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West Virginia governor marks unreported coronavirus deaths

By CUNEYT DIL Associated Press

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice’s near-daily ritual of reading the ages and hometowns of people who died from the coronavirus stretched to nearly 19 minutes Friday.

Justice takes the first minute or two of his thrice-a-week coronavirus briefings to honor the dead. This time, the Republican governor had to make up for 165 deaths that went unreported, news he first revealed Wednesday.

State officials said a list of more than 60 health centers and nursing homes did not report the deaths — revised down from 168 on Friday — to state health authorities, which Justice apologized for and again called “totally unacceptable.”

Dr. Ayne Amjad, the state health officer, said a further vetting of the data found three fewer coronavirus deaths than reported earlier this week.

“Being transparent is what we strive to be,” Amjad said.

Justice said 84% of the previously unreported deaths occurred in December 2020 and January. Officials blamed the issue on facilities not filling out death reports online to the state’s health department in a timely matter.

Despite the unreported deaths, Justice said other coronavirus metrics still looked positive. The daily positivity rate — the percentage of people who took a coronavirus test and received a positive result — continued to decline to 2.79%, down from a peak of 17.45% in late December.

There were 208 confirmed coronavirus cases and 8 deaths reported Friday.

On the vaccination front, state data shows 20.8% of West Virginia residents are partially vaccinated against the coronavirus, while 13% are fully vaccinated. The rural state has a population of 1.78 million people.

Justice said the state “will absolutely step up” to meet President Joe Biden’s goal that all Americans be eligible for vaccinations by May 1.

He said the federal government just needs to deliver enough vaccine supply. “And we’ll get it done on our end. We’ve shown that we can do that,” he said. West Virginia boasts one of the highest vaccination rates in the country.

Dr. Clay Marsh, a top West Virginia University health official and the state’s coronavirus czar, said the state may be able to open eligibility to all residents even earlier than May.

“But we want to maintain our commitment to discipline and to make sure that we’re immunizing the people most likely to be hospitalized or to die first,” he said.

Officials said their priority is currently inoculating all residents aged 50 and over. About 55% of residents aged 65 and over have received at least one vaccine dose, said James Hoyer, who leads the coronavirus task force.

“Our commitment is to get as many vaccines to as many people as possible: start with the most vulnerable and continue to evolve our priority list,” Marsh added.

Justice urges all residents to pre-register for a vaccine appointment on vaccine.wv.gov.

The recent decline in cases and hospitalizations led Justice to lift capacity restrictions on businesses and allow larger social gatherings last week. But social distancing and mask mandates remain in effect.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.