FILE - W. Va. Gov. Jim Justice

In this Jan. 8, 2020, photo, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice delivers his annual State of the State address in the House Chambers at the state Capitol in Charleston, W. Va.

(The Center Square) – West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice plans to maintain the interagency task force that was established during the COVID-19 pandemic and to expand its scope to address other health issues faced in the state, he announced in a news conference Thursday.

When COVID-19 vaccines became available in December 2020, the governor signed an executive order to create the Joint Interagency Task Force to manage the vaccine rollout. The task force is composed of several government agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Resources and the National Guard, a hospital and a health care association, and the Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine at Marshall University.

Justice said continuing to fund the task force will help the state continue to combat the pandemic, which includes increasing vaccinations. He said the task force can also lead the state in taking on other illnesses that threaten West Virginia.

Clay Marsh, who serves as the state’s COVID-19 czar, added that the task force has been effective.

“We’ve been able to respond to this crisis in a way that has really demonstrated the smarts and the innovation and the capabilities of people in our state,” Marsh said. “And we want to be very cognizant that COVID’s not over. We want to be constantly vigilant and ready to respond.”

Marsh said this is a “golden moment” to use the task force to continue combatting the pandemic and to start approaching other health challenges in the state. He said the state’s task force can be a model for the rest of the country for its response to the pandemic and for improving the people’s health in other cases.

Adjutant Gen. James Hoyer, a retired National Guard general who leads the task force, said the state is prepared to use this task force setup to improve the health of West Virginians and create a new legacy for the state.

According to the most recent update from the Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, slightly more than 60% of the state’s eligible population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and nearly half have been fully vaccinated. At this time, all residents 12 years or older can receive the vaccine.

The numbers are much higher for the older population than they are for the younger population. At this time, nearly 85% of West Virginians who are 65 years old or older have received at least one dose of the vaccine and nearly 75% have been fully vaccinated.

Justice has also launched incentive programs to improve the state’s vaccination numbers. The governor established $100 savings bonds or gift cards for any resident between the ages of 16 and 35 who receive a vaccine. He also launched a statewide lottery in which anyone who received at least one dose of the vaccine will be eligible. This lottery will include a cash prize of $1.59 million and runner-up prizes, which include pickup trucks, full-length university scholarships, hunting guns and lifetime fishing and hunting licenses.

The incentive plans have received mixed reviews from policy groups. Some have said this is a good way to increase vaccination rates, but others cautioned that other avenues might be a more effective use of government funds.

Staff Reporter

Tyler Arnold reports on Virginia and West Virginia for The Center Square. He previously worked for the Cause of Action Institute and has been published in Business Insider, USA TODAY College, National Review Online and the Washington Free Beacon.