Carolyn Zain had heard horror stories about the nation’s coronavirus vaccine rollout: long waits, clunky websites, people being turned away. So when her health department announced it was expanding appointments, she armed herself with two phones and held her breath.
Within 20 minutes, she secured a slot for the next day. She arrived for her 2 p.m. appointment and was resting in a chair, a fresh shot in her arm, by 2:21 p.m.
“It went wonderfully,” said Ms. Zain, 79, who, after a year spent mostly home alone, wore a sequined face mask that shimmered like confetti for her appointment at a Charleston clinic last week.
Since the United States began distributing vaccines more than a month ago, it has moved far more slowly than officials had hoped. But West Virginia has stood out for its success in getting people vaccinated. About 9 percent of all West Virginians have received a first dose of the coronavirus vaccine, a larger segment than in every state but Alaska and double the rate of some.
No state has given a larger share of its residents second doses, a crucial step to securing the best chance at immunity.
While many states are struggling to hand out the shots that the federal government has provided to them, West Virginia has given out 83 percent of its doses, by far among the highest. Many states so far have struggled to give even half of their allotted vaccines.
“West Virginia is about at the top of the charts,” said Dr. Mark McClellan, a former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “We need to get more states to the point that they have the vaccination capacity of West Virginia.”
The state also provides a glimpse at a fundamental problem that looms for the country: Even the most efficient state vaccine operations do not have enough shots for all who want them.
Dr. Clay Marsh, the state coronavirus czar, estimated that West Virginia had the capacity to handle 125,000 doses a week, but was getting just 23,600.
Early on, the state got a significant head start because it initially opted out of a federal program to vaccinate people in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.
The federal plan teamed up with Walgreens and CVS to inoculate people in nursing homes around the country, but many communities in West Virginia are far from the nearest big box store, and about half of pharmacies are independently owned.
West Virginia created a network of pharmacies in the state, pairing them with about 200 long-term care facilities. As a result, West Virginia finished its first round of vaccinations at nursing homes last month, while many states were just getting started.
Central to the state’s strategy, too, is putting the National Guard at the helm of vaccine operations.
Officials say they have also learned what not to do, including not promising shots they do not yet have. In Charleston, appointments are not made until county officials have that week’s allotment of vaccines on hand, sitting in their own freezer.