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Justice sets COVID-19 vaccine goal to remove mask mandates

Gov. Jim Justice set a vaccine goal for West Virginia to reach. (Photo courtesy of the WV Governor’s Office)

CHARLESTON — To help encourage reluctant West Virginians to get their COVID-19 vaccinations, Gov. Jim Justice set a vaccine goal Wednesday for the state, with elimination of indoor mask mandates as the prize.

“We’ve still got a ways to go,” Justice said during his Wednesday COVID-19 briefing at the State Capitol Building. “We’re doing good, but we need your help to get there.”

Justice said 50.9 percent of the state’s 1.5 million eligible residents aged 16 and older have received partial vaccination for the coronavirus with either the two-dose Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna shots.

Justice set a goal Wednesday of 70 percent for partial vaccination. If the state reaches that number, Justice said he would rescind the indoor mask requirements put into place last summer by executive order. Members of the public age 9 and older are required to wear face masks or covering in indoor public places.

“If we can push this number … if we can get that to 70, we’ll be there,” Justice said. “When we get to 70, these masks and all this stuff will be a memory absolutely when we get there.”

In an updated executive order signed Monday, the indoor mask order was changed to allow people to go without a mask during physical activity, such as exercising and sporting activities. Otherwise, masks are required at all times indoors except when actively eating and drinking or if the person has a medical issue that makes breathing through a mask difficult.

Nearly 38 percent of the state’s eligible residents have been fully vaccinated with either both doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, or the one-dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine which remained paused pending a decision by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices regarding a handful of rare blood-clotting incidents that could be linked to the vaccine.

Justice said the state has already made great progress on vaccinating West Virginians age 65 and older, with 77 percent of that population already vaccinated. Justice wants to see that number increase to 85 percent.

“That’s really good, but what we have to do is we’ve got to get our kids on board,” Justice said. We’ve got to get that 16- to 35-age range on board, and then we really start moving the 50.9 percent and head towards 70 (percent).”

James Hoyer, who heads the state Joint Interagency Task Force, said the goal is working with churches, community and civic groups, businesses and industry to get more shots in arms.

“We are still not there, and we have clearly reached a vaccine hesitancy point that we’ve got to get the rest of our fellow West Virginians past,” Hoyer said. “We are prepared to go wherever we need to go to vaccinate our fellow West Virginians and get them on board with this and move that.”

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com.

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