West Virginia got off to a roaring start in 2021 and currently ranks 5th out of 50 U.S. states, in percentage of residents fully vaccinated. That’s surprised many, given the state’s resources and health problems, including obesity, diabetes, and opioid addiction. Around one-fifth of all residents in West Virginia have now been vaccinated.
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, there was a fear it would wipe out towns like Moundsville with aging populations across the Rust Belt, Appalachia and the Midwest. And the disease has killed over half-a-million Americans, making 2020 the deadliest year in American history. In Marshall County (pop. 97,000), there have been over 5,400 reported infections, and over 100 deaths.
The state locked down and masked up, and now there is light at the end of the tunnel. So why has West Virginia been so successful at vaccine distribution? Here are five reasons why the state has pulled ahead:
- Public, not private. Instead of outsourcing the vaccine hotline to a private company, West Virginia used its own public resources, including state government employees and the National Guard. “The state decided not to outsource the hotline to a private company as some states have done, housing it instead under the Department of Health and Human Resources’ Office of Constituent Services,” reported NPR. West Virginia encourages residents to simply calls its hotline number: 1-833-734-0965. You can also register online.
- Tight communities. West Virginia’s close-knit communities make it easier to share information about when and where the vaccine is available. Spreading the news, and the hope, around the vaccine, by word-of-mouth builds trust. Even Phil Remke, the former mayor and Fox News-watching Trump supporter, has gotten his first shot and is touting the vaccine’s virtues. About the vaccine, he declared himself, “not skeptical.”
- Small pharmacies. West Virginia is working to distribute the vaccine with small independent pharmacies who know their customers intimately. The state declined to participate in a federal program that includes CVS and Walgreens, two big chains. West Virginia only has 150 or so of those big boxy chain stores, and it has hundreds more of smaller, locally-owned pharmacies.
- Real meetings. Instead of relying on Zoom and other remote technology, local officials have preferred safe in-person meetings to coordinate with local organizers, fostering a spirit of trust and inclusion.
- It’s small. The state’s population of only 1.8 million makes it an easier lift. “The logistics of vaccine administration and the flexibility to adapt to a rapidly changing situation are much easier for West Virginia than they are for larger states,” wrote Christopher Martin, a professor of public health at West Virginia University in The Atlantic. “We can be nimble because we are small.”
All that has come to pass in Moundsville, where everybody over 65 has has received at least the first vaccination shot, said Rose Hart, who’s been helping to organize the effort at Marshall County Fairgrounds, a mile outside of town. “Everybody is lining up, and we’re all excited to do this, and get our lives back,” Hart told me. “It’s given everybody a new lease on life.” People in town know Hart because of her work with the Appalachian Outreach charity, and her starring role in the film Moundsville.
“I’m just very excited to see so many people interested in getting the vaccination, as well as the amount of community members volunteering to make sure it happens,” said Moundsville resident and 2020 town council candidate Brianna Hickman. “The Health Department has been wonderful during this entire pandemic at keeping the community informed and updated of protocols and cases, and it’s nice to see everyone come together like this.”
Surveys in West Virginia show similar levels of COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy as in the rest of the country, Martin observed in the The Atlantic.” Our experience however, indicates that the more the state collaborates with those at the local, community level, the greater the vaccine uptake. Trust is key.”
Over the past 40 years, Moundsville has lost half its population, its bustling main street; hundreds, of factories and smaller businesses, and 8,000 jobs –as many as the number of people who live there now. Thousands left for the bright lights of Pittsburgh, Columbus, and New York.
What Moundsville, like the rest of West Virginia, does have left is trust. People know each other. They help each other out. They stop and talk on the street. It is still a community.
John W. Miller
Photo by Steve Novotney