West Virginia Leads In Race To Distribute Vaccines

11:58 minutes

the exterior of a hospital building, flanked by trees
West Virginia University Medical Center in Morgantown, West Virginia. Credit: Shutterstock

This story is part of Science Friday’s coverage on the novel coronavirus, the agent of the disease COVID-19. Listen to experts discuss the spread, outbreak response, and treatment.

Healthcare workers have had mixed success getting COVID-19 vaccines into people’s arms across the U.S. A big reason for the unequal rollout is the lack of federal requirements for who gets vaccinated, and in what order. There are, however, federal recommendations—for example, this week Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar recommended that vaccination strategies should prioritize people age 65 and older. But states are on their own when it comes to distribution, resulting in 50 different plans.

One of the states with the highest percentages of residents vaccinated for COVID-19 is West Virginia. Though it’s predominantly rural, the state’s high population of elderly people has resulted in a large-scale, largely successful effort to reach its residents. 

New York state, on the other hand, has been less successful. Bureaucratic infighting between state and city officials delayed vaccination, and many residents eligible for vaccination are turning down the opportunity, citing concerns about safety.

Joining Ira to talk about COVID-19 vaccine distribution are Fred Mogul, health and government reporter for New York Public Radio in New York City and Dave Mistich, senior reporter at West Virginia Public Broadcasting in Morgantown. Special thanks to Ohio Valley ReSource and America Amplified for their help.

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Segment Guests

Fred Mogul

Fred Mogul is a health and government reporter for WNYC, New York Public Radio and Gothamist in New York, New York.

Dave Mistich

Dave Mistich is a senior reporter with West Virginia Public Broadcasting in Morgantown, West Virginia.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. This week, we’re dedicating an entire hour to understanding the various COVID-19 vaccines, how they’re distributed, how they work, what makes them different than the history behind their production.

So let’s begin. Getting the vaccine into people’s arms has been a real mixed bag across the US. A big reason for that, there is very little federal guidance for who gets vaccinated and in what order. This week, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar recommended that people age 65 and older should be eligible for a vaccination.

But states are on their own when it comes to distribution, leaving 50 different plans. We’re going to check in with two states, one that leads the country in vaccinating its residents and one that has had a fair amount of what shall we call roadblocks, many bureaucratic. Let me introduce my guests. Dave Mistichis is Senior Reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting in Morgantown, West Virginia. Fred Mogul is Health and Government Reporter for WNYC New York Public Radio and Gothamist here in New York. Welcome both of you to Science Friday.

DAVE MISTICHIS: Thanks for having us.

FRED MOGUL: It’s great talking to you, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. Dave, I want to start with you. West Virginia is at the top of the country for getting residents vaccinated for COVID-19. Right now, more than 6.5% of West Virginians have received the vaccine, and the average for the country is about half that. What’s the secret sauce in West Virginia for the rollout?

DAVE MISTICHIS: Right, and I think you pointed out those numbers there. And Governor Jim Justice has been lotting those numbers. As you say, six to seven people out of every 100 in the state getting vaccinated. That’s leading the nation, and according to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, there’s been more than 100,000 total first doses of the vaccine given to the state.

They say that more than 20,000 people have gotten the second shot and are fully vaccinated. And the one thing that I should point out with all of this is that we’ve seen the federal government make these partnerships with these big chain pharmacies, like CVS and Walgreens. But here in the state, we opted out of that.

And our state government is working with locally owned and independent pharmacies to play a role in vaccine distribution, and that’s to nursing homes and long term care facilities. And given the fact that West Virginia is a largely rural state, all of this seems to be working well. So much so that I’ve seen reports from other media outlets in some of these other rural states wondering why they didn’t do the same.

IRA FLATOW: And West Virginia’s population skews older, right? I mean, who’s getting these vaccines first?

DAVE MISTICHIS: That’s right, and West Virginia is, of course, like other states, had made a big push for frontline health care workers and those living and working in long term care facilities to be vaccinated. And I think that that’s no different than the rest of the country really. Since then, they’ve targeted the elderly population.

At first, it was ages 80 and up. And on Wednesday, Governor Jim Justice announced that those 70 and older are eligible to get the vaccine. He also said that he hopes to get those 65 and older as soon as next week. So things are moving really, really quickly here.

IRA FLATOW: Have there been any hiccups in this process?

DAVE MISTICHIS: Well, you know, there was one big one recently, and there was this vaccine clinic in Boone County, which most of West Virginia is rural. But there are some cities, so to speak, but Boone County, it’s a very rural southern part of the state. At a clinic there recently, more than 40 people were mistakenly given the antibody cocktail Remdesivir when they were supposed to be getting the vaccine.

State health officials say they notified those who got the wrong shot. There’s been no reported negative effects, but they’ve also made it a priority to get the vaccine to those people. Again, even still, it’s a major mix up, seeing health officials are suspending distribution of the vaccine at that clinic, at least through that local health department.

You know, honestly, I’ve gotten some emails from people who have had trouble connecting with local health departments. People have told me that they’ve not been able to get their phone calls answered. But I should point out that people are really persistent in trying to get their parents, or grandparents, or elderly friends and family vaccinated. So many of these people have gotten through over time, and things seem to be back on track with these vaccination clinics that are springing up more and more.

IRA FLATOW: Fred, let’s move to the Big Apple, which has had a less successful rollout with a lot of bureaucratic infighting. And in New York, about 3.5% of New Yorkers have now been vaccinated. There was a bumpy start over here. Tell us why that was.

FRED MOGUL: Well, I should say, it’s kind of like the best of rollouts and the worst of rollouts. Many people have had fairly smooth experiences. I just talked to someone who found a place. You know, there’s these whisper networks. He found one of the hospitals in central Brooklyn mostly serves relatively impoverished communities, but he got word that there was no online sign up necessary.

He bolted over there, got in and out relatively quickly. There are a lot of positive stories, but indeed, there is bureaucratic infighting. Our mayor in New York City Bill de Blasio, our Governor Andrew Cuomo up in Albany, they don’t get along so well famously on all kinds of things with the pandemic response. And why should the vaccination be any different?

So you have two different systems, two different portals that don’t talk to each other for signing up, except it’s not exactly signing up in either case. They’re really more, as one city councilman called, glorified store locators. They really just for the most part give you places you can call with the exception of the public vaccination centers run by the state and the city. So you can do registration there.

That’s where you’ve had a lot of people crashing. Savvier people have just kind of hit eject on that and started calling around to different hospitals and health care systems. And they’ve had a little bit more luck that way.

IRA FLATOW: You know, I also heard that it seemed like the state was worried about the wrong people getting the vaccine, that it delayed things for everyone.

FRED MOGUL: Well, I don’t know if it was the wrong people exactly. I think they were hopeful and optimistic that their highest priority people would sign up in greater numbers than they did, the health care workers, the 1A people. So that was hospital personnel, clinic personnel, and nursing home, both residents and personnel.

And they found so far, it’s really been kind of slow. Not necessarily any significantly more slow than the rest of the country, but about 36% statewide. So you’ve got a lot of vaccine that’s delivered that’s not been used.

At that point, they decided to open it up to everyone 75 and over to broader categories of essential workers. And then on Monday, the Federal Health and Human Services Secretary Alexander Azar came out with broader guidance that they should open up to everyone 65 and older. So now, the floodgates have largely opened.

IRA FLATOW: And a lot of these places, it seems, if you know somebody who knows somebody, like you said, hey, there’s a site. There’s a place in Brooklyn that’s giving them out. Let’s get over there.

FRED MOGUL: Yeah, this is really troublesome in a lot of ways, because there is supposed to be a very high priority on people who are from vulnerable communities, communities that fared very poorly in their health outcomes in the earlier surge of the pandemic in the Spring, the areas that were just devastated frankly. They had very high exposures. They had multigenerational families living in tight quarters, and there was to be a push to really get these people vaccinated first.

Now, I won’t say that they’ve abandoned that, but there are a lot of people who are adept at gaming the system and just part of networks. I put on a woman the other evening who had a big snafu. She had driven 40 minutes to get on one, and she had a printout in her hand. But it wasn’t the right printout.

I put her story on the air. And the next day, a family friend contacted her and said, come to my hospital. We’ll take care of you, but not everyone can do that of course.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, this is a very New York way of doing things. Dave, I want to shift gears and talk a bit about vaccine hesitancy in your state. Do you get a sense of how big of an issue fear or hesitancy is in West Virginia?

DAVE MISTICHIS: Yeah, well, I think it’s still pervasive. A colleague of mine here at West Virginia Public Broadcasting Emily Allen reported this week that more than 60% of state corrections officers had refused to get the vaccine. And also, back in December, I was in the room when vaccine doses first started being given to employees of WVU Medicine.

That’s the largest health care system here in the state. Their chief pharmacy officer there told me that only about half of workers were interested in getting the vaccine, but I checked in with him just recently. And he told me that about 40% of staff had been vaccinated as of January 5. But he says that number is now nearly 50%. And with some of these numbers, I know that those in charge of health systems and some of these institutions across the state that maybe are in charge of people that are particularly vulnerable to the virus, that they’re still making a push to get their staff on board to get the vaccine.

IRA FLATOW: I know that prisons have been a huge source of COVID-19 outbreaks throughout the pandemic. Are incarcerated people getting vaccinated?

DAVE MISTICHIS: Well, you know, as of right now, those that are incarcerated are not listed as a priority. There’s a big push from some of the advocates in the criminal justice system to make that a priority to get these people vaccinated. But like I said, more than 60% of state corrections officers have refused to get it.

So it’s sort of two things working there. One being that there’s a particularly vulnerable population inside the prison, as well as one that’s coming and going from these prisons and jails. But again, those on staff don’t seem to be overwhelmingly in support of getting the vaccine at this point.

IRA FLATOW: And Fred, hesitancy, an issue in New York. I was hearing reports that even members of the New York Fire Department don’t want to get the vaccine.

FRED MOGUL: Yeah, you know, listening to David, I mean, it just really strikes me that this is kind of a great unifier in a perhaps unfortunate way between rural and urban, black and white, red and blue states. Perhaps there just are relatively low numbers. And as one ER physician I talked to put it, if we’re having this difficulty with health care workers, I mean, mind you are a lot of them are supportive service workers in divisions, like the custodial staffs, and the security staff, and so forth.

But nonetheless, within our four walls and our temples of science, and health care, and medicine, if we’re having these problems, boy, what’s the rest of the community going to face when we broaden the access to this vaccine? Now, in a sense, as they’ve broadened it, it’s not an issue initially. Now, there’s enough people rushing to get the relatively small supply. But as the supply grows, hopefully, the demand will grow, but I don’t know how quickly it will catch up.

IRA FLATOW: Well, we’ll see how it works. We’ll see how it works out for everybody across the country and in West Virginia and New York. Thank you both for taking time to be with us today.


FRED MOGUL: It’s great talking to you, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Fred Mogul is Health and Government Reporter for WNYC, New York Public Radio, and Gothamist here in New York City. And, David Mistichis is Senior Reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting in Morgantown, West Virginia. We’ll keep covering vaccine rollouts across the country as vaccinations continue. Let us know how your state is handling this process on the Science Friday VoxPop app wherever you get your apps.

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Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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