, 2021 05:30 ET (09:30 GMT)