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Despite Rising Cases, West Virginia Holding Off on New COVID-19 Restrictions

Heath Damron, associate professor in the WVU Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Cell Biology and the director of the Vaccine Development Center, said the best way to dodge the delta variant is by getting a COVID-19 vaccine. (Photo Courtesy of WVU)

CHARLESTON — Despite a rise in COVID-19 cases, West Virginia intends to hold off mask mandates for public indoor places and schools and has no plans to require state employees to get vaccinated like other states are requiring.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were set to announce new guidance Tuesday recommending a return to face masks in parts of the country seeing severe surges in COVID-19 cases caused by the delta/India variant. The CDC also will recommend all students and staff in K-12 schools wear masks regardless of vaccination status.

In California and New York City, public employees are being required to be fully vaccinated. Employees who choose not to comply will face weekly COVID-19 testing.

Speaking Tuesday during his COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol, Gov. Jim Justice said he doesn’t plan to require state employees be fully vaccinated or bring back an indoor mask mandate for public places or for K-12 schools. Justice said he would listen to state health officials when they call for a need for new mitigation strategies.

“It would be frivolous for me to tell you or to speak in terms that are absolute and say never, never, never,” Justice said. “This thing changes like crazy weekly and we’ve got to be in a position to pivot. The one thing we have done is we have adjusted, and – praise God above – we have adjusted in the right way all through the pandemic all through the whole way.”

According to the Department of Health and Human Resources, active cases of COVID-19 increased to 1,656, the highest number of active cases since June 24. Active cases increased by nearly 40% over the last seven days when cases were as low as 1,187 active cases.

The delta variant of COVID-19, more infectious than previous strains but not more deadly according to many health experts, increased in West Virginia by 23%, from 35 cases Friday to 43 cases as of Tuesday.

Vaccination rates in the state remain virtually unchanged from the end of last week, with 67.8% of eligible residents age 12 and older partially vaccinated with either one dose of the two-dose Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. Those age 65 and older have a partial vaccination rate of 89.2%, edging closer to a new goal of 90% for that age group, while age 50 and older have a partial vaccination rate of 82.1% with a goal of 85%.

According to Heath Damron, associate professor in West Virginia University’s Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Cell Biology and the director of the Vaccine Development Center, the best way to protect against Delta is getting vaccinated. His group has been studying the variants and found Delta to be more persistent, but less severe.

Damron observed that delta replicates faster than previous variants and stays in the respiratory system longer.

“Viruses rarely evolve to be worse. They evolve to be better at being transmitted so they can move to the next host and spread,” Damron said. “I am a vaccinologist, so vaccine coverage across the board is the way to beat this virus. We just need a higher proportion of people to slow it down. The pandemic has slowed down, but delta can likely fire it back up.”

The County Alert System map shows 12 yellow counties, seven gold counties, with Webster County in the orange – one step below red – based on a combination of higher infection rates and percent of positivity. Tuesday’s daily percent of positivity was 6.17%, which was the highest daily percent of positivity since 7% on May 17.

There have been no new deaths reported to the state since last Thursday, though two deaths were reported Friday due to data reconciliation with death certificate reports. However, hospitalizations have increased above 100 for the first time since June 21. As of Tuesday, DHHR reported 111 hospitalizations for COVID-19, with 47 cases in ICU beds, up from 38 seven days ago.

According to the joint interagency vaccine task force, 91% of hospitalizations in June were unvaccinated or only had the first dose of a vaccination with 88% of deaths being people who have not been vaccinated or only partially vaccinated. Only 29% of children between the ages of 12 and 17 are fully vaccinated, with only 36% of young adults between the ages of 18 and 29 fully vaccinated.

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