West Virginia COVID-19 hospitalizations headed for new all-time highs

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Jan. 22—CHARLESTON — West Virginia health experts warn the state's total COVID-19 hospitalizations may eclipse the peaks brought by the Delta variant in mid-2021.

At Governor Jim Justice's COVID press briefing Friday, West Virginia COVID Czar Clay Marsh gave a grim outlook for the state's hospitals, saying that case numbers and cases resulting in hospitalization are continuing to rise.

"It's important to recognize that our hospital numbers in West Virginia are going up. Across the country... there is a plateauing in some of the hospital numbers, but ours are still going up," Marsh said. "We anticipate seeing that continue to rise."

West Virginia's all-time high came in late September when the state had over 1,000 hospitalized COVID patients. As of Friday, current hospitalizations sit at 980 and growing.

A spot of good news is that the percentage of those patients ending up in intensive care units is much lower now than it was when the Delta variant was the dominant strain of the virus.

In September, when hospital numbers peaked, there were 296 COVID patients in the ICU, currently there are 228.

However, Marsh and Justice worry that this spike is coming at a time when hospitals are having the worst staffing problems of the pandemic.

"This spike is coming at a time in which we are more challenged with short staffing than we have ever been before," Marsh said.

As hospitalizations peak, so too do case numbers statewide. West Virginia recently surpassed 400,000 total COVID cases. Reported case numbers are likely lower than actual numbers, because many are resorting to at-home self-administered COVID tests which are not tracked by the state.

The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources' county map is entirely red and orange, aside from Tucker county, which is yellow.

"I can't recall seeing [the map] that bad," Justice said. "Our map, for all practical purposes, is either orange or red and one yellow county."

The governor reiterated the importance of getting the vaccine. After his recent bout with COVID, he says he's not sure what condition he'd be in if he had not been vaccinated.

Due to his illness, Justice was forced to forego his highly-anticipated state of the state address and has rescheduled the address for Thursday, Jan. 27.

"Getting vaccinated doesn't give you the ability to say you're not going to get this —period, but it stacks the deck in your favor," Justice said. "I'm living proof of that. It stacks the deck to keep you out of the hospital and it stacks the deck to keep you from dying. I still strongly encourage vaccination."

Since the surge of Omicron started this winter, breakthrough cases among fully vaccinated individuals has skyrocketed. During the Delta surge in the fall, breakthrough cases among the fully vaccinated was at 311 cases. This month, it peaked at 1,205 breakthrough cases.

While the breakthrough phenomenon could stem from a myriad of causes, Marsh and Marion County experts say the vaccine is still doing its job. The COVID vaccines are to ward off severe symptoms and death.

"The vaccine isn't a cure, it's a preventative measure," said Megan Payne, director of nursing for the Marion County Health Department.

Lloyd White, health department administrator, agrees.

"Even if you're vaccinated and even if we get breakthrough cases, the whole goal is you won't be hospitalized, you wont be on a ventilator and you won't die," White said.

This is proven by state reports, showing breakthrough deaths are nearing all-time lows.

Total deaths from COVID now sit at 5,609, with the governor reading 33 new deaths Friday.

Marion County in mirroring state numbers, with large increases in positive tests.

The county has 687 confirmed cases in the last week, and 3 deaths.

White continues to press the public to get vaccinated against COVID, saying it could save a life.

The Marion County Health Department is now taking walk-ins for COVID testing and vaccinations at both its office on 2nd Street and its COVID clinic on Locust Avenue, across the street from MVA, Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. till 5 p.m.

Reach David Kirk at 304-367-2522 or by email at dkirk@timeswv.com.

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