Editorial Roundup: West Virginia

Recent editorials from West Virginia newspapers:

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April 20

The Intelligencer on profound changes needed to solve the opioid crisis:

If the human toll is not enough reason for some elected and bureaucratic officials to take seriously the fight against substance abuse in our state, here is one that might come closer to speaking their language: According to the Center on Budget and Policy, treating and addressing substance abuse and addiction cost West Virginia an estimated $11.3 billion in 2019.

In economist Jill Kriesky’s report, she includes the costs that have sprung out of the addiction epidemic such as hepatitis, HIV, neonatal abstinence syndrome and an overburdened foster care system. Her report estimates economic damages from drug-related fatalities in West Virginia were $9.8 billion in 2019.

In other words, approximately 15 percent of the Mountain State’s gross domestic product is being spent on this crisis, without any solution in sight.

But if we’re throwing this much money at the problem, why isn’t it making a difference? One reason is our failure to tackle the root of the epidemic. We have failed to address our flailing monolithic economy, we have failed to talk about the sociocultural reasons for our attitudes toward education, the fantasy of the economic stalwarts of the past, crippling poverty, substance abuse, mental health … and change. Those who are not struggling have failed mightily in the one thing that might make a difference. We have failed to give hope to those who need it.

What now? Making the real change needed, and sparking the hope that will come with it is not as easy as writing another piece of legislation, spending a little more money. If the folks running the show are genuine in wanting to finish this monster, once and for all, they’ve got a lot of work to do — and it is not the kind they’re used to.

But so do the rest of us. Are we ready?

Online: https://www.theintelligencer.net/

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April 19

The Charleston Gazette-Mail on efforts to the state's vaccination campaign:

On Friday, according to the West Virginia Department for Health and Human Resources, 4,409 doses of COVID-19 vaccine were administered — up slightly from the previous day, but down substantially from the previous week’s high of 9,645. On Sunday, five people were vaccinated. Five.

Looking at state statistics, Sundays are typically a slower day for vaccinations. But there’s a huge difference between vaccinating five people, and the 875 doses administered on the same day a week prior. It’s possible there’s a data lag, although it wasn’t mentioned during a Monday COVID-19 briefing.

At one point, West Virginia was leading the nation in getting COVID-19 vaccines out and into arms. That has changed drastically over the past few months. West Virginia was in the bottom 10 states for U.S. vaccination rates last week.

The problem is understandable in some instances. The state focused on its elderly population when vaccines first arrived in December, and it’s easier to get shots en masse to older residents in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. Relying on the general public to go to a clinic or their pharmacy to get the vaccine is different, because the onus is on the individual, not the government.

It’s also arguable that, as more people are vaccinated, inoculation numbers go down, because there are fewer people who haven’t received the vaccine. But that doesn’t fully explain what’s happening in West Virginia.

According to the DHHR, 681,790 West Virginians have received the first of two shots of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. Of those, 508,089 are fully vaccinated, having received both doses or the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine before the state paused distribution.

So, roughly 38% of the state’s population has at least received a first dose. That sounds impressive, especially when considering children weren’t part of the original vaccination pool. Of West Virginia’s nearly 1.8 million people, about 20% are children under the age of 18, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s roughly 360,000 of the state’s residents. Take them out of the equation, and West Virginia would have given at least one dose of the vaccine to nearly half of its eligible population.

But that’s not the scenario anymore. Variants of the virus cropping up in the state and across the country are much more harmful to children than the original COVID-19 strain, and public health officials, along with Gov. Jim Justice, are urging eligible children to get vaccinated.

So why isn’t it happening in greater numbers? Part of it is the aforementioned difficulty of getting people to come to the shots, rather than getting the shots to the people. Beneath that is another subset of issues. Some probably haven’t seen clear, concise and persistent messaging on the vaccine and how to get it. Some perhaps had difficulty with the registration system. Others are skeptical about the vaccine. Still others, who embraced early, dangerous disinformation about the pandemic from federal leadership at the outset last year, don’t view the virus (which has killed nearly 570,000 Americans, including at least 2,785 West Virginians) as a real problem.

DHHR statistics show that, of those 65 and older, more than 70% have gotten at least the first dose of the vaccine. That number drops to 47% for those 18 and older and falls to 46% for those aged 16 and up.

Whatever the reason, the disconnect between the governor and his public health team and the general public needs to be addressed.

Justice, who remains head coach of the Greenbrier East High School girls basketball team, said last week that he’d learned his squad was offered vaccines and not a single player got one. Subsequently, a player tested positive for COVID-19. Aside from the obvious health concerns, the team also might not be able to play in the state championship tournament this month.

When you’re the one in charge of managing this public health crisis in West Virginia, telling everyone multiple times a week, including young people, to get vaccinated, and the high school basketball team you coach declines, that’s a communication breakdown of epic proportions.

Justice took ownership of that situation during a Monday briefing, while also challenging others. “I need to do better. You need to do better,” he said.

The state should consider beefing up its media campaign for the vaccines. Vaccine hesitancy is a real problem. So, apparently, is a lack of information. A simple way to try to change that is to hit West Virginians with the facts consistently on the radio, on TV, in newspapers and online. It could sway someone who is on the fence. It can inform someone who doesn’t even know where to start.

There’s an information gap. Things won’t change until it’s filled.

Online: https://www.wvgazettemail.com/

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April 18

The Herald Dispatch on how coal's decline is forcing tough decisions:

The future of a coal-fired power plant in West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle — and the economic activity that comes with it — is in the hands of the Public Service Commission of West Virginia.

As noted by HD Media’s Mike Tony in a recent article, Appalachian Power and Wheeling Power said in a Dec. 23 filing with the PSC that the Mitchell coal-fired power plant in Marshall County could cease operations in 2028.

The companies, both subsidiaries of American Electric Power, must decide whether to invest in equipment that would allow the plant to meet wastewater guidelines. That would allow the plant to continue operating until the projected end of its economic life in 2040.

The Mitchell plant has 214 employees earning $26.8 million in wages in 2020, according to a filing by the utilities last week. Last year, the Mitchell plant burned about 2.5 million tons of bituminous coal.

The West Virginia State Building and Construction Trades Council and the AFL-CIO support keeping the plant open. They estimate Mitchell, the John Amos plant in Putnam County and the Mountaineer plant in Mason County provided more than 4.7 million work hours for union members from 2015 to 2020. The plants provide construction jobs through routine and seasonal maintenance, equipment upgrades, pollution control device installation and landfill construction, according to a filing the trades council made in the case last month.

AEP says it needs to perform work at all three plants so they may meet modern environmental standards. It seeks rate increases of 1.59% for residential customers, 1.52% for commercial customers and 1.72% for industrial customers.

This puts the PSC in an obvious political bind where the interests of ratepayers collide with those in the construction, coal and power industries.

Keeping Mitchell in operation for the 12-year period from 2028 to 2040 might only be delaying the inevitable. Unless something changes, renewables and natural gas are the fuels of the future. Appalachian Power is seeking this rate increase to keep the three plants open until 2040. It’s making no commitments beyond that date, which is only 19 years away.

West Virginia has lost at least two coal-fired plants in this decade — Kanawha River in Kanawha County and Sporn in Mason County. The Pleasants Power Station in Pleasants County is on life support.

Both southern and northern West Virginia produce metallurgical coal that is used in making steel. What goes on in the power industry won’t affect that market much. Or maybe it will, as the construction of gas-fired power plants will require steel. The market for steam coal, which is used in power plants, is clearly in decline.

Now that the governor and the Legislature have solved the problems of needle exchanges and transgendered athletes, it’s time to get serious about the futures of West Virginia’s communities that rely on coal and power plants that burn it.

Politicians and bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., like to talk about their plans, but outside of highways and clinics the long-term problems are not being addressed.

Maybe there is no solution, but no one wants to admit it. If there is to be a solution, it will have to come from inside the state, not from Washington.

Online: https://www.herald-dispatch.com/