West Virginia isn’t known for its good health outcomes. It leads the nation in deaths from diabetes, accidents and drug overdoses. But when it comes to distributing the COVID-19 vaccine, the state has been a shining star.
It didn’t start out that way. In late December, on what was the day that Gov. Jim Justice announced West Virginians over the age of 80 would be able to receive doses of the vaccine from their county health departments, seniors began lining up right away — even before doses of the vaccine were available. Chris Dorst, a Charleston Gazette-Mail photographer for 30 years, was sent out by his editor to photograph the serpentine line of senior citizens she’d seen waiting outside the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, under the gray December sky.
“Some people had wheelchairs or walkers — elderly people, and maybe some family members with them in line, just waiting. It seemed to move really slow,” Dorst says.
Behind the scenes at Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, things were chaotic. The staff received a call from the governor’s office at 11 a.m. letting them know they would receive vaccines to distribute to seniors, just one hour before Justice’s public announcement. As soon as the governor made the announcement, octogenarians came down to stand outside the health department. By the time County Health Director Dr. Sherri Young returned to the building with the doses of the Moderna vaccine, it was nearly 2 p.m. But the vaccine she’d just picked up still needed to thaw, the line of elderly constituents was only getting longer and rain was in the forecast. Young’s office was able to repurpose thawed doses of vaccine meant for first responders and deliver 210 shots to the people in line that day.