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Straight through the blustery winds, snow and cold rains of February, the pandemic known as the coronavirus and its disease, COVID-19, keeps building toward an expected half million U.S. deaths by a calendar turn into March 2021.

All this virtually within one year of the onset of this virus.

In the early days of our struggle, I looked back to the 2018-19 Spanish flu pandemic with its estimated 675,000 American deaths, and wondered, “Will this current disease crisis be anywhere near as bad?” Now we know the answer: Yes, it will.

States such as California, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and Texas have indeed paid a heavy price. And continue to pay it.

West Virginia, though, among all 50 states has proven itself one of the very best places to reside for coping with the COVID-19 onslaught. And keeping the death toll down. Our current toll is roughly 2,200. or one-tenth of 1% of our population of 1.8 million.

For West Virginia’s better performance, in large part, I believe we have to credit Gov. Jim Justice, and his passion for “staying ahead” of the virus. Let’s also credit our state health director Dr. Ayne Amjad and county and municipal health departments.

Here are demarcation points in the West Virginia fight against the virus:

  • Justice in March 2020 shut down restaurants and bars statewide before West Virginia had suffered a single death from COVID-19.
  • Upon the governor’s orders the Mountain State became the first to vaccinate all nursing home staff and nursing home patients.
  • Not following the lead of such Donald Trump-driven states as South Dakota, Justice was one of the earliest governors to lay down a statewide mask mandate for all public indoor spaces.
  • When Trump was calling upon all states to “reopen the schools” last spring, Justice fired back, “No one is going to tell me when to open our schools—not even the president of the United States.” This despite Justice’s well-known reputation for frequently saying, “Trump’s doing a great job.”

Just recently Justice has become somewhat of a national media star over West Virginia’s high rating for distribution of the coronavirus vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna. I’ve seen him popping up regularly on both CNN and MSNBC, and he’s likely been featured elsewhere, too.

Finally, I have just learned that all West Virginia teachers age 30 and up have already received their first COVID vaccinations, and many their second shots also. Ahead of the record in many other states.

Whether to open schools or keep them shut, or partially shut, has been left up to the individual counties. That said, with few exceptions, all counties have schools open at least part of each week.

Given the pandemic, I’m not traveling around the state near as much as I used to in pre-COVID days. In our area of West Pea Ridge-Barboursville, however, I see an extremely high observance of mask wearing in stores, at the mall and on U.S. 60, from the 29th Street bridge out to Merritts Creek. And chatter among neighbors often comes around to the question of the day: “Got your shot yet?” Me? Not yet — but soon, I hope.

John Patrick Grace formerly covered healthcare for The Greensboro (N.C.) News and Record. He is currently a Huntington-based book editor and teaches the Life Writing Class.

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