Wednesday’s COVID-19 briefing frequently sounded like Gov. Jim Justice was holding a point-counterpoint debate — with himself.
Justice again said he opposes issuing a face mask mandate across West Virginia — he isn’t convinced masks “help in a significant way” — but he applauded the 53 of the state’s 55 county school systems that have implemented mask requirements on their own.
The governor again urged West Virginians to get vaccinated — “This disease has become a disease of the unvaccinated” — but said he remains adamantly opposed to vaccine mandates, including those ordered by President Joe Biden.
“Jim Justice thinks it’s wrong, and he will oppose it in every way,” the governor said, referring to Biden’s plan to require all businesses with 100 or more employees to ensure workers are either fully vaccinated or tested at least weekly for the coronavirus.
Justice told the unvaccinated that there’s no way to get away from the virus but said he will not shut down large fall gatherings and events. He urged Bridge Day organizers, who met Wednesday, not to cancel the event. Held every third Saturday in October at the New River Gorge Bridge in Fayetteville, organizers call it the state’s largest single-day festival.
“I think we should wholeheartedly go forward with Bridge Day,” the governor said, noting that large crowds are attending football games this fall.
The Bridge Day Commission later voted 4-2 to hold the event.
Justice warned the unvaccinated that they have a “really good chance” of contracting the virus. But he said he respects those who refuse to be vaccinated.
“We’re absolutely going to stand and be respectful of your freedoms,” he said.
Justice continued to call on West Virginians to heed the advice of health care experts but contradicted the consensus of the medical community by claiming people who previously contracted COVID-19 have stronger antibody protections than those who are fully vaccinated.
Meanwhile, West Virginia continues setting all the wrong records. Hospitalizations increased to 893 and the number of intensive-care patients climbed to 275, both pandemic highs. In January, during the previous surge, hospitalizations peaked at 818 and intensive-care patients at 219.
“We see more people in hospitals, in ICUs and on mechanical ventilators, and the governor continues to read the names of those we’ve lost,” said state COVID-19 czar Dr. Clay Marsh, vice president for health sciences at West Virginia University.
Justice reported 58 deaths since his Monday briefing.
“Full vaccination is still the key,” Marsh said.
Of the 3,296 people statewide killed by COVID-19, just 104 were fully vaccinated, Marsh said. That calculates to 3.1% of the total.
Similarly, 84% of the 893 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, 91% of the 275 in intensive care and 93% of the 160 on ventilators are unvaccinated.
The governor said the state has administered 4,700 doses of vaccine since Monday but that is not enough to slow the surge.
On Tuesday, West Virginia dropped to 51st among the 50 states and District of Columbia in percentage of population fully vaccinated, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Justice closed Wednesday’s briefing by conceding that repeatedly calling for the unvaccinated to get their shots is not having much effect.
“I know an awful lot of this is falling on deaf ears,” the governor said, “and believe you me, it’s breaking my heart.”