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West Virginia Kept COVID Infections Low Early On, But Now Is Among Highest Rates

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

We spend a good amount of time each day looking at maps of the U.S. Maybe you do, too, seeing how the coronavirus has spread, where it's easing, where it's getting worse. As of this morning, the overall rate of new confirmed daily cases are slowing down. But it's still very, very high. We're averaging around 148,000 cases a day. And more than 2,000 people are dying from COVID each day.

There's a bad surge right now in West Virginia. That was a state that was a success story when the vaccines first came out. It quickly got shots into people's arms, and its rollout was hailed as a model for the rest of the country. But now, West Virginia has the most new COVID-19 cases per capita than any state in the country. West Virginia Public Broadcasting's June Leffler explains what happened.

JUNE LEFFLER, BYLINE: West Virginia health officials say their medical system is straining. The number of COVID cases and hospitalizations is higher now than it's ever been during the pandemic. The state's coronavirus czar, Dr. Clay Marsh, says while the effort to vaccinate people continues, it won't be enough to stop the delta variant's rapid march across the state.

CLAY MARSH: Vaccination won't get us out of the surge right now. It has already started. And it will need to consume itself out.

LEFFLER: West Virginia once led the nation in distributing the COVID-19 vaccine. It was because of a number of factors. The state's population is small, less than $1.8 million people. But the biggest reason is that the National Guard took over the vaccination drive when the state opted out of the federal pharmacy program pushed by the Trump administration. Now that the onus has fallen largely on the public to get vaccinated, West Virginia has fallen towards the back of the pack. That changed the once-optimistic tune of Republican Governor Jim Justice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JIM JUSTICE: You're worried about what's going on. You're worried about the hard-headedness of people that are refusing to take the vaccines.

LEFFLER: West Virginia was one of the first states to offer financial incentives and then a vaccine lottery to encourage people to get the shots. In the past week, he awarded five college scholarships to high school students. And another person got a car with free gas for 10 years. But despite all that, just 46% of West Virginians are fully vaccinated, far behind most states. And the governor does urge West Virginians almost daily to get vaccinated. After weeks of the same message, Justice is at a loss of what to do at this point.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JUSTICE: If you have chosen to be unvaccinated, in my opinion, it was a bad choice. And you know what we're going to be? We're going to be respectful of that till the cows come home. The reality is, no matter what we say here, a lot of what we say is falling on deaf ears.

LEFFLER: The importance of vaccines is clear. In West Virginia, those who aren't vaccinated make up 85% of COVID-19 hospital admissions. Many smaller hospitals have maxed out their bed capacities. When that happens, patients can be sent to other hospitals. Jim Kaufman, the president of the West Virginia Hospital Association, says transferring patients might not be an option soon.

JIM KAUFMAN: You're actually seeing a bed crunch pretty much across the state. So what they're trying to do is basically stabilize the patients, take care of the patients where they can because the ability to transfer has been greatly restricted.

LEFFLER: More than 800 people are hospitalized with COVID-19 in West Virginia. Kaufman expects that number to reach 1,000 in just a few weeks. For NPR News, I'm June Leffler in Charleston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.