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Justice addresses COVID-19 vaccine rollout issues

Photo Courtesy of the West Virginia Governor’s Office Gov. Jim Justice talks about the state’s process in vaccine distribution Monday.

CHARLESTON — Despite still leading the nation in COVID-19 vaccinations, Gov. Jim Justice and officials in charge of vaccine distribution addressed concerns Monday over the state’s handling of vaccinations for seniors and teachers.

Justice announced last Wednesday that residents aged 80 and older could start receiving COVID-19 vaccines available through Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna that day. Word of the announcement quickly traveled with lines forming at some county health departments before local health officials were ready. As of Monday, more than 8,300 seniors age 80 and older have been vaccinated.

“We don’t want vaccines sitting on the shelf,” Justice said. “We decided to give hope, real hope, back to our people who are 80 or 70 years of age. Those people who were told over and over they would not be getting the vaccine until probably April. They were scared to death, because they knew if they get (COVID-19) they’re in real trouble.”

In statements last week, state officials urged patience as the West Virginia Joint Interagency Task Force for Vaccines finalizes distribution plans. Tentative plans include partnerships with 82 organizations, using the West Virginia National Guard armories across the state as distribution points, and utilizing federally funded health clinics.

Justice announced a new toll-free vaccination hotline at 1-833-734-0965 for residents to call and get additional information about how to get a vaccine. The Department of Health and Human Resources also created a web portal at vaccinate.wv.gov where clinic locations will be posted when they come available. More information will be posted today.

“It will serve as a point of reference for West Virginians seeking information on COVID and their vaccines and the timeliness and any other questions about the vaccines,” Justice said.

As of Monday, county health departments remained the only locations for older residents to go to receive vaccinations. Many health departments took to social media encouraging residents to schedule appointments to get the vaccine. Some health departments held clinics.

In one of those clinics held by the Boone County Health Department, 44 people received antibody injections instead of the Moderna vaccine after the National Guard accidentally mixed up the two medications, according to WCHS-TV. The National

Guard apologized for the mix-up and has tightened its inventory control process to prevent a similar issue from occurring in the future.

Maj. Gen. James Hoyer’s last day as adjutant general of the West Virginia National Guard was Monday, though he will continue as leader of the West Virginia Joint Interagency Task Force for Vaccines as he transitions into a vice president’s position at West Virginia University. Hoyer said 42 of the 44 people who got the wrong shot have already received the correct vaccination.

“We had a break in the process last week that caused a challenge for us,” Hoyer said Monday. “I want to assure the folks … that we have put processes and additional changes in place. We have done additional training. It’s my responsibility to the governor as the head of the interagency task force … to make sure we continue to improve our ability to get vaccines out as quickly as possible without challenges.”

Another issue for the interagency task force is how to best distribute doses to counties for vaccinating the older population. Over the weekend, the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department had 500 doses available for the 80 and older population, while the Monongalia County Health Department had 100 doses and the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department had 50 doses available in Wood County.

Hoyer acknowledged that the numbers are lopsided for the moment, but as additional doses become available it should even out.

“What you will see as this levels itself and we get the processes in place, it will probably look like some uneven distribution,” Hoyer said. “At the time, we had doses available and the governor gave us the approval and guidance to move forward. At that time, Kanawha County had folks in place ready. We’ll go back and continue to improve and refine that. I think there were additional doses that went out today to local health departments to stand up additional clinics.”

Justice also addressed concerns by educators about the state’s return to school plan. Pre-K, elementary, and middle schools will reopen on Tuesday, Jan 19, while high schools will reopen that same day as long as their county isn’t red on DHHR’s County Alert System map. Teachers aged 50 and older will be vaccinated for COVID-19 between now and Jan. 19, with teachers younger than 50 getting vaccinated next.

Teachers and school service personnel have raised concerns about receiving the first shot and returning to the classroom before they can receive the second shot required. Justice said that getting the first shot will give them more protection than no shot at all.

“Within seven to 10 days of the first vaccination you’ve got some significant coverage that you didn’t have before with no vaccination,” Justice said. “You’re significantly less likely to get this thing with the first shot. It’s the second shot that moves you up to 95 percent. But it’s horrendously important for us to get our kids back in school.”

According to DHHR, the state has received 103,375 doses of either the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine or the Moderna vaccine, though Justice said that only about 87,000 of that total was for the first shots. Both vaccines require two shots: the Pfizer vaccine requires 21 days between both shots and the Moderna vaccine requires 28 days before the second shot. People who received their first Pfizer shot on Dec. 14 could receive their second shot Monday.

As of Monday, 52,221 doses of vaccine have been administered across the state, with 2.91 percent of the state’s residents receiving the first dose. Hoyer said the state will receive 23,000 vaccine doses this week. According to Bloomberg’s Vaccine Tracker, West Virginia remains one of the top five states for vaccine distribution.

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