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In northern West Virginia, nestled right below the state’s northern panhandle, is Wetzel County.
It’s small and rural. The Ohio River snakes past the county seat of New Martinsville, birthplace to famed West Virginia University football coach Bill Stewart.
The county is home to around 14,000 people and has experienced the state’s highest rate of death from COVID-19.
One out of every 157 people have died from the virus, according to state health department data.
Carla McBee, the county medical examiner, said the local funeral homes couldn’t keep up with the demand at the height of the pandemic.
“We had funeral homes just having two and three and four funerals a week, which is not normal here,” she said.
McBee also responded to the pandemic as a county commissioner who approved an additional $200,000 in funds to agencies for protective gear. The commission also approved increased funding for the local food pantry to help the increased number of people who were out of work and in need of food, she said.
“We have had a lot of agencies in here saying, ‘Our budget is maxed. Can you assist us with funding?’ And we have,” McBee said.
Ninety-two people have died in Wetzel County from COVID-19 as the county reported another death as the state reached 7,500 deaths from virus.
For comparison, Kanawha, which is the state’s most populated county with more than 180,000 residents and 810 COVID-19 deaths, the death rate is one out of every 223 people.
The rate of death in Wetzel County stretched other agencies to their limit.
Steve Yoho, director of the county’s Office of Emergency Services, said the department stopped planning for natural disasters and emergencies, and instead, focused on helping the health department.
“We helped [the health department] put on the clinics and do testing and do shots,” he said. “Basically, for a two-year period, we didn’t do emergency management and became part of the health department.”
Employees with the Wetzel-Tyler Health Department have been on the front lines of the pandemic, serving a largely elderly population. DHHR data shows around 80 percent of residents 61 and older have been fully vaccinated against the virus.
Health department administrator Ashley Guiler said they didn’t have enough staff to keep up with the state’s requirements for pandemic response.
“The local health departments weren’t provided any funding to allow us to obtain any staff to actually fight COVID-19, so we relied on our community partners to volunteer for us,” Guiler said. “We had a lot of retired nurses, we had a lot of EMS people join us to administer the shots on their days off from their regular jobs.”
The all hands on deck response to the pandemic meant other health department programs like preventative care and women’s health care were stalled for two years, Guiler explained.
“Now on the rebound, we’re seeing an increase in cancer. We’re seeing an increase in chronic diseases,” she said.
The pandemic has impacted Wetzel County in another way, according to McBee, as it overlapped with the county’s problems with substance use disorder.
“I believe our issues are a lot of poverty. We don’t have a lot of jobs in our county. People just don’t see a way out, and they don’t have the finances to get a way out, so they turn to drugs,” she said.
Nationwide, drug overdose deaths accelerated during the pandemic, and in West Virginia, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data showed nearly twice as many people died from an overdose in 2022 compared to 2016.
“Most people tell me they do it because they lack coping skills. I don’t see that getting any better. I just think everything looks bleak, and that’s why people start it,” McBee said.