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How West Virginia Tackled COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution

Having developed a task force comprising various agencies to respond to a multitude of disasters during the last decade, the state was poised to respond to the pandemic in a coordinated fashion.

boxes of the Moderna COIVD-19 vaccine packed on ice
West Virginia has seen its share of disasters over the last decade, and so it has a ton of experience in the logistical operations that go along with finding vulnerable populations and ensuring the safety of all citizens.

The state has dealt with Hurricane Sandy, a derecho that knocked out power to 53 of its 55 counties, endured a thousand-year flood and hosted the National Scout Jamboree.

That experience is one of the reasons the state has excelled in vaccinating the masses. It’s ranked by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as one of the nation’s top states in getting COVID-19 vaccinations into the arms of citizens.

Responding to disasters requires multiple agencies to work together on logistics, and for logistical operations to work relatively efficiently, they have to include input from a lot of different entities and agencies in a coordinated, practiced fashion.

Recognizing this, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice created an interagency task force to respond to the multiple disasters, and that task force was deployed as soon as it was apparent the nation was facing a pandemic

“The interagency task force, I tell people three things about it,” said Retired Major Gen. James Hoyer, who leads the task force. “It communicates, it coordinates and it synchronizes.

“So imagine a 10,000-square-foot drill hall at our National Guard headquarters building with 60 work stations, extra ventilation and appropriate barriers and the IT pieces you need in place, and a backup generator,” Hoyer said in describing the task force work environment.

That’s where the 55 counties are served by local health departments, emergency management agencies, local FEMA, the state’s hospital and long-term care facility representatives, and the departments of agriculture and education, among others.

When the pandemic became evident, the task force, at the behest of Gov. Justice, began strategizing. Among the goals: reduce death rates and hospitalizations; impact the most vulnerable populations, in this case the elderly; and maintain critical services.

With a multitude of agencies, including local health departments, contributing data, the task force was able to target which populations would get the vaccines first. The data showed that 50 percent of the deaths were coming from nursing homes and 77.5 percent were people over the age of 70.

“So you sit down with the governor and you say, ‘OK, we’re going to go hard and fast at nursing homes, the assisted living facilities,’” Hoyer said.

And the state took a bit of a different tack than other states, eschewing the federal government’s first phase of the federal pharmacy program and instead employing the National Guard to deliver vaccines to hospitals and health departments and using independent pharmacies. 

Also, when the Biden administration took over and FEMA was setting up mass vaccination sites in the states, West Virginia declined.

“We’ve got our 55 networks set up across 55 counties,” Hoyer said. “Our largest city, Charleston, is only 50,000 people, but that county has a robust health department, a robust emergency management structure and a very robust emergency medical services structure and they’re running a large-scale clinic.”

The state has vaccinated all nursing home residents and first responders as well as more than 800 employees in two different school districts.

“Well, on the 28th of January, when [everyone else] was in that week of finishing up first doses through the federal pharmacy program, we finished up our [nursing home] facilities in their second doses,” Hoyer said.

“So we go back to the month of January and our death rates dropped by 46 percent,” Hoyer said. “Our hospitalizations have gone way down and we have [as of Wednesday] 364 people in all of our state hospitals.”

Also as of Wednesday, the state had administered all of the vaccines it had.

In addressing using an approach that differs from other states, Andrea Lannom, public information officer for the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, Bureau of Public Health, wrote in an email that 54 percent of the state’s pharmacies are not chain-affiliated and, “if we only opted into the federal program, we felt we would be limiting our ability to distribute and administer the vaccine to the population in need.”

She added that the state has not opted out of the second phase federal pharmacy partnership and that the only thing holding it back is getting vaccines fast enough.