By Jack Rogers
From the January/February 2021 Issue
Most of the U.S. states were caught flat-footed when the federal government approved and then began distributing the first two vaccines that were approved for use against COVID-19. This was through no fault of their own: the Feds had promised an unprecedented, streamlined vaccine distribution led by the unmatched logistics capabilities of the U.S. military; Washington also promised to deliver up to 20 million vaccine doses to Americans by the end of December.
State governors quickly discovered that Washington had no plan for actually vaccinating Americans (and far fewer doses than it had announced). When it came to setting up an efficient system for getting as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible, the states were on their own.
As the national vaccination effort became mired in confusion and finger-pointing, one state emerged as a can-do example of how to get the job done: West Virginia surged to the top of the list of states that had the highest percentage of vaccinations for COVID-19. In an exclusive Governor’s Report interview, Governor Jim Justice told Business Facilities how West Virginia successfully prioritized the steps needed to get the shots to the people.
WEST VIRGINIA PIONEERS LIFE-SAVING STRATEGY
West Virginia pioneered several strategies that later were widely embraced as life-saving decisions: It was one of the first states to prioritize vaccination of all state residents over the age of 65, an operation the state named “Save Our Wisdom;” when the federal program to administer vaccines to long-term care residents started breaking down, WV opted out a national plan (using national chains) and worked with 250 local pharmacies to quickly vaccinate nursing home residents and staff, eliminating the most vulnerable vector of the outbreak.
West Virginia also was among the first to recognize that more vaccine doses could be extracted from vials using special, extra-long needles. The state added the special needle to the five regular jabs contained in the dose kits; late this month, the CDC reported that WV was actually administering 106 percent of the vaccine supply it received by stretching out the amount in the vials.
“I always tell the brilliant team I have fighting this fight, ‘Run to the Fire!’ That is simply what we have done,” Gov. Justice told BF. “We coordinated a state-wide effort to vaccinate residents of our nursing homes. We finished that effort before most states launched their vaccination plans. We built a unique distribution system to get vaccines distributed and in our residents’ arms efficiently.”
The governor added: “I challenge our team that every dose we get, each week, those doses are to be administered within the week before the next batch arrives. We are accountable. West Virginia is focused. West Virginians are working together to protect our people and save lives.”
During our interview, Gov. Justice unveiled a new weapon West Virginia has rapidly deployed in the fight against COVID-19: a software system called Everbridge that manages scheduling and notification for vaccine appointments.
“We are laser-focused on vaccine distribution and building immunity in our state,” Gov. Justice said.
West Virginia’s chief executive is not shy about sharing best practices for vaccine distribution with other state governors.
“If it’s not working, quit running the same play,” he said. “Give us a phone call and we’ll tell you exactly what to do.”
Rapid and effective action in West Virginia also helped mitigate the economic impact of the pandemic.
“We allocated $150 million of West Virginia’s CARES Act funding to qualifying businesses across the state. Any West Virginia-based small business, in existence on Feb. 29, 2020, with 1-35 employees, was able to apply for up to $5,000 in grant funding,” Justice told BF. “Our Development Office and our SBDC program also coordinated a ton of outreach and assisted with the navigation of the PPP program.”
VIRGIN HYPERLOOP CHOOSES WEST VIRGINIA
National coverage of West Virginia usually includes an invocation of the dim future of the coal industry. So it may surprise readers to learn that WV has grabbed a leadership position in an emerging technology that promises to transform high-speed transportation: in October, Virgin Hyperloop announced that it has chosen the Mountain State as the home of its $500-million Hyperloop Certification Center.
High-speed Hyperloop travel works using electric propulsion and electromagnetic levitation in “near-vacuum conditions” within the hyperloop tube system. The Hyperloop Certification Center will be constructed on nearly 800 acres of land in Grant and Tucker counties in Northeast West Virginia, an area selected, in part, because of its topography and proximity to large population centers in the Eastern United States, according to Mike Schneider, VP for project development at Virgin Hyperloop.
Construction on the certification center is set to begin in 2021. The center will serve first as a construction testing hub for hyperloop pod vehicles, and later as a training ground for conductors and operators when Virgin Hyperloop is ready to offer commercial hyperloop travel in the U.S. Virgin Hyperloop officials said they plan to have hyperloop travel available in the United States beginning in 2030.
“This project shows the world West Virginia can compete—and win—on a global stage,” Gov. Justice said. “It shows our state is innovative, a hub for new ideas and we are tenacious in our effort to succeed and diversify our economy in the future.”
Justice credited the success of WV’s higher education resources in preparing grads with high-tech skills as a key factor in landing the Hyperloop project.
“Our research capability and our ability to prepare the workforce they need for the future seemed to be one factor that set West Virginia apart,“ he said.
Virgin Hyperloop is just one example of a major tech company finding everything it needs in the Mountain State.
“Our technology sector is booming,” Gov. Justice told us. “They are impressed and appreciate the skills our young people have here. Leading global companies like Leidos, Infor, Northrop Grumman, they are here, and they are expanding and hiring.”
THE SILICON VALLEY OF BIOMETRICS
North-Central West Virginia has been called the Silicon Valley of America’s biometrics activity. West Virginia University (WVU) is the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s lead academic partner in biometrics research.
Biometrics are body measurements and calculations related to human characteristics. Biometrics authentication is used in computer science as a form of identification and access control. It is also used to identify individuals in groups that are under surveillance.
WVU programs include long-range facial recognition, biomolecular and DNA biometrics and mobile biometrics. At WVU’s Biometrics and Identification Innovation Center (BIIC), researchers are developing mobile biometric software that leverages standard mobile hardware, as well as innovations in sensor manufacturing that have led to the rise of fingerprint-scanning smartphones. BIIC researchers also are developing new algorithms for mobile services secured by biometric authentication for commercial as well as law enforcement applications.
New applications have been developed using cloud-based biometrics for mobile verification of faces, fingerprints and irises. These can be applied as an enrollment and vetting solution for police, schools, public service, disaster management and health services.
The High Technology Foundation, located in the I-79 Technology Park, has become the premier location for high-priority federal operations that require advanced electrical and telecommunications infrastructure. In addition, federal operations have found the I-79 Technology Park to be the ideal location for meeting the costly and complicated requirements of Continuity of Operations, or “COOP” compliance.
Gov. Justice told us he expects West Virginia’s aerospace manufacturing industry to continue to be a major growth sector for the state.
“Definitely. West Virginia is building an AEROReady infrastructure with 24 public-use airports, MRO companies and aerospace manufacturers are thriving here. Our education infrastructure is also supporting aviation and aerospace manufacturing apprenticeships and programs that are fueling our workforce development efforts.,” Justice said. “Global brands like Mitsubishi Heavy, Pratt and Whitney, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin call West Virginia home. We even have a city named Rocket Center. The sky is the limit on this industry in West Virginia.”
West Virginia has become a magnet for federal agencies who are setting up shop in the more cost-efficient Mountain State.
“Federal agencies are beginning to realize West Virginia can deliver relief for their escalating budgets,” Justice explained. “Our geographic location supports mandated risk reduction and business continuity strategies agencies must meet. And, we offer low property and energy costs with a high quality of living for their employees. You cannot beat it. Just ask the FBI and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).”
Gov. Justice said the list of key components attracting new business to the state includes “workforce loyalty; apprenticeship programs to build skills; our low cost of doing business; and alignment of local, state and federal support.”
The chemical/polymer industry consistently is West Virginia’s top manufacturing sector export, with more than $1 billion in value each year. WV is home to one of the nation’s top chemical research facilities: the West Virginia Regional Technology Park in Charleston provides specialized chemical labs and pilot plants to support innovation and new product development.
When we asked Gov. Justice why he once called WV “the best kept secret on the East Coast,” the governor responded:
“It’s obvious. I am sharing with you that innovators, industry leaders, entrepreneurs—people like Brad Smith, John Chambers and Richard Branson—they see the opportunity in West Virginia and the people of our great state. And, they are saying ‘Yes’ to the opportunity West Virginia provides by locating, expanding their companies here and promoting West Virginia as a great place for innovation and entrepreneurship.”
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