One of the Greenbrier County Health Department vaccination sites. (Source: GCHD facebook)

Members of the Greenbrier County, West Virginia, Covid Task Force credit one disaster with helping them prepare for another.

In 2016, flooding in southeast West Virginia brought together different segments of the county – government, business, healthcare and education – to deal with the disaster and its aftermath.  When the pandemic struck, the same group met to manage the county’s response.

In this June 24, 2016 photo, a couple cleans up from severe flooding in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. The floods killed 23 people statewide, including 15 people in Greenbrier County. The county used the experience gained during the flood to help coordinate vaccination efforts. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Chaired by Senator Stephen Baldwin and led by the Greenbrier County Health Department, the Greenbrier County Covid-19 Task Force met in person and then virtually as many times a week as needed to deal with potential outbreaks and other issues stemming from the pandemic. Since December, they’ve been working together to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible.

“We were fortunate enough to have the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine, as well as the county commission, the state fairgrounds, the county emergency management department, the health department and others already meeting, so when it came time to vaccinate people, those relationships were already there to make that happen,” Baldwin said.

When larger amounts of the vaccine became available, the task force turned to the West Virginia State Fairgrounds to hold a drive-through vaccination clinic.

“It evolved over time,” Baldwin said. “There was such demand initially that a simple drive-through clinic didn’t work because of the traffic issues it created.”

Larger facilities meant larger numbers of residents wanting to be vaccinated.

“We started getting our vaccine in and began doing these events at our Health Department,” said Dr. Bridgett Morrison, Greenbrier County health officer. “Very quickly, we realized that we needed a larger space. So we moved to the state fair [grounds] and very quickly realized that we needed more people. We needed volunteers.”

The community responded. Clinics had up to 100 volunteers helping to facilitate vaccinations, Morrison said. 

That led to businesses stepping up to donate food and drinks for the volunteers, she said.

“There were several people in the business community that got together and started supplying us with lunches and snacks and drinks while we were doing these [vaccinations],” Morrison said. “Others started fundraising and people in businesses just started donating food, saying ‘I’ll cover lunch this day’ and another would say ‘I’ll cover lunch that day.’ The community really came together.”

That led to other businesses stepping up to host vaccination clinics, Baldwin said. The Greenbrier Hotel, the largest employer in the county, began hosting vaccination clinics for its employees and the public at large, he said.

At the height of the vaccination effort, Morrison said, the Health Department was doing about 1,700 vaccinations a week. Now the clinics have slowed to about 100 a week.

The state health department indicates that 45.2% of Greenbrier County residents have received at least one dose of vaccine, and 40.5% are fully vaccinated. That amounts to about 15,700 doses in a county with a population of about 34,000.  About three quarters of residents aged 65 and up have received at least one dose, according to state records.

Numbers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are lower. Morrison said she isn’t surprised. It takes the CDC four to six weeks to update its data, she said, and some places, like pharmacies, aren’t required to report how many shots they’ve given.

As vaccines became more available, the reporting process has become more complicated and more likely to miss some doses. 

“In the very beginning, it was just the Health Department’s getting vaccines and the long-term care in the hospitals,” Morrison said. “Then [Federally Qualified Health Centers] got involved, and then rural health centers. Then the pharmacies did.”

The state allocates a large proportion of the doses that flow into the county, Morrison said. “But then some of the pharmacies have federal contracts where they get the shipment sent directly to them.,” she said. “There’s no real way to double-check who’s getting what and whether or not those are getting put in the arm down at this point.”

Now that those who want the vaccine and can get to a clinic have been vaccinated, for the most part, the Covid Task Force is transitioning to next steps. That includes mask messaging, getting shots to the home-bound, and addressing the broadband issue, Baldwin said.  Lack of broadband access in rural areas often hindered rural residents from accessing health care and education resources during the pandemic, he said. 

Julian Levine, director of community engagement and outreach at the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine Center for Rural and Community Health (CRCH), said the community effort is ongoing. At the CRCH, work is being done to help the Health Department identify home-bound residents and others who may want the vaccine but are unable to get to it.

“We’ve recently been helping the department build some maps to find people,” Levine said. “We’re calling people on those lists to see if they do want a shot, and if they need one in their home and then making some maps and helping the health department  to get out to them.”

The key now, Levine said, is not making people come to the vaccine, but getting the vaccine to them.

“I think the data shows that vaccine hesitancy is an issue, but it’s not nearly the issue that it’s portrayed to be,” he said. “I think the issue is meeting people where they are and finding the percentage of people who the data shows will get it –  it just needs to be easy for them and it  needs to work into their life.”

Some people may be waiting for vaccination because they are trying to accommodate their work and family schedules if they get side effects.

“There are people who are really concerned about the side effects in terms of having to miss work,” Levine said. “If they get the shot and have side effects they could be down for a couple of days which is a really reasonable thing to be worried about. I think it’s now about finding those folks who want to get it, but they just need it to fit into their life.”

For Senator Baldwin, the success of the county’s vaccination effort is indicative of community strength.

“Our community has come together like this before,” he said. “And I think that this community spirit has helped us be successful. This has been a moral boost for the whole county and has allowed us to take advantage of those previously forged relationships to benefit all of us.”