west virginia watch

The CDC recommended last month that everyone over 6 months of age get the new vaccine


Following an official recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month for everyone over 6 months old to receive updated COVID-19 doses, West Virginia has received enough vaccines for about 13% of its uninsured population under the age of 65 to receive a free shot.

Jessica Holstein, director of communications for the state’s Department of Health and Human Resources, said in an email that West Virginia has been allocated 13,766 total doses through the federal Bridge Allocation Program, which reserves doses for “uninsured and underinsured” people free of charge, Holstein said. Those doses are meant to last until next September.

The number allocated to the state, Holstein said, is “lower than the U.S. Government allocations” sent to West Virginia “before commercialization” of the vaccines

About 7.4% of West Virginians under the age of 65 — or around 105,460 individuals — were uninsured in 2022, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The number of people under 65 used to calculate the 13% of people the doses could go to come from population numbers on the DHHR’s COVID-19 dashboard

Doses for people who are commercially insured, according to local health administrators, are ordered and shipped directly from vaccine manufacturers with no involvement from the state government since the federal emergency declaration for the pandemic ended earlier this year.

“We have [COVID-19] doses on hand right now for the uninsured, but not a lot, no,” said Keith Blankenship, administrator of the Mingo County Health Department. “I’d say probably less than 50 on hand. It’s my understanding [the state] is distributing based on what they feel the need is. If I’m being honest with you, we don’t have a lot of uptake for the new vaccines.”

Holstein did not provide further information on how the state is deciding to allocate doses for the uninsured to localities. Blankenship said he believed the allocations were “based on need” but wasn’t sure how they were making those calculations.

McDowell (10.3%), Hardy (10.2%), Tucker (10.2%), Ritchie (10%) and Pocahontas (9.9%) counties hold the highest rates of uninsured people in the state, according to the Census Bureau’s 2022 American Community Survey. Mingo County has the seventh highest rate, with 9.8% of its population under 65 years of age uninsured.

Blankenship believes the public is possibly confused by current guidance on COVID-19 vaccination and infection protocols. Anecdotally, he hasn’t heard of anyone getting the most recent booster doses, which were approved and recommended by the CDC on Sept. 12.

“There seems to be a bit of a delayed reaction here at every level,” Blankenship said. “I don’t know why exactly that is — I’ve heard that maybe people with [the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] are dragging their feet a little, and that could be a cause, but I’m really not sure.”

Doses for the 2023-24 vaccine — which are designed to treat the most recent strain of the virus and hopefully provide protection against COVID-19 over the fall and winter months — started going out to states that same week, according to the CDC.

This is the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine that has been recommended since the federal emergency declaration for the pandemic ended in May. Previously, the state would get a shipment of vaccine doses every week based on need and the West Virginia National Guard — which was activated under the emergency declaration — would help distribute the doses across the state.

As of Aug. 31 — which was before the 2023-24 doses of the vaccine were recommended by the CDC — only about 12% of West Virginians were up-to-date on their COVID-19 vaccinations, according to data from the CDC. Vaccinations are available for people who are insured at most major pharmacy chains, which receive their doses directly from manufacturers like Pfizer and Moderna.

Per the state dashboard, 1,263 vaccinations, which include both booster, additional and initial doses, have been administered in the state since Sept. 24, which is the furthest back the dashboard goes. No vaccines were reportedly given in the state from Sept. 30 to Oct. 4. 

Given the lack of uptake on COVID-19 vaccines, Blankenship said the Mingo County Health Department is opting to forego ordering vaccine doses for people who are insured. Instead, he said, they’re urging them to visit local commercial pharmacies and doctors.

“I’m afraid we would not be able to get them out if we did order them,” Blankenship said. “If someone comes up looking for doses, we tell them to check Walmart, CVS or go to a local doctor’s office. Health departments are working a little differently today than in the early days of the pandemic.”

While vaccination rates lag, COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have been on the rise in West Virginia since the beginning of August, according to the dashboard. Nationally, new hospitalizations for COVID-19 as well as deaths tied to the virus have been increasing over that same time, per the CDC. 

Dr. Steven Eshenauer, health officer at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, said the upticks reflect a trend that has become commonplace over the last three years: as fall and winter approach, more people become sick with COVID-19 than in the spring and summer months. 

“We’ve seen this now as a pattern and a pretty consistent one,” Eshenaur said. “If you’re looking at new hospital admissions by week you can really get a good look there as to what we should expect from the particular strain of the virus that’s circulating.”

Kanawha County saw 171 hospitalizations for COVID-19 last week, Eshenaur said. During the lows of summer, the county saw that rate drop as low as 19 new admissions a week.

“That’s nearly a nine-fold increase, and we need to be watching that,” Eshenaur said.

It’s also unclear today how many COVID-19 cases are circulating, as most people are testing on home kits that go mostly unreported instead of through lab testing.

“I am concerned that we have a lot more COVID-19 circulating right now than we know about,” Eshenaur said.

Speaking last week, Eshenaur’s “biggest concern,” however, was that the state “has not distributed a lot of the free immunizations” for uninsured people. Kanawha County — where about 6.8% of residents are uninsured, the ninth-lowest rate in the state, according to the Census — only received “a handful” of free vaccines.

The health department began administering the 2023-24 doses on Monday, and last week were already fielding calls from folks looking to get the shots as cold weather approached.

Eshenaur recommended anyone looking for the COVID-19 vaccine to also remember their annual flu shots and, if eligible, RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) vaccines that could help stave off serious respiratory illnesses through the winter.

People should check with their insurance companies to see if the RSV vaccine — which is new, but has been in development for quite some time, and is generally for children and people over 65 — is covered by their current plan.

The threat of a “syndemic”  — where more than one virus begins circulating at alarming levels in a population — is as real this year as it has been in previous years, Eshenaur said.

“My advice right now is no one should take their eye off the ball of COVID-19. It is still a major killer — the fifth largest in the country — and we still see a major number of deaths across the country because of it,” Eshenaur said. “Those with high risk — the elderly and folks that are more susceptible — need to be cautious and careful. Mask, use good hand hygiene, be careful in crowded, indoor gatherings.”

The newest vaccine is the best way to protect both yourself and the public from further illness and unnecessary loss of life, he continued. 

“If you don’t get the COVID-19 vaccine for yourself, you should get it for your loved ones and for the people you don’t even know you could infect,” Eshenaur said. “We’ve all got to be together on this.”

** West Virginia Watch is a nonprofit media source. Articles are shared under creative commons license. Please visit https://westvirginiawatch.com/ for more independent Mountain State news coverage.

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