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States across the country have been struggling to distribute the COVID-19 vaccines quickly. But seven weeks into their rollout, West Virginia has found a way to vaccinate more of its population than almost any other state, including delivering both doses of a vaccine to all nursing home residents and most health care workers. Amna Nawaz reports.
The Biden administration announced more efforts today to ramp up vaccine distribution around the country and to make sure that underserved communities get more access.
It comes after many states struggle to distribute it quickly.
But, as Amna Nawaz reports, West Virginia has been a leader from the outset. In fact, it's outpaced nearly every other state when it comes to vaccinations.
For 75-year-old Ed Turley, the question was never if he would get the vaccine.
Yes, I talked to my wife about it. And you don't know what it's like to be married to a nurse.
What is it like?
You can't get by with nothing.
The question was when. The very day he was eligible, he booked a slot.
I was relieved when they called and said I could get it.
I wasn't going to turn them down.
I had my mind made up. I wasn't going to turn it down.
Left arm OK?
On this day, Turley was one of about 250 people vaccinated at a clinic in Preston County, West Virginia.
All right, Ed, you're all finished.
His home state is now leading the country when it comes to vaccinations. Seven weeks into their rollout, West Virginia's already vaccinated more than 12 percent of its population, including both doses delivered to all nursing home residents and most health care workers.
Now anyone 65 and older can sign up on a statewide wait-list. Each week, local clinics work their way down that list and schedule the next round of shots right.
This West Virginia University clinic is one of several specialized clinics also in place. Today, faculty and staff over 65, plus younger clinical students, are getting their vaccines.
Here's the lay of the land here. Basically, at the table all the way in the back, the syringes are all being filled. They are distributed to six vaccination stations. Organizers say from the moment people arrive to the moment they get a shot in the arm should take five minutes total.
Sixty-four-year-old Toni Christian is getting her second dose, and looking forward to the protection it affords.
I miss the social interaction more than anything. I think that's probably been the hardest thing.
Seventy-seven-year-old Paul Lewis says, while he's relieved to be vaccinated, he's worried about his son, a vaccine skeptic.
What's that conversation like?
That conversation is consistent but brief. You don't know what the long-term health implications are of having COVID-19. So, if I'm going to take my choices, I will take the choice with the vaccine.
Here in West Virginia, that vaccine arrives each week from the federal government. National Guard members transport it to five state hubs. Those hubs then allocate to clinics, like the one at West Virginia University, where residents who put their names on a waitlist are brought through.
It's really a all-hands-on-deck approach, so that we can get everybody in our state vaccinated as quickly and safely as possible.
Gretchen Garofoli is an associate professor in West Virginia University's School of Pharmacy who's been coordinating vaccine distribution. Key to their success, she says, is remaining nimble and flexible.
We have a group text message that we utilize often, so that we get our people there when we need to get them to the places to vaccinate.
You literally have a group chat going?
Yes. We have those relationships, and we know how to work together. We know how to get into the rural communities.
And because the state is mostly rural, West Virginia chose to tap into its network of independent pharmacies, instead of joining the federal partnership with CVS and Walgreens.
Waterfront Family Pharmacy owner Karl Sommer says that decision was crucial to getting the most vulnerable vaccinated quickly.
One of the big advantages that we have as independent pharmacists is, we're able to adapt and make changes very quickly. We don't have to go through any corporate bureaucracy.
Dr. Clay Marsh:
We're not scared of going a different direction.
Dr. Clay Marsh is West Virginia's COVID czar.
If we had a great idea that this plan was better for us and we didn't implement it, then that would have been irresponsible for us.
He says he's proud of the speed of their rollout, but it hasn't been without bumps.
In December, more than 40 people in the southern part of the state were given an antibody treatment, instead of a COVID-19 vaccine.
With the complexity of this, we know mistakes will be made. We hope nobody gets hurt, but we will always get better, and we will be better the next time.
Other states are now turning to West Virginia as a guide. Marsh was recently asked to testify before a House committee.
What can we say to the other states on how they can improve on that?
Ultimately, West Virginia made a plan that worked for us.
But what works here, Marsh cautions, in a small, homogeneous rural state, may not work in bigger, more urban states.
So, it's really important that you know your own state, that you have a committed group of empowered people, that you have the right culture, so everybody's on the same page, and you're trying things. But you're sticking with some very clear true north principles that you won't violate.
And for all their success, West Virginia is still facing the same vaccine shortage frustration the rest of the country is.
If we keep getting the supply that we're getting, we will still be doing first doses towards the end of the year, which is not a number I like to hear.
We have the capacity today, with no more infrastructure expansion, we believe, to be able to push out 125,000 doses a week.
So, today, you could be doing at least four times what you're currently doing?
One practice they have developed to stretch supply? Use every last drop from every single vial.
Some syringes work better than others to get those extra doses out. And I can say that, out of the thousands that I have given, I have not wasted a single dose. We have found arms for all of them.
As they reach the end of the list at the Preston County clinic, organizers realize they have extra doses left in the vials. They will expire within hours.
So, county Health Administrator V.J. Davis starts working his way down the standby list for folks who live nearby.
Hey, we have an extra coronavirus shot today. Would you be available to come down and get it?
Sally Stanton and her sister, Linda Bratten (ph), were two of the lucky ones.
They called us like five minutes before we got here.
It just frees you up a little bit more to feel like you can go out and you have got some protection now.
Protection Ed Turley welcomes. He says he hasn't hugged his grandkids in nearly a year.
Have you ever lived through anything like this in your life?
No. Don't want to go through anything more like this either.
With both shots behind him, he hopes the pandemic will soon be too.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz in West Virginia.
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Amna Nawaz joined PBS NewsHour in April 2018 and serves as the program's chief correspondent and primary substitute anchor.
Gretchen Frazee is a Senior Coordinating Broadcast Producer for the PBS NewsHour.
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