West Virginia leads the nation in its ability to distribute and administer COVID-19 vaccinations by taking a unique approach: Rather than using a federal program that relies on national chains, they turned to 250 local pharmacies instead.
The state ranks first in its percentage of vaccines used, with almost 10 percent of residents having received their first shot.
Melvin Hemerick, the owner of Martinsburg Pharmacy, has joined dozens of other pharmacists across West Virginia in holding vaccination clinics.
“We’re in the community … and so we were able to work with the people we already knew, really come together to get this done,” said Hemerick, who administers vaccines at Martinsburg High School. “Some days we have 600-plus doses that we’re putting in arms, so really one person couldn’t handle that.”
The pharmacists giving shots at Martinsburg High School travel in from three different counties in the eastern panhandle, teaming up to slow the spread.
The clinic focuses on school employees age 50 and older, since the pharmacists have already finished administering first and second shots at all the long-term care centers.
“We’ve been taking care of these patients for a long time,” said John Lambert, the owner of Lambert Drug Store. “They know you and they feel comfortable there, and that’s why it’s vital we’re part of that process.”
The pharmacists at Martinsburg High School expect to be administering COVID-19 vaccines to their neighbors for the rest of the year, at which point West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice plans to have at least a million people vaccinated.
Ron Stephens, the assistant superintendent of pupil services at Berkeley County Schools, has taken on the task of organizing the clinics for the school district. In a state full of small-town communities, he said that this approach is second nature.
“There’s a lot of pride in trying to make sure that you take care of each other,” Stephens said.
When the vaccine comes into the state it goes out to five different hubs. Each pharmacist administering vaccines is responsible for picking up their supply unless, on occasion, the National Guard delivers it to them.
Ellis Haskins, a school bus driver who recently received the vaccine, credits the efficiency of the vaccination plan to “cooperation from the top on down.”
“Nobody’s really fighting each other, and everybody’s doing what they’re supposed to be doing — and that’s what it takes," Haskins said.