West Virginia nonprofit gets funds to boost vaccine efforts

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A nonprofit group on Thursday was awarded $3.5 million in funding to boost COVID-19 testing and vaccine efforts in West Virginia, in addition to addressing HIV and substance abuse prevention.

The grant given to the Community Education Group by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention comes as the coronavirus pandemic gets worse by the day in West Virginia amid the spread of the more contagious delta variant.

The number of people who currently have the virus in West Virginia has reached its highest point in more than two months, surpassing more than 5,000 cases, according to health data released Thursday. Hospitalizations from COVID-19 have nearly doubled this month alone to 289 and delta variant cases have tripled to at least 299.

The Community Education Group’s one-year pilot project aims to reach deep within individual communities and residential settings to reduce disparities in vaccination coverage in rural, at-risk and underserved areas. The funding will go toward hiring and training 50 health-care and community workers and distribute COVID-19 and other vaccines, executive director A. Toni Young said.

State data shows that 57% of residents age 12 and up are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. West Virginia has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the nation, according to the CDC.

“We’ve hit this wall of folks that are vaccine ‘no’ and vaccine hesitant,” Young said in a telephone interview.

Broadband services are spotty in some rural places, so residents don’t have a way to easily find vaccine services close by. “So let’s take it to them,” Young said. The group also plans to provide transportation services to vaccine events.

It also will work toward educating the public on HIV, substance abuse, hepatitis and other diseases. Training centers for outreach workers will be set up in Charleston and Morgantown, Young said.

West Virginia’s largest county, Kanawha, has one of the nation’s highest spikes of HIV cases. The CDC recommended earlier this month that people who inject drugs in Kanawha County should have expanded access to sterile syringes, testing and treatment. But a state law signed in April tightens requirements for needle exchange programs.

West Virginia also has had the highest death rate from opioids in the country.

“We want to train individuals who are of their community, their neighborhood, their network,” Young said. “We want to infiltrate all the networks. It’s about mobility and portability of services. If we have to end up door to door, that’s what we want to do.”

The Community Education Group, founded in 1994, is based in the Hardy County community of Lost City, with offices in Washington, D.C. It works to eliminate disparities in health outcomes and improve public health in disadvantaged populations and underserved communities

Young said her goal is to eventually broaden the program to other parts of Appalachia.

“If rural America is hurting on these issues, we’ve got to increase access,” she said.

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