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WSAZ Investigates | First to Worst

Published: Dec. 15, 2021 at 7:52 PM EST
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - The first COVID-19 vaccines arrived in West Virginia and started going into arms exactly one year ago. The state led the nation in vaccinations at the beginning of the rollout, but only half of the state’s population is fully vaccinated at this point.

With one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, cases continue to surge. West Virginia has had more than 310,000 cases and more than 5,000 deaths from the virus.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice said those number would have been lower if more people were willing to get a shot. However, he said the conservative population of the state is not willing to get a shot under any circumstances.

“It is not as good as we want it to be,” Justice said when asked about the state falling from the top to the bottom of the vaccination rankings. “Fifty percent is not as good as we want it to be. It can be better, but we are absolutely in a very, very red conservative state. A lot of people have their minds made up and are very difficult to get there.”

Health officials, including Kanawha-Charleston Health Department director Dr. Sherri Young, thought the vaccine would help end the pandemic, but she said vaccinations have slowed to a crawl.

The Health Department held massive COVID-19 vaccine clinics at the Charleston Convention Center for 17 straight Saturdays in early 2021. One Saturday in February, more than 5,300 people received the the life-saving shot. Eventually demand dropped off, causing them to shift towards smaller community clinics. Kanawha County only fully vaccinated 92 people this past Saturday.

“To have the first doses in hand was almost a prayer answered, it was very surreal to have the answer that we’d all been waiting for,” Young said. “Hopefully, some of these answers are still out there. I’m hopeful that there still will be an end to this, whether it’s the oral medications or ramping up antibody therapy, or people please take the vaccine, if you have get the booster shots.”

“We’re going to have to learn to live with COVID,” Young said. “It’s endemic now. It’s going to be maybe it looks like flu seasons, maybe there’s some predictability there. But, it’s something that we’re going to have to live with for the rest of our lives. But that being said, I think that things will get better. I just had truly thought it would be a lot better than this by now.”

Young said the biggest concern is that there is not higher demand for the vaccines because almost everyone who has died from the virus over the past year was unvaccinated.

That’s been the same concern that’s repeated by Justice during his COVID-19 press conferences multiple times per week during the past year.

Justice said he has taken every suggestion to try to get more people vaccinated, but is steadfast against any vaccine mandates which could increase vaccination rates.

“(West Virginia is) a state that many people really and truly didn’t think had a chance,” Justice said. “If you look at what we have achieved with death rates and everything that has gone on, up until this last period of time where we have hit this giant roadblock, it’s been incredible. That’s all there is to it. But you know, getting people across the finish line, without mandating things is really, really challenging. I don’t believe that we should mandate people to be vaccinated or whatever it may be, but absolutely you know West Virginia has a lot to be proud for and I’m not going to tear it down.”

DHHR data shows only 240,000 people have received their first shot since Justice launched his signature COVID-19 vaccination campaign, Do It For Babydog, in early June. The campaign handed out millions of dollars worth of cash, cars, scholarships and more. However, WSAZ found the campaign did not make a major impact on increasing vaccinations as it started at the same time the data shows vaccinations began to steadily drop off. The only minor increases in vaccination rate since then were when additional people became eligible to get a shot, including children aged five to 17.

“I think there are all kinds of things that we could say,” Justice responded when asked about the effectiveness of the vaccination campaign. “Well, maybe the Martians are really invading us, and maybe that is why we are really truly seeing a slight increase. We saw a slight increase because we went out and did things, and of all things we picked Babydog of all things because her face does two things. I go back to Walt Disney doing everything with a mouse, and everything. Well, Babydog really and truly makes everyone smile looking at her and she loves everybody. I don’t know of a message on a planet that could be just that. If we could make others smile and absolutely know that we perpetuate everybody loving everybody, I don’t know how it gets any better than that.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) predicts West Virginia’s vaccination rate will remain about the same through next year. That’s at the same time most other states are predicted to reach herd immunity.

Justice said the CDC has proven to be wrong in the past, but could not provide any specific examples when asked how he is going to make sure the state’s vaccination rate does begin to improve.

“It’s just unfortunate that we have this incredible tool that’s been delivered to us and many people are either afraid or don’t believe that that tool will be beneficial for them,” West Virginia COVID-19 Czar Dr. Clay Marsh said. “While it makes us sad to see people die of a disease COVID-19, where we have treatment that could prevent each one of those deaths most likely, we also know that we all make our decisions, and there are consequences and ramifications.”

“Our job is to try to help the people who want to get vaccinated or who are on the fence to help them decide to get vaccinated if we can,” Marsh said. “We want to make it very easy and convenient for them to get vaccinated, and to make sure we continue to communicate clearly, and using the data, not just our opinions to try to help people see and be informed about the risks and benefits of either not being vaccinated or choosing vaccination.”

Marsh said the state has hit a roadblock in getting people vaccinated. Some more rural areas, like Mingo County, have a vaccination rate below 30 percent, according to the DHHR COVID-19 dashboard. Even Kanawha County, which is leading the state, has a vaccination rate well below the national average.

Marsh said that means more people will die, hospitals will be pushed to the limit and new variants might pop up that vaccines do not protect people from if the state’s vaccination rate does not increase.

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