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Rollout of initiatives to get younger West Virginians vaccinated expected Monday

CHARLESTON — With the median age for West Virginians testing positive for COVID-19 dipping down to 34, and with larger numbers of younger adults contracting and being hospitalized with the virus across the country and in places like India, state officials said Friday they will redouble efforts to convince younger residents to get vaccinated.

“We’ve absolutely got to get them vaccinated,” said Gov. Jim Justice, who on Monday announced plans to provide vaccinated 16- to 35-year-olds with either $100 U.S. savings bonds or $100 checks.

Justice announced Friday the government will sponsor vaccination clinics at state parks through Memorial Day, and said he will have announcements Monday for a “complete rollout” of new initiatives to convince about 380,000 unvaccinated young West Virginians to get their shots.

Justice related a story Friday about going through a fast-food drive-thru where two of the three employees he spoke to said they were scared to get vaccinated because of rumors about side effects.

“People are just scaring each other,” the governor said, dismissing the rumors as falsehoods, adding, “In most instances, people are just scaring each other from the standpoint of the dark in the closet.”

With 880 reported cases of COVID-19 variants in 47 counties, Dr. Clay Marsh said Friday it is critical to reach younger West Virginians.

Marsh, vice president of health sciences at West Virginia University and the state’s COVID-19 czar, said younger adults are susceptible to the United Kingdom variant, which is 50% more infectious and up to 50% deadlier than the original virus.

While younger adults might have lower hospitalization and death rates than older Americans, Marsh stressed that little is known about the long-term effects of COVID-19 infections, with many people suffering ongoing physical and mental abnormalities, a condition known as Long COVID syndrome.

State vaccination rates plummeted in April, with an estimated 588,000 West Virginians who are reluctant or refusing to get vaccinated.

However, Justice on Friday dismissed the idea of making vaccinations mandatory, saying such an order would have to come from the federal level.

He added, “From the standpoint of what I feel, I don’t think we should do that.”

Also during Friday’s briefing:

  • Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch unveiled an updated COVID-19 dashboard, which, among other changes, provides a more complete overview of state vaccination rates.

In addition to data compiled by the department, the dashboard now includes vaccination data from Veterans Affairs, as well as data for federal employees living in West Virginia, federal prisoners housed in state facilities and state residents who have been vaccinated out of state.

Justice defended his signing of legislation prohibiting transgender athletes from competing on girls sports teams

  • , hours after telling MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle that he could not identify one instance in the state where that had occurred, but adding, “We all know what an absolute advantage boys would have playing against girls.”

Ruhle asked the governor why a transgender ban is a priority issue in a state that is ranked 45th in education, 47th in health care, 48th in economy and 50th in infrastructure, according to U.S. News and World Report.

Justice said the transgender ban was the Legislature’s priority, not his.

“I’m not running from any kind of support. I absolutely support the bill, period,” the governor said during the briefing. “At the same time, we do a lot of work here, and I sign lots and lots of bills.”

Justice’s interview with Ruhle went viral on social media, with Justice, Ruhle and West Virginia all trending on Twitter.

In-person Empty Bowls event raises money for Huntington food bank

HUNTINGTON — Hundreds of bowls were on display Friday as groups worked together to help those in need.

Marshall University’s School of Art and Design and The Pottery Place hosted an in-person bowl sale as part of the 18th annual Empty Bowls fundraising pottery sale. Empty Bowls Live, which took place at the Pullman Square gazebo in downtown Huntington, gave people a chance to browse through art students’ creations and purchase their favorites.

Proceeds from the event will be given to the Facing Hunger Foodbank in Huntington. Bowls cost $20 apiece, with each bowl sold providing 180 meals for those in need.

The traditional one-day, soup lunch event that is the usual format for this longstanding Marshall tradition was canceled last year due to the pandemic, but the pottery sale itself was rescued by The Pottery Place, whose owner, Marshall graduate Jessica Stone, offered to sell the bowls on her company website. The online sale was repeated this year throughout the month of April, but Friday’s in-person event aimed to boost sales.

Number of Americans fully vaccinated tops 100 million

DALLAS — Disneyland reopened Friday and cruise lines welcomed the news that they could be sailing again in the U.S. by midsummer, as the number of Americans fully vaccinated against COVID-19 reached another milestone: 100 million.

Visitors cheered and screamed with delight as the Southern California theme park swung open its gates for the first time in 13 months in a powerful symbol of the U.S. rebound, even though the self-proclaimed Happiest Place on Earth is allowing only in-state guests for now and operating at just 25% capacity.

The reopening and similar steps elsewhere across the country reflect increasing optimism as COVID-19 deaths tumble and the ranks of the vaccinated grow — a stark contrast to the worsening disaster in India and Brazil and the scant availability of vaccines in many poor parts of the world.

In fact, the U.S. announced Friday it will restrict travel from India starting Tuesday, citing the devastating rise in COVID-19 cases in the country and the emergence of potentially dangerous variants of the coronavirus.

While the overall number of lives lost to COVID-19 in the U.S. has eclipsed 575,000, deaths have plummeted to an average of about 670 per day from a peak of around 3,400 in mid-January.

Thirty-nine percent of the nation’s adult population has been fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Over 55% of adults have received at least one dose, up from 30% a month ago.

However, about 8% of those who have gotten one dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine have not returned for their second shot, officials said. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said it is important to complete the course to gain maximum protection against the virus.

“Make sure you get that second dose,” he said at a White House briefing.

Dr. Leana Wen, former Baltimore health commissioner and a visiting professor of health policy at George Washington University, said fully vaccinating about 40% of American adults is a great achievement but not enough.

“The hardest part is ahead of us,” she said. “I’m very concerned that we are not going to come anywhere close to reaching herd immunity in 2021.”

Wen noted that Fauci has estimated 70% to 85% of the U.S. population needs to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity.

The immunization drive has slowed in recent weeks, even as shots have been thrown open to all adults. Wen said better weather and falling case counts will make it harder to reach people who have not been vaccinated yet.

“Those people who are on the fence about getting a vaccine may have less reason to get one now because they don’t see coronavirus as an existential crisis anymore,” she said.

CDC officials also reported Friday that it was anxiety — not a problem with the shots — that caused fainting, dizziness and other reactions reported in 64 people at vaccine clinics in five states in early April. None got seriously ill.

Cruise lines, meanwhile, cheered the news that the CDC is committed to resuming sailing in the U.S. by midsummer and is adjusting some of the rules to speed the process.

The CDC said in a letter to the industry this week that it will let ships cruise without going through practice trips first if 98% of the crew and 95% of the passengers are fully vaccinated.

“The voices of community leaders and the wider cruise community are being heard — and we are very grateful for that,” said Laziza Lambert, spokeswoman for the Cruise Lines International Association.

U.S. cruises have been shut down by the pandemic since March 2020.

In other travel news, the Transportation Security Administration extended a requirement that passengers on planes, trains and buses wear masks. The rule was set to expire May 11 but will now run through Sept. 13. Airlines and their unions had pushed for an extension, saying masks help keep passengers and workers safe.

In Michigan, which in recent weeks became the worst hot spot in the U.S., the numbers are finally showing improvement, and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced a plan to tie the lifting of restrictions to the state’s vaccination rate.

In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday he expects to see preventive measures lifted and the city “fully reopen” by July 1. “We are ready for stores to open, for businesses to open, offices, theaters, full strength,” he said on MSNBC.

But New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has maintained throughout the crisis that such decisions are his alone, and he said Thursday he would like to end restrictions even sooner.

“I don’t want to wait that long. I think if we do what we have to do, we can be reopened earlier,” he said.

Cuomo said on Friday that New York City can increase indoor dining to 75% of capacity starting May 7.

Another defendant added to city lawsuit against public nuisance bar

HUNTINGTON — The city of Huntington filed an amended complaint Friday against owners of a 10th Avenue property that was the site of a double homicide last year.

The amended complaint adds Albert Cremeans to the lawsuit the city had against Gary Stanley to seek a permanent injunction against the property located at 2005 10th Ave.

The property is formally known as Gary’s Place and was declared a public nuisance by the City Council in 2017 due to violent crimes associated with the business. The building was put up for sale but was not sold.

In that time, Stanley leased the building to two other tenants who opened illegal bars. In 2020, a double homicide occurred at the property, which was at least the third homicide at the location in the past decade.

In a March hearing, City Attorney Scott Damron asked that Cremeans be added to the lawsuit. Stanley previously transferred the property to Cremeans for $125,000. At the hearing, Damron said he believed the transfer was fraudulently made to get the city to drop its claim.

Christopher Thomas, of Michigan, and CT’s Biker Club, a domestic nonprofit association, were previously named as defendants in the case. Neither appeared at the March hearing.

Scott McClure, who represents Stanley, said he was not representing Cremeans at the time. He declined to give further comment on behalf of Stanley.

“We seek to conduct discovery to determine whether the transfer was a sham intended to frustrate the court’s jurisdiction over the matter,” Damron said in an email Friday. “If it was, we will ask for an injunction against the new owner as well.”