CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The number of people hospitalized for the coronavirus in West Virginia hit a six-month high Monday as a top health official warned that the state is at a “defining moment” in its response to the pandemic.
After two months of declines, virus-related hospitalizations in the state have increased sevenfold in the past six weeks, going from 52 on July 4 to 369 Monday. The majority are unvaccinated people, said Dr. Clay Marsh, the state’s coronavirus expert.
Hospitalizations peaked at 818 in early January and haven’t been this high since there were 394 on Feb. 8. The number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units has jumped from 17 on July 4 to 127 on Monday, according to state health data.
Marsh said residents must take more precautions, including getting fully vaccinated against the virus and wearing masks, because the more contagious delta variant of the coronavirus is now present in 43 of the state’s 55 counties. Such confirmed cases have more than tripled this month to least 322.
“This is really the defining moment for us in many ways as we see COVID-19 growing in West Virginia,” Marsh said at a news conference. “We see our hospital numbers going up. We see our ICU numbers going up. We see the number of people on ventilators going up. And we know that the delta variant is really starting to take hold.
“The really critical cornerstone of our program to help secure the health and the well being and save the lives of people in our state and preserve our hospital beds and capacity is full vaccination.”
More than 7,100 COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered statewide since Friday, Gov. Jim Justice said. But only 57.4% of eligible residents ages 12 are fully vaccinated and about 70% have received one dose.
The state has begun giving an extra dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine to better protect people with weakened immune systems after the Food and Drug Administration approved the move last week, Justice said.
Justice on Monday stuck to his commitment to let county school boards decide whether to mandate masks in schools this fall rather than issue a blanket order.
“We absolutely believe without any doubt that one size doesn’t fit all,” Justice said. “But we’re continuing to monitor and if need be we’ll move, but right now we do not think we have to move in that direction.”
That thinking comes despite the number of people statewide with current positive virus cases, 5,949, being the highest since May 18. Active cases had fallen below 1,000 just a month ago.
The problem has been especially troublesome in Kanawha County, West Virginia’s largest. In mid-July, active cases had dropped below 60. Now they’re at a three-month high, above 500.
Justice said he’s particularly troubled by virus outbreaks at 13 churches in 12 counties. The governor in June lifted an indoor mask mandate that had been in place for seven months.
“The church community absolutely is an area where we’ve got to watch,” he said.