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On a day when COVID-19 hospitalizations in West Virginia matched the prior pandemic peak of 818 — and did so 100 days faster than the December 2020-January 2021 surge — Gov. Jim Justice on Friday continued to rule out taking any immediate statewide action, but warned that state mandates could become necessary as the pandemic worsens.

“When the weather gets bad, it’s not going to get better, it’s going to get worse,” Justice said at Friday’s state COVID-19 briefing. “As it gets worse, we’re going to have to act, we’re going to have to do things we absolutely don’t want to do.”

Dr. Clay Marsh, vice president for health sciences at West Virginia University and the state’s COVID-19 czar, provided updated hospitalization numbers during the briefing, including the milestone of 818 hospitalizations.

Additionally, 252 patients are in intensive care units, with 152 requiring ventilators to breathe, the latter well above the peak of 104 during the prior surge.

Marsh said West Virginia has gone from averaging six COVID-19 deaths a week to more than 60 deaths so far this week.

“It is important that all West Virginians consider getting vaccinated,” said Marsh, who on Wednesday said the state is experiencing an explosive growth phase for COVID-19, one that will not peak for another five to seven days, and possibly as long as 10 to 14 days.

On Friday, Justice said he continues to oppose statewide mask or vaccine mandates, and criticized President Joe Biden for announcing on Thursday new federal vaccine requirements for as many as 100 million Americans.

The governor, however, said he also opposes efforts by some Republican lawmakers to call a special session to pass legislation to prohibit private businesses, school systems, and colleges and universities from mandating vaccinations.

“It just seems to me like we’ve lost our way,” Justice said, objecting to the state intervening in private business decisions. “I always thought true Republicans stood for letting businesses do what they want to do.”

The governor said he also objects to Republican colleagues who throw in qualifiers while encouraging people to get vaccinated with statements such as, “I believe you should get vaccinated, but it’s your choice.”

Justice declared Friday that his “steadfast stand” against a statewide mask mandate in public schools has worked, with 51 of 55 counties now having some level of mask requirements. However, he said he will not direct the four holdout counties — Putnam, Pocahontas, Ohio and Mingo — to follow suit.

“They may very well feel that, in their county, they absolutely don’t need masks and, if they feel that way, we’re going to honor it,” he said.

Justice again said that, if he had imposed school mask mandates on day one, “We would have had division across the state like you can’t imagine.”

According to the Department of Health and Human Resources’ COVID-19 dashboard, young people ages 5 to 20 account for 30% of all new state COVID-19 cases over the past seven days.

In encouraging the more than 500,000 unvaccinated West Virginia adults to get vaccinated, Justice painted a dire picture of overrun hospitals, triaging on whether critically ill patients can get ICU beds, and more and more deaths.

“Whether I like it or not, whether I favor it or not, I’ve got to get vaccinated,” he said in closing comments. “Whether I believe in it or not, I’ve got to step up.”

Phil Kabler covers politics. He can be reached at 304-348-1220 or Follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.

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