CHARLESTON, W.Va. — While health officials vow that the at-risk population will remain the priority for COVID-19 vaccines, they believe getting vaccines into the arms of people of all ages including teenagers is a key in the fight against the virus.
On Monday, Gov. Jim Justice announced that all West Virginians ages 16 and older are eligible to receive the vaccine. That is something that was a bigger step than anticipated for Kanawha-Charleston Health Department executive director Sherri Young but a welcome one.
“The fact that it is opened up to more individuals is a good thing. Especially as we go through this. More pharmacies are receiving vaccines, more FQHCs (Federally Qualified Healthcare Centers) are receiving vaccines. More vaccines are becoming available,” she said.
Prior to Justice’s announcement Monday, the guidelines had been anyone 55 and older, 16 and older with certain pre-existing medical conditions, and additional frontline workers to be eligible for the vaccine through the state’s online registration system. Justice announced the EverBridge registration system will be phased out as more community events pop up, but reiterated the focus must remain on those at-risk.
Dr. Clay Marsh, the state coronavirus czar, appeared on Tuesday’s MetroNews ‘Talkline’ and called the expansion of eligibility a smart move to slow the spread of the virus. He said the state is seeing more outbreaks and spread among young people as the older population receives the vaccine.
“We could also start targeting better the people that are more likely to transmit the virus. That sort of two-pronged strategy. The first strategy was to save lives and we have done that,” he said.
For 16 and 17-year-olds, Pfizer is the only vaccine available. Health leaders are working on clinical trials for other vaccines. Young said the side effects for teens are similar to side effects for anyone else, including injection site reaction, fatigue, headache, and possible low-grade fever.
Young said those 16 and 17 years old will need to receive permission from a parent or guardian in Kanawha County.
“They are still considered minors. We do ask that either a parent or guardian come with those individuals when they do get vaccinated. Or send some type of permission that they are allowed to get the vaccine,” Young said.
The same rule for parental permission can be said in Cabell County, according to Michael Kilkenny, the CEO and health officer for the Cabell-Huntington Health Department.
He told MetroNews opening up eligibility to everyone is a ‘fine idea’ but also noted their focus will remain on those with pre-existing conditions and the elderly. Kilkenny said he would like more doses to arrive in the county, something he said every county would welcome.
“We’re excited for the opportunity and the challenge of delivering the vaccine to everybody. We want everybody to get the vaccine,” he said.
Young didn’t rule out bringing the COVID-19 vaccine into schools for students to take, saying it’s own her agenda to speak with Kanawha County Schools. She said similar actions could take place at many school systems in West Virginia.
Those in higher education in West Virginia have already been vaccinating on campuses.
“We are going to reach out to the schools to see what we can put together and get to people while they are still in school. We have to look at being able to get both doses of Pfizer 21 days apart,” Young said.
Young said getting into schools with the vaccine would be part of a larger effort to get into the communities. The health department in her county has vaccinated thousands at the Charleston Coliseum and Convention Center as part of mass clinics but has reached into Charleston neighborhoods recently.
Young said they need community involvement to get the vaccine out faster.
“While we love what we do with the coliseum and convention center, and those are great large-scale events, we are looking at going into churches, and into communities, community centers to try and get people where they are,” she said.
According to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR), 270,281 people are fully vaccinated in West Virginia. 714,284 total doses have been administered, including 18,122 to those 24 years of age and younger.
In Kanawha County, the state’s most populous county, there have been 2,049 doses administered to those 24 years of age and younger. In Cabell County, 1,290 doses have been administered to those 24 and younger.