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Appalachia Health News tells the story of our health challenges and how we overcome them throughout the region. 

Focus Turns to Young Adults In Race To Vaccinate West Virginians

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June Leffler
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WVPB
Huntington High School ran its first in-school COVID-19 vaccination clinic in April 2021. The school will continue to hold more clinics as more students opt into getting a first dose.

Huntington High senior Mani Frieson sat patiently in the bleachers of his school gym before returning to class. He got his shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, and waited 15 minutes to be sure he had no adverse reactions.

“I just see that's like a really, really great, great step towards a better future,” he said.

Down on the gym floor, medical students were preparing more of his classmates for their shots.

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June Leffler/ WVPB
Emmanuel "Mani" Frieson was one of the first students at Huntington High School to get a COVID-19 vaccine. He had the option of getting a dose at one of the community clinics ran by the local health department. He opted instead to get his shot at his school with other classmates.

About 150 students lined up for a shot that day--about a tenth of those eligible. There will be more clinics to come, but Frieson was glad to go first. He said it’s important to set at example for others who might be hesitating.

“I think getting through that shows people's commitment enough to making this virus go away,” he said.

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June Leffler/ WVPB
Jadyn Byron, 18, got her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine at her school, Huntington High. She's back to in-person classes and works as a gas station clerk. Being around the public so much, she feels the vaccine will help keep her and her family safe.

West Virginia officials have shifted their focus when it comes to administering the COVID-19 vaccine. West Virginia's eldest were prioritized first to save as many lives as possible. Now, the race is on to vaccinate younger, more sociable West Virginians to slow the spread of the coronavirus and evolving variants.

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June Leffler/ WVPB
Jackie Adkins, 18, is a senior at Huntington High School. His senior year was not ideal due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He hopes that as more high schoolers get vaccinated that lower classmen will have more normal and productive school careers.

The state Department of Education plans to hold in-school vaccine clinics in every county by the end of April. Half of West Virginia’s 55 counties have participated so far. The goal is to vaccinate as many students as possible, but positive results could be seen sooner rather than later.

“If we can get 20 to 25 percent of a school vaccinated, between the students and staff, then the health officials are telling us that drops the transmission rates extremely,” said State Deputy Superintendent Michele Blatt.

Blatt says almost 40,000 public school students are old enough to be eligible. Just over 60 percent of public school staff have been vaccinated.

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June Leffler/ WVPB
Marshall University medical, pharmacy, and nursing students pitched in to help vaccinate students at Huntington High.

State health officials have set their eyes on vaccinating younger folks, because they’re getting COVID-19 more often than before. Over the course of the pandemic, those under 20 accounted for 16 percent of all cases in West Virginia. In the past month, that share has risen to 26 percent.

Many of those cases are popping up in school settings. More than 30 school outbreaks have been reported this month. An outbreak constitutes two or more positive cases that are epidemiology linked. Kanawha County is facing its largest number of school outbreaks since the pandemic began.

But Blatt said kids aren’t necessarily getting the virus in the classroom.

“A majority of the outbreaks are tied to extracurricular activities, or social events in the communities and outside of school hours. So they're bringing it back into the school,” she said.

When more than a dozen positive cases were reported at Huntington High this month, classmates in close contact to those infected had to quarantine -- including the entire boys basketball team.

That meant more than a week without practice, games and of course, in-person classes.

But the team returned just in time to face their closest rival, Cabell Midland High School, on their opponents’ court.

“We didn't know if we were gonna have a season at the beginning,” said Ty Holmes, the head coach for Huntington High. “So the guys are pretty excited to even get out there and just even play basketball.”

Games only recently started back up again. And Huntington’s boys had been on an undefeated winning streak.

Holmes hoped they would keep that momentum going, but they’re rusty from quarantine.

“You kind of wonder, coming back, hoping they don't get injuries and hoping that they're ready to play and they're still in their minds focused on what we're trying to do,” he said.

State health officials point to sports, more than in-class instruction, as a potential spreader.

Cabell County’s health department says the most recent infections are a reflection of community spread more generally, but youth sports have contributed.

During game night, the crowd got bigger by the minute as game time approached.

Most people were vigilant about wearing their masks. The guys on the court weren’t masked up, they don't have to when they’re playing.

Before tip off, the announcer reminded everyone of the house rules.

“No food or drinks are permitted in the gym, so there's no reason for pulling down your mask. Also, a mask under your chin does not qualify wearing a mask,” he said. “These are the guidelines we must follow in order for these young athletes to play ball. We don't want to be a spreader of this terrible virus and do everything possible to keep everybody in this gym safe.”

Right now West Virginia is in a state of flux. People are being vaccinated rapidly, but more dangerous variants of the virus are becoming more common.

The number of West Virginians, including young adults, that will end up getting vaccinated will determine the spread of the virus in months to come, state health officials have said.

As for the Huntington boys’ team, they’re winning streak came to an end that night. Midland took the win by seven points. The basketball season ends in early May.


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