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Health & Science

W.Va. Health Leaders Urge Caution Despite Increase In People Vaccinated For COVID-19

A vial of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine ready for administration at Guy's Hospital in London on Tuesday.
A vial of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine ready for administration at Guy's Hospital in London on Tuesday.

West Virginia health leaders on Monday celebrated national coverage of their rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, while urging preparedness for an upcoming surge in coronavirus-related hospitalizations.

The state National Guard and local health departments have helped administer more than 80 percent of the vaccines that West Virginia has received from pharmaceutical companies, through the federal government’s “Operation Warp Speed.”

Still, coronavirus czar Clay Marsh acknowledged during a virtual press briefing Monday that it will still take some time before all West Virginians have access to the vaccine.

“Many people are very worried about the issue of not being, perhaps, prioritized yet for vaccination,” Marsh said. “And the thing that we've reminded you over and over is that we already have the equivalent of a vaccine, and that is a mask.”

West Virginia had administered more than 92,000 first doses of the two-part vaccine by Monday afternoon, according to data from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources. The DHHR says more than 13,000 West Virginians were fully vaccinated by Monday.

Justice pointed to national coverage of the state’s vaccine rollout program, which uses the West Virginia National Guard to distribute coronavirus vaccines instead of a federal contractor, by outlets like CNBC and NPR.

But Justice has had less to say on another large, COVID-19-related headline, that being incoming President Joe Biden’s plan to speed the release of COVID-19 vaccines being held in reserves.

The outgoing Trump administration has said the move will hinder states’ abilities to administer the second booster of the two-dose vaccine. When the news first broke Friday, Justice said his plan at the moment was to “hold back” and ensure people still get their second doses.

“Unless there's been a tremendous change in the medical community, in what their trials and the FDA and all the stuff that they came up with, I don't think, I really don't think that's going to happen,” Justice said. “But I am not a doctor, this is way past my paygrade.”

Meanwhile, officials for Biden’s transition team say the second dose will still be necessary to the vaccination process moving forward. Retired Maj. Gen. James Hoyer of the West Virginia National Guard, who remains on the state task force for COVID-19 planning, said Friday that the guard will prepare to distribute more vaccine doses if allocations from the federal government increase.

West Virginia surpassed more than 100,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus over the weekend. Of that population, the DHHR reports more than 71,000 West Virginians have recovered and nearly 1,600 have died.

State hospitalizations from COVID-19 have dropped by 50 people in the last week. Still, the number of West Virginia patients in an intensive care unit has remained above 200 since Wednesday, when the state reported 219 ICU patients — the highest number at any one time.

“We know that making more beds is certainly something that hospitals can do using post acute care units that are usually used post operatively,” Marsh said. He’s hoping to see fewer people on ventilation units, thanks to new respiratory treatments for COVID-19.

Marsh said Monday that there’s still a chance the state could experience a “surge” in COVID-19 hospitalizations, from holiday gatherings in December.

Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.

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