MORGANTOWN — Gov. Jim Justice continued to press home the importance of COVID vaccinations, especially booster shots, for all West Virginians during Tuesday’s press conference.
The state marked another grim COVID milestone as deaths crested over 5,000. With West Virginians older than 50 making up 95% of COVID deaths in West Virginia, Justice focused in on the low booster rate of the age group. While 71.3% of West Virginians over 50 are fully vaccinated, only 26.3% have received a booster shot, according to the state’s COVID dashboard.
“How in the world, if you’re over 50 years of age, if you are fully vaccinated … how can you not run to get your booster?” Justice said.
In the hopes of raising booster numbers among some in that age group, Justice announced yet another round of the “Do it for BabyDog” vaccine incentive program, this time aimed at seniors.
“We’re branching out, because we’ve got so many of our senior citizens not taking the booster shots,” Justice said. “We’re going to call it “Do it for BabyDog: Senior Center Edition” and this program is open to all of our 200 senior centers all across our state, in association with our county aging providers.”
Seniors who are fully vaccinated and boosted will automatically receive a $50 prepaid Visa gift card, and the top-performing senior center in each of the state’s four Area Agencies of Aging regions will win $100,000. Monongalia and Marion counties are in Region 1, which covers the north-west portion of the state. Preston is in Region 3, which covers the north-east portion of the state.
The Dominion Post reached out to the governor’s office for clarification on what age would be considered senior, as well as what are the parameters for senior-center counting, but did not receive a response in time for this report.
In his comments, West Virginia COVID Czar Dr. Clay Marsh reinforced Justice’s concerns over low booster rates, citing studies that show the protections of mRNA vaccines such as Moderna and Pfizer decrease significantly after four to six months.
He also reiterated his concern with the state’s hospital capacity going into colder winter months and with a new, more contagious omicron variant on the horizon.
“Our hospitals continue to be relatively full. … We still have 585 people in hospital beds today, which means we are much fuller,” Marsh said. “And we also know that staffing is much less available to us than it was in the past. Our hospitals could get into very challenging waters if we all don’t do our part.”
Marsh ended his statements by expressing concern for what is coming in the next few months, citing a COVID reproductive rate of 1.09 in the state.
“We have all signs saying that COVID is spreading again in West Virginia. The winter and cold months are coming, the likelihood for more spread is upcoming, our hospitals are still half full. … So really important for all of us to take those right precautions,” Marsh said.
In other news, Justice fielded a question about a recent audit that showed West Virginia paid out $85 million in fraudulent unemployment claims.
Acting Commissioner of Workforce West Virginia Scott Adkins joined the call to explain the situation, stating that while the figures were accurate, the money came from federal CARES funds and did not impact the state’s unemployment compensation fund. He also pointed out that all states had been dealing with similar levels of fraud due to particular CARES requirements for the self-employed, and gave Ohio’s fraudulent payouts of $500 million as a point of reference.