Jefferson County Lowest In Vaccine Distribution in W.Va., State and Locals Respond
West Virginia’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout is being praised as one of the best, not just in the country, but in the world. While it’s true that a fifth of West Virginians have already gotten their first dose, in many counties, residents are not getting vaccinated at those same rates.
“It just seemed like nobody that I knew over in the 65, or over 70 age group was being called,” said 70-year-old Katherine Austin.
She lives in Harper's Ferry in the Eastern Panhandle. And she’s nervous. She has a heart condition and signed up for the vaccine as soon as she could. But the clinics were full, or nonexistent.
She knew something wasn’t right. And others in Jefferson County noticed, too. Over at the Spirit of Jefferson newspaper, reporter Tim Cook got an earful.
“Some of the residents were sort of talking with family and friends, then with the neighbors, and then they were getting on social media,” Cook said. “But all the evidence we had was anecdotal.”
So he began looking into it. He learned that the local health department had an initial shipment of 150 doses, but after that it was unpredictable. Some weeks, 300 shots. Other weeks nothing.
Even the local health department director Dr. Terrence Reidy was in the dark. He knew how many doses his department gave out, but didn’t have the numbers from hospitals and pharmacies.
“I was hopeful that there was actually more that I just couldn't see,” Reidy said.
The state released county specific data in February that finally gave a clear picture. In the first two months of West Virginia’s acclaimed vaccine rollout, Jefferson County had the lowest percentage of its residents vaccinated in the whole state.
“So I was hoping it wasn't the case. But it was,” Reidy said.
Only one percent of all vaccines at that point had been given to Jefferson County, though it makes up 3 percent of the state's population. Most recent data shows 10 percent of folks in Jefferson County have gotten a shot. That’s almost half that of the statewide average.
“Of course Jefferson county is dead last, it’s the farthest county from the capitol building. We’re accustomed to that,” said Jefferson County’s Democratic House Delegate John Doyle.
He said his community has historically been overlooked on a number of issues. But this time, Jefferson County wasn’t alone. The state identified 28 of West Virginia’s 55 counties as underserved.
The state’s justification is that vaccinations were first rushed to nursing homes residents and hospital staff, and that many of those facilities are in larger counties. But that doesn’t totally justify the disparity, and state officials know that. Soon after the data came out, promises have been made to fix the problem.
“The governor has given us the guidance, and the direction, and the challenge, that we are all going to cross the finish line at the same time,” said Maj. Gen. James Hoyer during a news briefing in late February. He oversees vaccine distribution for the state.
Gov. Jim Justice and his COVID-19 task force identified those 28 counties in need of more doses. The state ended up redistributing thousands of doses from better-off counties to places like Jefferson.
Doyle is seeing the results, and he has faith in the administration. But his constituents have their suspicions.
“In their opinion, the administration wanted to get the shots out as quickly as possible, to the largest concentrations of people who were eligible, just to look good nationally,” he said.
Despite past failings, the Justice administration promises that West Virginians in every corner of the state will cross the finish line together.
Jefferson County is now receiving a surge in vaccine doses--1500 in the first week of March alone. And their dilemma has shifted.
Now, with supply in hand, the Jefferson County health department and its partners are in a race to catch up, and get out doses as quickly as possible.
CORRECTION: An earlier version said a quarter of West Virginians have gotten a shot. That point was made based on the number of total doses given out divided by population, which the DHHR bases their vaccine summary on. That number is inaccurate because it doesn't account that individuals have received two doses. Our reporting now reflects vaccination rates as a percentage of people who have gotten an initial dose.
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from Marshall Health and Charleston Area Medical Center.