Emily Rice Published

Health Care Leaders Look Back On Four Years Of COVID-19

A 3D rendering of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) spike ball.
Centers for Disease Control & Prevention

Time passes differently from each person’s perspective. The COVID-19 pandemic may seem like decades ago to some, and just like yesterday to others. In actuality, it has been four years since the world as we knew it came to a grinding halt.

The current Secretary of the West Virginia Department of Health, Dr. Sherri Young, was working as the health officer and executive director for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department when the virus arrived in the state.

“We were the 50th state to have, or announce, our first case,” Young said. “And so it seems like from those waiting points, things accelerated very quickly to having more and more cases, and kind of evolving from all the responses that we had to do.”

Dr. Clay Marsh was eventually appointed by Gov. Jim Justice as West Virginia’s COVID-19 czar, the person who coordinated the federal, state and local agencies, health officials, researchers and other agencies aiding in the state’s response to the virus.

However, at the beginning of the pandemic, Marsh was making decisions for West Virginia University (WVU), as its executive dean for health sciences. He said he watched news reports of how the virus was spreading around the world and made decisions based on the most up-to-date information.

“Seeing that coming toward us in the U.S., we decided, you know, right before spring break, that instead of bringing the students back after spring break, we would actually close the university to classes, of course, taking care of the students that were at the university, international students, people, who didn’t have other places to go,” Marsh said. “But otherwise, then we took a big step and went online after that.”

Marsh said West Virginia’s rural demographics protected it from the virus for so long, with no large urban areas for COVID-19 to spread.

“We had the benefit of waiting until COVID came through the rest of the world and part of the rest of the country, and the urban centers to be able to respond,” Marsh said. “And so I think that was a tremendous advantage for us.”

Young said the first year of the pandemic was spent making hard decisions to limit the spread of COVID-19 and casualties from it. 

“We knew that there was very limited testing, we were using repurposed PCR testing that we changed the calibration for what we’d use for a flu test or other types of coronaviruses that we had to develop testing,” Young said. “So I remember sitting at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department with 10 swabs, knowing that there were more people exposed in one patient than I could possibly test at that time.”

Young said one of the defining steps in mitigating the risk was the development of testing and distribution.

“One of the things that Gov. Justice did that was so great for us at the local health level, was making that testing available to everyone, once we had that capability,” Young said.

Marsh said a big milestone in the COVID-19 pandemic was understanding how it was communicated.

“I think that going from not understanding how COVID was transmitted, to understanding that COVID was really transmitted by respiratory exchange, and breathing, exchange, cough and exchange, sneezing exchange, and it was airborne, is really, really a huge advantage,” Marsh said.

Of course, both Young and Marsh agree, the invention of the COVID-19 vaccine was a turning point in fighting the virus.

“The next big evolution within the COVID pandemic, when we finally got that vaccine, that was life-altering, life-changing, I will forever remember the minute that I got to get the first dose from the health department,” Young said.

Marsh said not only was the invention of the vaccine a turning point, but a revolutionary moment in medicine.

“Coming up with the new vaccines, particularly the messenger RNA vaccines, were really a turning point in the pandemic and allowed us to protect the most vulnerable first, the aged, the older you are, the more likely COVID will have severe consequences, people that are immunocompromised, and then of course, eventually, you know, people who are first responders who are medical caregivers, and then everyone,” Marsh said.

Young agreed, remembering how exciting it was for the elderly to be allowed to visit with their loved ones again, without fear or worry.

“For some of the older adults, especially those 65 and older, and one of the most gratifying things getting to stand in those clinics, or even doing house calls, which we had done from the Kanawha-Charleston perspective, with the gratitude and being able to be open to being back around folks,” Young said. “So at the initiation of the vaccine, the uptake was good, and the response was good.”

Marsh said the world is not done with COVID-19, as it continues to mutate and with some patients still suffering from Long COVID.

“We still are not done with COVID, particularly related to the impact of Long COVID, the extended problems that people can suffer including brain fog and a variety of other problems,” Marsh said. “And we’re learning more and more about Long COVID. But that’s certainly still something that is impacting people in the U.S. and across the globe every day.”

Young encouraged people to speak with their physicians about what vaccination is appropriate.

“Well, fortunately, people, I think, were very well attuned at the beginning, but we don’t talk about COVID a lot,” Young said. “I think where we need to have that conversation is just realizing that it is something that we have to live with. It’s now endemic in our society, we will forever be dealing with it just like we deal with the flu, just like we deal with RSV and other diseases.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Americans 65 and older should receive an additional dose of the latest COVID-19 vaccine this spring.

According to West Virginia’s Pan Respiratory Dashboard, just 36 percent of West Virginians over the age of 61 are up-to-date on COVID-19 vaccines. The dashboard shows that of the more than 100 West Virginians who died from COVID-19 in the past year, the average age was 73.

“As the data consistently shows, those who are older and immunocompromised are the most vulnerable to the severe effects of COVID-19,” said Young in a press release. “It is for this reason we encourage those individuals to strongly consider getting an additional dose.”

Under current recommendations, those 65 and older can receive an additional dose of the vaccine at least four months after the previous shot. The updated vaccine targets both the original strain of the virus and newer variants, offering broader protection. 

To find updated COVID-19 information and the nearest vaccination location, visit COVID-19 Vaccine.

Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting with support from Marshall Health.