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GOP West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice is done with all that nonsense on vaccines

For months, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) has used a mix of warnings and incentives to plead with residents to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

If the coronavirus could be cured by a mixture of folksiness and exasperation, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) would be in line for a Nobel Prize.

Many of Justice’s GOP colleagues have trodden gently around promoting the vaccines. Some have raised speculative and baseless allegations that the vaccines might be unsafe. Former president Donald Trump promoted them, but only after months of conspicuously declining to do so and not disclosing his own vaccination. Even many who have encouraged vaccination have focused more on their opposition to mandates. They have also made a point to frequently either attach qualifiers that it’s a choice or to suggest that it doesn’t really matter to the vaccinated. And they’ve occasionally suggested that they can’t do much about the vaccine misinformation from allies in their midst.

And then there’s Justice, the governor of the second-Trumpiest state in the country. As the team at the Recount has documented, he has made clear over the past six months-plus that he has no time for all that nonsense.

Back in February, he assailed long-term care workers who declined the vaccine.

“Now I don’t know how in the world anything could be more asinine than that,” he said, pointing to numbers indicating that just 37 percent of such workers were getting vaccinated.

By June, with his and other states conducting lotteries to reward vaccine recipients — he encouraged people to “Do It For Babydog,” his English bulldog — Justice began suggesting that the unvaccinated were taking part in a different type of lottery: one involving death.

“When you turn your back and say, ‘Nope, I’m not doing that,’ all you’re doing is entering the death drawing,” Justice said.

He added: “If I knew for certain that there was going to be eight or nine people die by next Tuesday, and I could be one of them if I don’t take the vaccine!? What in the world do you think I would do? I mean, I would run over top of somebody. Because I don’t want to take a chance when the wheels spin — ”

At this point, Justice mimicked a spinning wheel of chance — “brrrrrrrr.”

“ — that it could come up Jim Justice.”

Justice returned to the metaphor in an interview with ABC News in early July.

“Well you’ve got another lottery going on,” he said, “and it’s the death lottery.”

Justice went on to go after conservative vaccine skeptics and suggested that they would only be converted by mass death.

“The red states probably have a lot of people that, you know, are very, very conservative in their thinking. And they think, ‘Well, I don’t have to do that.’ But they’re not thinking right,” he said. “I hate to say this is what would put them over the edge: is an awful lot of people die. The only way that’s going to happen is a catastrophe that none of us want.”

That lack of patience again spilled over July 6, when Justice declared that, “If you’re not vaccinated, you’re part of the problem rather than part of the solution.”

Justice has repeatedly warned of the unvaccinated causing unnecessary deaths.

“A bunch of people will die,” he said Aug. 9. “We could have stopped this.”

“We’re getting there, but it’s too slow,” he said last week. “And as we’re getting there and it’s too slow, we keep reading death after death after death.”

And in late August: “Everything points toward one thing, and that is you have to get vaccinated. … The more that are vaccinated, the less that will die.”

Around the same time, Justice became the rare Republican to push for expediting booster shots for the vaccinated, citing tests revealing his own decreased antibodies six months after vaccination.

“I truly believe without a doubt … that people six months out should be [given boosters],” Justice said on Aug. 18. He re-upped the call five days later.

Justice’s exasperation has continued to grow this week, including when it comes to conspiracy theories about vaccination — like that it implants microchips in people.

“For God’s sakes a livin’, how difficult is this to understand?” he said Wednesday. “Why in the world do we have to come up with these crazy ideas — and they’re crazy ideas — that the vaccine’s got something in it and it’s tracing people wherever they go? And the same very people that are saying that are carrying their cellphones around. I mean, come on. Come on.”

He added two days before that the vaccines were the only way to get out of this and prevent “terrible, terrible carnage.”

“We’ve got to someway realize that we’ve got to get vaccinated for all — not just for you, but for everybody — we’ve got to do this,” Justice said.

The comments were a notable contrast to Florida’s governor, fellow Republican Ron DeSantis, who had claimed a few days earlier that a person’s decision not to get vaccinated “really doesn’t impact me or anyone else.” This is false.

And that’s really the point here. DeSantis and other prominent Republicans have generally encouraged vaccines, but they’ve hardly done so with the gusto of Justice. And they’ve often done so while clearly trying to avoid alienating the influential anti-vaccine and vaccine-skeptical portions of the GOP base or avoiding looking like they support vaccine mandates.

There is a difference between saying, “This is good to get, but it’s your choice” and saying “If you don’t do this, you are hurting people, and people will die.” Justice is saying the latter like few in his party right now.

Justice, too, has said he opposes such mandates, but he still feels comfortable pushing vaccinations without such caveats. He’s also been plenty willing to go after the things his fellow Republicans have promoted, including bans on mask mandates.

He’s fighting a pretty lonely battle — and largely a losing one. West Virginia ranks 48th out of 50 states when it comes to the percentage of its population receiving at least one dose of a vaccine (47.3 percent) and being fully vaccinated (39.8 percent). That’s not good, though it’s in keeping with the general trend that vaccination numbers correlate heavily with how a state voted in the presidential election. West Virginia was also doing better, relatively speaking, before a number of its Southern neighbors experienced outbreaks that spurred vaccination surges.

It makes you wonder what the vaccination campaign might look like if his GOP colleagues were willing to go as whole-hog on vaccines as he has.

And Justice has also managed to say all of this without losing the GOP base that his fellow Republicans are so afraid of alienating. In this deep-red state, a recent poll for MetroNews shows his approval-disapproval split at 61-25 overall, and 69 percent of Republicans approve of him, compared to just 15 percent who disapprove.