BLUEFIELD — As the death toll from COVID-19 rises to 74 in Mercer County, the Health Department is not expecting any new doses this week for those residents 70 and over.
Gov. Jim Justice lowered the age to receive the vaccine from 80 to 70 Wednesday as a way to target the most vulnerable population, but rather than receive doses locally this week, residents who are 80 and older are now directed to one of 14 vaccination sites around the state.
The closest one from here is in Greenbrier County.
“We will get no vaccines this week and maybe next week,” department Administrator Brenda Donithan said during a Mercer County Board of Health meeting Wednesday, adding that she understands the National Guard, which usually delivers the doses, is tied up with planning for the inauguration next week and there is nobody available to deliver them.
Board member Stacey Hicks, who is president of the Princeton Rescue Squad, said the squad could send an ambulance to Greenbrier County, where a vaccination hub is located, to pick them up and bring them here.
A clinic is set for the State Fairgrounds in Greenbrier County Thursday and includes residents from Fayette, Greenbrier, McDowell, Mercer, Monroe, Pocahontas, Raleigh, Summers, and Wyoming counties. The clinic is from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Hicks and other board members expressed concern about asking older residents to drive that far.
“It’s ridiculous to put people on the road to get there,” Hicks said, suggesting Donithan call the state and see if Hicks can pick up the doses and bring them here.
“This is an important enough issue that we need to get it taken care of now,” board member Roger Topping said.
They all agreed more vaccines are needed, but should be administered here, and residents could drive all the way to Greenbrier County and then be turned away because it’s unclear how many doses are available, although appointments are requested on short notice with more information available at the health department.
Last week, the health department held a large-scale clinic for those 80 and older at the Brushfork Armory, vaccinating more than 600 residents. All went so well the state is now looking at how it was done to use as a model.
“We had a very good showing and good interdepartmental cooperation…” Mercer County Health Officer Dr. Steven Stefancic said, referring to agencies such as the Mercer County Sheriff’s Office working with the department. “No one was turned away.”
When the health department initially offered shots to those 80 and over it was at the department and led to a traffic jam and many people waiting for hours did not get a vaccine as the demand exceeded the number of doses available.
Those issues were solved at last week’s clinic.
Board Chair Dr. Randy Maxwell thanked Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Joe Parks for his help organizing the event.
“It was set up real well,” he said of the flow of traffic. “It worked really well. They now want that plan on a state level as a model for every county to use.”
Vaccines are trickling in at a crucial time for the county, which sees the death rate as well as the number of new cases keep rising.
Donithan said the county has now had a total of 3,534 cases with 708 new cases just in January and 1,621 cases still active.
Stefancic also said volunteers to help at the department are welcome.
He was responding to a letter signed by 113 local residents questioning the accuracy of reporting and the timeliness in getting information out the public.
Deb McCarthy spoke on behalf of the group, asking for accurate information, especially related to the communities of color where the infection and death rates are higher.
“This is about saving lives,” she said, adding the data is missing that indicates the disproportionate number of cases and deaths in black communities, which is being seen around the country, and the problem should be addressed.
Stefancic said information related to race of those tested and positive cases is often not available.
“We can report only what is reported to us,” he said, explaining that many forms are incomplete and information is not always provided.
“It is difficult,” he said, because the health department puts information from around the county (clinics, hospitals, drive-through testing) under one umbrella. “We put it into the computer and sent it to Charleston.”
That lack of data is reflected on the DHHR COVID-19 dashboard.
Demographics of positive cases statewide show 55.2 percent white, 2.1 percent black and 41.4 percent “unknown.”
“We don’t have the data,” said board member Dr. Daniel Wells, adding that it’s also sometimes difficult in just getting word out about proper protocol like wearing masks and social distancing and following that protocol in all communities is crucial in keeping the numbers down.
“A lot of these things are beyond our power,” he said.
As far as disseminating accurate and timely information, Topping said keeping up with statistics related to the numbers of countywide cases that constantly change is difficult.
But if the department makes an error or is late in getting out information, they fix the issues, he added, and let the public know with every avenue available.
The department recently updated its Facebook page and now provides information on cases on that site.
Maxwell, who has emphasized for months how understaffed the health department is, invited any of those who signed the letter to volunteer to help out, even if it’s answering the phone, and also to attend board meetings.
McCarthy agreed that is a good idea.
— Contact Charles Boothe at email@example.com