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As Pandemic Cases Surge, West Virginians Are Urged To Get Vaccinated

NOEL KING, HOST:

In West Virginia, more COVID patients are in ICUs and on ventilators than at any other time during the pandemic. The outbreaks are starting in schools, prisons, churches and in long-term care facilities. Governor Jim Justice has made his position on the vaccine clear.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JIM JUSTICE: Our hospitals are still overwhelmingly inundated with cases of people that are not vaccinated. The vaccine cannot hurt you, for crying out loud. Why not take the vaccine?

KING: It is worth noting that the governor opposes a statewide mask mandate for schools. With me now is Dr. Sherri Young. She is the interim executive director and health officer of Kanawha County, where only 35% of eligible residents are vaccinated, according to the CDC. Good morning, Dr. Young.

SHERRI YOUNG: Good morning, Noel.

KING: What are you seeing and experiencing there?

YOUNG: What we're experiencing here in West Virginia - we're a little bit behind what the southern states have already experienced. We have a tipping point here where we're starting to see an increase in cases. And behind that increase in cases, our hospitals are filling up. Our urgent cares are being overrun by non-acute illness, just people coming in to be tested and coming in for treatment. But we're reaching a tipping point with our ICUs, our long-term care facilities. And we truly need to make an impact now because we can see from other places, we don't want to break the health care system. We did very early have a tremendous vaccine rollout. And that seemed to have kept this at bay for a while. But now that kids are back in school, now that large events continue to happen, with the mask debate and not everybody buying into the vaccine, we continue to see those numbers surge.

KING: President Biden is going to tell the country today about his new plan to address the surge. What do you want to hear from the president?

YOUNG: I would love to hear a big initiative where everybody gets on the same page. First of all, we need to address what's going on in schools. Clearly, this is a mechanism of spreading of COVID. We can all get on the same page as far as we want our children in school. We want them to learn. They need that face-to-face connection. But where we don't have a lot of support is that within - even within the state of West Virginia, when you go from county to county, the mandates for masks or the use of masks varies greatly. And that impacts how we contact trace, how we use isolation for kids and, obviously, is continuing the spread of COVID. So we would like some more support for our schools with some clear and consistent messaging.

For the vaccine rollout, we are excited to hear that hopefully, later in September, we'll have the full rollout for the additional dose for those having had their vaccine more than eight months ago, because we are a little alarmed by the fact that there is some vaccine breakthrough. And we don't want to lose that protection. I think that's something that's protected us up until this point. But really, from the public health perspective, we're needing support for vaccines. We're needing support for testing. We also need to look at the fact that, for most of the people getting sick right now, they're unvaccinated. And that's either unvaccinated children and unvaccinated adults, the largest of that population being between ages 20 to 45. So if we're not able to vaccinate, we need to look at treatment. And that treatment is going to be the use of the Regeneron monoclonal antibodies and building the capacity to do that to keep our hospitals open and to not overwhelm the health care system.

KING: I think what I hear you saying is you want the president to speak directly to West Virginians and to urge them to get vaccinated and to tell them that wearing masks is important. And yet part of the problem here is that this has become a very political issue. And there are a lot of people who don't want to do those things even if the president asks them to do them. What - where does your mind go when you think about that tension?

YOUNG: When I think about the tension, we have to go back to, what is our ultimate goal here? And what is the message coming from others? Now, as far as schools being open, we all want schools to be open. We all want kids to be safe. The part that we're not getting right is the fact that there is a debate about masks. We need to look to the health care community and to our health care providers, our public health officials, the people that have studied COVID and have been in this fight for almost 20 months. And so we need to be consistent with that, getting a clear message that masks are not a political issue. It's a safety issue.

KING: Let's unpack that just a tiny bit in the seconds we have left. Your governor, Jim Justice, opposes a statewide mask mandate in schools. Is he part of the problem here?

YOUNG: What we're looking at - it's being left up to the local counties. And so that does create a little bit of discord across county governments. And that puts a lot of pressure onto local health officials, which are getting bombarded by both sides of the issue. So we would appreciate that consistent messaging.

KING: Dr. Sherri Young, the interim executive director and health officer for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department. Thank you for being with us.

YOUNG: Thank you, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.