CHARLES TOWN – During the past eight weeks as West Virginia distributed 439,960 coronavirus vaccines across the state, just 5,331 doses went into the arms of Jefferson County residents.
The vaccinations allocated to Jefferson provided enough single doses to protect 9.3 percent of the county’s estimated 57,000 residents. That allocation represents the smallest share of immunizations by overall population given to all of the state’s 55 counties, according to state health department data released last week.
Seven of the eight counties with larger populations than Jefferson County received double a percentage share of vaccinations. Kanawha County was allotted 55,903 doses. That’s 31.4 percent of its total population. Randolph County with half of Jefferson’s population received 1,609 more vaccination doses than Jefferson County.
“I know we had this intuitive feeling that we weren’t getting as much, but this actually proves it,” said John Bresland, president of the Jefferson County Board of Health.
Bresland spoke during a health board meeting on Friday, two days after state health officials began publishing county-by-county vaccination distribution figures.
Fewer than half of the 5,331 vaccines that had been sent to Jefferson County by last week were given to residents age 65 or older, the age group that the state set as the first priority to receive vaccinations along with medical workers, school employees and public safety workers.
Dr. Terrence Reidy, the county health department’s medical officer, said state health officials have offered different explanations as to why Jefferson has received so relatively few vaccinations compared to other counties.
The Jefferson County Health Department received its first shipment of vaccines, about 150 doses, on Dec. 31, Reidy said. Then for about three weeks, Jefferson County and other counties stopped receiving shipments as state officials directed vaccines to the state’s largest central counties, he said.
Berkeley County received weekly amounts of either 500 or 600 doses, and some Jefferson residents were vaccinated from those shipments, Reidy said.
Although Reidy said he did not understand or agree with all of the explanations he heard, he said Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Bill Crouch acknowledged the distribution disparity for Jefferson.
“He is aware,” Reidy said of Crouch.
Crouch indicated that the disparity affecting Jefferson County would be corrected over time, Reidy said. “It’s good to have the data so we can move forward,” he said. “So we need higher doses to this county, and I expect that [to happen].”
As of last week, Jefferson’s health department has received and administered about 1,250 doses, Reidy said. The department was expected to receive about 450 doses this week, the highest amount it has received so far, he said.
State officials estimate that Jefferson County has 11,200 residents who are 65 and older. Reidy said last week that about 2,000 people were on the county health department’s waiting list to receive a vaccination.
“It’s going to take several weeks to get them all vaccinated,” Reidy said.
Those older county residents don’t include people who separately signed up to receive a vaccination on the state’s online registration system, he said.
Gov. Jim Justice said last week that about 75 percent of the state’s older residents had registered for a spot on a state waiting list to receive a vaccination. State health officials estimated those include about 5,100 Jefferson County residents.
However, Jefferson health department officials said some county residents have had trouble registering on the state’s new online system. Some people could be double-counted on the state’s and the county’s waiting lists, said Gillian Beach, the acting administrator for the health department.
Beach said she has recently been unable to access the state’s registration system to update the county’s list with the state’s registrations. Pharmacies are contacting people to administer vaccines from shipments from state and federal distribution efforts, but those pharmacies also have had trouble using the state’s registration system to contact people, Beach said.
“There’s been confusion around that as well,” Beach said.
Judith Miller, a county health board member, pointed out that the WVU Medicine hospital system has provided valuable and considerable computer support. But even the hospital’s technical staff have had trouble working with the state’s registration system, she said.
“I don’t think people appreciate how hard it’s been to work with data systems that don’t give us an accurate picture,” Miller said. “I just want to say the context here is just as important as the numbers”
Published county-level data will be updated daily in response to questions people have had about disparities in the state’s vaccination distribution, Crouch said last week. “This is part of our commitment by the governor to be transparent and to make sure we provide information as quickly and in the best manner that we can,” he said.
Jim Hoyer, director of the state’s Interagency Task Force for coronavirus vaccines, said last week the early stages of the vaccination distribution has focused on immunizing workers at hospitals and nursing homes.
Jefferson County has three nursing homes; Kanawha County has 11.
“So where there were concentrations of those facilities you’re going to see greater concentrations initially” in various counties, he said.
Later during the state’s vaccine rollouts, school employees and public safety workers age 50 and over were added to the priority list of people who could receive vaccinations. State officials said all teachers and school service personnel over 50 years of age who requested to be vaccinated should receive their second immunization doses this week.
Miller, the director of a health care policy forum with George Washington University, said the shifting guidelines for distributing vaccinations and the eligibility for those to receive them has generated a flurry of phone calls for the health department to field.
Miller pointed to another likely possible factor to explain the low number of vaccines Jefferson County has received. She said her past experience with West Virginia public health programs indicated that the Eastern Panhandle’s needs were either misunderstand or discounted. Previously, West Virginia’s funding allocation formulas for public health, for example, had disproportionally directed more public money toward more rural counties in the center of the state, she said.
“Those formulas changed somewhat, but if you talk to anyone who’s involved with social services in the Panhandle, they still feel that folks in Charleston don’t understand us,” she said.