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The delta variant has West Virginia reeling as vaccinations stall

Gov. Jim Justice is one of the few Republicans actually leading on vaccinations — people just aren't following.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice is tired. You could see it in his face Wednesday as he pleaded — again — with his fellow West Virginians to ignore the conspiracy theories and get the Covid-19 vaccination.

How is it the same people who say the vaccines carry tracking chips willingly carry around cellphones with them everywhere, Justice asked during his latest coronavirus update. “I mean, c’mon,” the Republican governor sighed. “C’mon.”

It’s become a recurring theme from the governor’s mansion. Just last week, The Recount posted a supercut of Justice warning about “death after death after death” if West Virginia’s vaccination rate doesn’t improve in the near future. This summer he straight up said, “If you’re not vaccinated, you’re part of the problem rather than part of the solution.”

My fellow columnists and I have spent a lot of time writing about the terrible, self-serving ways in which Republican governors have botched their Covid responses. Justice isn’t one of them. For months he has cajoled, nudged and begged the people of West Virginia to get vaccinated, to protect themselves and everyone around them. But the message just isn’t getting through — at least not anymore.

When the vaccine rollout was first beginning, West Virginia was a standout in how quickly and efficiently it was getting needles into arms. By early February it had given out 83 percent of its allotted doses as other states struggled with shaky websites, poor logistics and confusing eligibility guidelines.

It was a lead that didn’t last as long as Justice and other West Virginia officials hoped. Here’s how Keith Blankenship, Mingo County's health director, explained it to investigative nonprofit organization Mountain State Spotlight in April:

Despite the vaccination effort, Mingo County’s COVID cases have not dropped. It is one of nearly two dozen counties across the state with an infection rate high enough to be classified “orange” on the state’s risk metrics.

Blankenship listed off potential reasons Mingo County residents are hesitant to get the vaccine, including a growing distrust in government, a lack of easy access to the vaccine in a highly rural county with poor public transit and general distaste for doctors.

That hesitancy has been hard to combat. West Virginia was one of the first states to begin offering incentives for vaccinations, offering $100 savings bonds to residents who got their shots. In June, the state started the Do It for Babydog lottery series, named for Justice’s English bulldog puppy. Residents 25 and under could win a full four-year ride to any public college in the state. Adults are up for prizes like free gas for 10 years and a “luxury high-end sports car.”

The second round of the six-week lottery began this month, but it hasn’t yet managed to change the relatively flat curve of the state’s vaccination rate. As of Thursday, only about 40 percent of the state’s population was fully vaccinated, the third-lowest rate in the country. This is despite the fact that, according to Justice, the number of intensive care unit patients and the number of patients on ventilators in the state both reached all-time highs Wednesday.

“Our hospitals are still overwhelmingly inundated with cases of people that are not vaccinated,” Justice said in the same briefing where he blamed conspiracy theories for keeping people unvaccinated. “Ninety percent of people in ICUs are unvaccinated. For God’s sake, how difficult is this to understand? What we should be doing is right there in front of us. We just need to use good sense and get ourselves vaccinated.”

As of Thursday, only about 40 percent of the state’s population was fully vaccinated, the third-lowest rate in the country.

For now, Justice has not issued a renewed statewide mask mandate; he has said he wants to leave that in local hands. But unlike, say, Govs. Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida, he hasn’t tried to ban mask or vaccination mandates either. And he warned in late August that a new mandate might be necessary if more people don’t get vaccinated.

On one hand, it’s not surprising that vaccine hesitancy is still so high, given what we’ve seen in how political party acts as a predictor for being vaccinated. The state overwhelmingly voting for former President Donald Trump in 2020 — he won 68.6 percent of the vote, sweeping every county. But as The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake pointed out, Justice’s pro-vaccination stance hasn’t hurt his standing with his voters.

Justice might not be forced to plead quite so hard in the coming weeks. President Joe Biden announced Thursday that he asked the Labor Department to issue a rule mandating all businesses with more than 100 employees have their staffs fully vaccinated or be subject to regular Covid testing. That, hopefully, will spur more and more people to actually get protected before winter comes.

Until then, though, Justice — and Babydog — are going to keep looking straight into the camera and trying to win over the skeptics. It’s a tough job, but I’m glad somebody is doing it.