Gov. Jim Justice ...

Gov. Jim Justice speaks during a virtual pandemic briefing.

CHARLESTON — Public schools around the state are ready to start offering the COVID vaccine to students 12 to 15 years old next week, if approval is given by the FDA (Federal Drug Administration).

“We are ready when this approval takes place,” said Gov. Jim Justice during his pandemic briefing Wednesday, adding that about 78,000 students in that age range will be eligible for the vaccine.

“They’ll have to have the permission of their guardians,” he said. “At these clinics, we will also offer vaccines to all eligible West Virginians, including any other students, parents and educators.”

“We do anticipate that Pfizer” will be approved for that 12 to 15 age group next week, said Dr. Clay Marsh, state COVID-19 Czar.

Canada just made that approval, he said, and the U.S. is expected to “follow very quickly.”

State Superintendent of Schools Clayton Burch said schools across the state are ready, and anyone can be vaccinated in school clinics.

The state has invested $34 million in CARES funding to set these clinics up for the vaccine program that will run through the summer, he said, providing a way for students and anyone who wants it to be vaccinated.

Burch also said he has been visiting schools and attending focus groups with students.

“They are thankful to be back in school,” he said. “In the last month, we’ve held focus groups with teachers, parents, and students. The interesting thing we’ve been able to talk about in these student roundtables is: ‘What does the future look like?’ And it all came back to vaccinations. Each one of the students talked about the role that vaccinations will play in the future of school.”

Burch said one senior told him what advice he would give to younger students.

“I’ll make it very, very simple,” the senior said. “I would tell all of my friends and peers in high school, if you don’t want your senior year next year to suck, get a vaccination. Just do it.’

“Young people are talking about the power of what this vaccine can do for them,” Burch said, and all had the same message: “The vaccines are the only way they see forward to get back to some normalcy and to protect themselves and their families.”

When teachers and school personnel became eligible to get the vaccine earlier this year, local resources were mobilized to help schools set up vaccine clinics.

“It went well,” Burch said and working together in the community made it easy for families.

Retired Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, director of the state Joint InterAgency Vaccine Task Force, said setting up schools and other vaccine clinics takes a lot of work, but they are ready.

A lot of behind-the-scenes work with the task force, local agencies and the department of education makes it all work, he said. “We feel like we’ve got this down … we are ready to go and ready to get excited once we get approval.”

Justice said he also continues to push to get those 16 to 35 vaccinated.

“I am trying to appeal over and over again to our young people,” he said, and also encouraging their parents and grandparents to get involved and push for everyone to take the vaccine.

The average age of those testing positive for COVID has not dropped to 34, he said, and young people are “transmitters of this on a very, very high level.”

Justice also emphasized that while his plan to give all in the 16 to 35 age category who are fully vaccinated a $100 savings bond has run into snags, they will receive the money in some way.

“It will be rolled out,” he said of the plan to give the money to those who get vaccinated in that age group.

Justice once again said if enough residents get vaccinated and the state reaches the 70 percent rate, the mask mandate will be gone.

He said he “loved” Pres. Joe Biden’s plan to reach that 70 percent nationwide by July 4. “We want to beat them to that.”

As of Wednesday, about 44 percent of eligible residents statewide are fully vaccinated while almost 54 percent have received at least one dose.

Justice also cautioned that COVID numbers are still up to a level above what they were in early April, with 21 deaths reported since Monday, 7,199 active cases, 236 hospitalizations and 91 in ICU.

“We are still not out of the woods,” he said. “We are not through this.”

 — Contact Charles Boothe at cboothe@bdtonline.com

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