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W.Va. COVID-19 Hospitalizations Hit New High As State Plans For Vaccine

Coronavirus (COVID-19)
Centers for Disease Control & Prevention

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announced Wednesday that he plans to issue an executive order next week, establishing a task force for distributing newly developed coronavirus vaccines.

As West Virginia plans to receive the first doses of a vaccine from the pharmaceutical company Pfizer in December, the state has yet again reached a record number of patients hospitalized for COVID-19.

According to data from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, there were 510 West Virginians hospitalized with the virus on Wednesday, 144 of whom were in intensive care units.

The state most recently surpassed 400 hospitalized COVID-19 patients for the first time on Nov. 16, after hitting 300 patients less than a week earlier.

Nationally, the CDC reported two weeks ago that there were roughly 288 hospitalizations per 100,000 people.

While some states are already reporting strains on their health care facilities and low availability in intensive care units, Coronavirus Czar Clay Marsh said Wednesday that West Virginia hospitals still have enough room.

“We still have plenty of capacity, on the in-patient side and the ICU side,” Marsh said. “And, our ventilator use has not really picked up as much, which is also a good sign, but it doesn't reduce our need to be continuously diligent about making sure that we're protecting this vital asset.”

Vaccine Distribution Will Be 'Complicated'

The West Virginia National Guard is responsible for distributing the coronavirus vaccine, according to a plan from state health officials. The governor released a draft of the plan on Friday, which recommends that health care workers at hospitals and long-term care facilities receive the vaccine first.

“We need to understand that it is a complicated vaccine to distribute,” said Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, who announced his retirement from the Guard on Monday. “It has environmental issues related to temperature. The doses have to be broken down once they come to the state of West Virginia. So, a lot of work will be done in that area to meet the objectives.”

Storing the vaccine will require freezer space and other supplies that many rural hospitals, including those in parts of West Virginia, don’t have. Additionally, Hoyer said, the vaccine must be administered in two parts, three to four weeks apart.

Justice said that he expects the first doses from Pfizer will first arrive between Dec. 10. and Dec. 12. A vaccine from Moderna — another company that is seeking federal approval for its coronavirus vaccine — could arrive next.

Three companies so far have announced that their vaccines proved more than 90 percent successful in clinical trials. Federal regulators still have to grant the companies emergency use authorization before they can distribute.

Justice said that he believes the federal government is “carrying the cost of the vaccine,” and that there will be no price tag for recipients. Pfizer has agreed to sell the United States government a first batch of 100 million doses for $1.95 billion.

Health Officials Advise Against Gatherings, Travel For Holidays

It will be a while before the most of public has access to a coronavirus vaccine, and across the country health experts anticipate a spike in cases due to holiday gatherings.

“West Virginia, I would tell you to be really careful with Thanksgiving,” Justice said, after dismissing the idea of issuing a “wholesale shutdown” for businesses and schools.

“This idea of regulating how many you should be with and everything else, that’s ridiculous. Be with your families, enjoy your families,” Justice said. “Try as best you can to wear a mask when you can, and if your family is bigger than, you know, eight or 10 people, especially try to or absolutely just wash your hands.”

Health officials are taking a more cautious stance, advising against travel and advocating for smaller-sized gatherings.

West Virginia reported more than 960 new cases of the coronavirus in the 24 hours leading up to the governor’s press conference on Wednesday. That makes the state’s total of active, non-recovered COVID-19 cases 14,283.

The state has confirmed 695 deaths due to the coronavirus so far.

Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.

Emily Allen works in Charleston covering the state Legislature and public affairs throughout southern West Virginia.

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