CHARLESTON — Gov. Jim Justice and his COVID-19 task force say West Virginia is likely at the peak of the current spike.
In his Monday COVID briefing, Justice and his staff took a hopeful tone looking forward. Despite West Virginia reaching new heights in COVID case and hospitalization numbers, the governor said the worst is behind us.
“We believe that we are right sitting at the peak,” Justice said. “Today, we declined in active [COVID] cases by 8,200. We will see this decline happen very very quickly if this follows what has happened everywhere else.”
Sept. 16, West Virginia hit an all-time high of COVID-19 cases, just under 30,000 cases. That has since dropped and is now at 21,490 confirmed cases as of Sept. 20.
Though numbers of confirmed cases dropped over the weekend, hospitalizations and COVID patients in intensive care units are still just past or at all-time highs.
Hospitalizations from COVID-19 complications peaked over the weekend at 957 and currently sit at 955 as of Sept. 20. Cases in the ICU are at an all-time high at 292.
Justice warned that if this isn’t the edge of the peak, West Virginia hospitals are at a major risk of being overwhelmed due to staffing issues and lack of space.
The governor announced a plan called “Save our Care.” The plan will offer reimbursements to hospitals that lose revenue either hiring contractors for staffing needs or deferring procedures due to lack of room.
“These requests will come through the DHHR,” COVID Czar Clay Marsh said. “But we will have a more complete overview of the plan in upcoming briefings.”
Justice was stern in saying that keeping the hospitals functioning is key to keep West Virginia out of a situation similar to other states like Idaho that have begun to ration critical care in hospitals.
“We could awaken to a situation where we’re rationing care,” Justice said. “We’re not there right at this moment, but we should all realize that we’re ... at a crisis.”
The governor continued to push the importance and effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine. To show that the vaccine works, Rob Alsop, vice president for strategic initiatives at West Virginia University, joined the panel to show some statistical differences between COVID cases at WVU in Fall 2020 and Fall 2021.
In 2020, with half as many students on campus as this fall, WVU had nearly 450 students who tested positive for COVID. This fall, with 77% of WVU students vaccinated against COVID, cases on campus have not risen above 150, despite state numbers being much higher than they were in Sept. 2020.
“The spike we saw last year we just didn’t see this year,” Alsop said. “It’s in huge part due to that vaccinate rate.”
Justice said that he and his task force are keeping a close eye on the federal go-head to distribute booster shots to those 65 and older. The FDA recently approved Pfizer’s booster vaccine for anyone 65 and older, though denied it for younger age groups.
Pfizer’s vaccine is also nearing approval for use in children ages 5-11, which Jutice is also watching out for.
In contrast to state numbers decreasing, Marion County officials are not as hopeful that we’ve passed the worst of COVID. Lloyd White, administrator of the Marion County Health Department, said he’s not seeing this ending soon.
“I’m not comfortable at all saying that our numbers are decreasing or even leveling out,” White said. “It really concerns me that we’re continuing to have cases.”
Over the weekend, Marion County had 170 new COVID cases and four deaths attributed to COVID. White said both numbers were much higher than expected.
The schools, are also seeing some of the worst numbers yet. As of Sept. 17, there were 146 confirmed cases in Marion County Schools. This number may have dropped off over the weekend similar to state numbers.
A confirmed total number of students quarantined was unavailable, however estimates put that number at around 600. The state school board says every confirmed student case usually results in five to six quarantines.
Among those quarantined are the North Marion High football team. The team was quarantined after four members tested positive for COVID.
If cases continue to rise in the school system, School Superintendent Donna Hage said staffing could become a concern.
“[Staffing] is something we’ve been monitoring for the last several weeks, and it is on our radar,” Hage said. “We’re not experiencing any staffing concerns at one single location, but district-wise we are having to fill a lot of holes.”
Of the 146 cases in the schools, 30 of those are staff. However, even if staffing were to become an issue, Hage said, the district is unlikely to shutdown as seen in neighboring counties.
Rather than shutdown the entire district, Marion County’s plan is to shutdown individual classrooms or schools if case numbers get too high. Right now, three classrooms in the county are closed.
Hage is hoping the community will take quarantine more seriously to stifle the spread that is leaking into the schools. What she and the schools are seeing is students who are under quarantine and are ignoring the protocols and infecting other students outside of school.
“We’re hopeful that these are the worst of the days,” Hage said. “We really need the community to be vigilant. If you’re under a quarantine ... stay home and get on the mend. As a school system, we’re doing everything we can.”