Earlier this week, West Virginia surpassed 7,500 COVID-19 deaths. But the virus has not had an equal impact everywhere.
Across the country, some states and communities continue to be harder hit by the pandemic than others, and West Virginia is no exception — even varying by county.
Kanawha County is the largest in the state, with more than 180,000 residents. That’s roughly 10 percent of West Virginia’s population, and, as would be expected, the county makes up about 10 percent of the state’s COVID-19 deaths.
For the most part, bigger counties around the state have more deaths, proportional to their size. The same goes for smaller counties and fewer deaths. But there are a few outliers.
One of the biggest outliers is Monongalia County, which accounts for just under 6 percent of the state’s population, but less than 3 percent of all deaths in West Virginia.
“In COVID, we found that probably the single greatest risk factor, especially early in the disease with the Wuhan strain, of a predictor of mortality was age,” Dr. Steven Eshenaur, health officer for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, said. “The older you are, the worse this disease is on you.”
Eshenaur points to the significant difference in the age of Kanawha and Monongalia counties’ populations as a likely explanation for the discrepancies in death rates.
“Kanawha County has 21.6 percent of our population that is over 65,” he said. “Mon County has 13.5 percent of its population over age 65. It’s almost half.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Americans age 55 and older account for 90 percent of all COVID-19 deaths in the country.
CDC data also shows that the risk for death from COVID-19 grows dramatically as age goes up. Compared to 18-29 year-olds, 40 to 49 year-olds are 10 times more likely to die from COVID-19. For those aged 50 to 65, they are 25 times more likely.
Dr. Lee Smith is the health officer and director of the Monongalia County Health Department, and has led the county’s pandemic response for the past two-and-a-half years.
“Right now, we have [the] total number of deaths, [the] total number of cases,” Smith said. “The areas that we don’t have right now is how many of the people who contracted COVID were smokers, were elderly. We know that those are the at-risk populations.”
Smith cautions drawing conclusions from what he calls an incomplete picture. He said it may be years before we understand how and why COVID-19 impacted communities differently, if ever.
“Public health is going to be studying COVID probably for the next decade, if not more,” he said. “We saw that this impacted the elderly more at the beginning. So I think that it’s a worthy line of inquiry because this is going to be a cumulative knowledge built up over time.”
One thing that both health officers can agree on is the impact of vaccines on the pandemic and deaths. Eshenaur calls vaccines the single most effective tool we have to protect individuals, but the statewide rate of distribution for booster shots is at just 32 percent.
Smith said he can relate to the public’s COVID-19 fatigue.
“I think that because of COVID fatigue, many people are wanting just to not consider it anymore, and I certainly understand that because our staff is as fatigued as anyone with COVID,” Smith said. “But it hasn’t gone away completely. It was said early on, ‘My mask protects you, your mask protects me, my vaccine protects you, my, your vaccine protects me.’ I think that if we can move beyond the politics, and get to a point where we’re doing this as a community, that’s going to be the better position.”
COVID-19 fatigue and vaccine complacency could spell trouble in the coming weeks and months, as COVID-19 begins to interact with other respiratory viruses that surge with colder weather.
“We are moving into, the buzzword now is a ‘tridemic’ of flu, RSV, and COVID all potentially hitting their peak this fall,” Eshenaur said. “It could be very bad, especially when you see people that get concomitant illnesses, that is they get two illnesses at the same time, like flu and COVID, or RSV and COVID together.”
COVID-19 deaths are slowing in West Virginia, and that may be causing some people to let their guard down, but vaccine hesitancy combined with flu and RSV outbreaks could spell a long winter for the state.