Despite indications that the COVID-19 delta variant has started to surge in West Virginia, Gov. Jim Justice said Monday he is not ready to reinstate mandatory face mask requirements.
“I assure you, if tomorrow we mandated masks in all public places, then we’re going to be fragmenting our people like you can’t imagine,” Justice said during the state COVID-19 briefing Monday.
“I absolutely do not believe we need to mandate anything at this point in time,” Justice added, commenting on new guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control recommending that everyone, including fully vaccinated individuals, wear face masks in indoor public settings in localities that are seeing surges of COVID-19 infections. According to the CDC, that would include 38 of West Virginia’s 55 counties.
As of Monday, West Virginia was reporting 100 confirmed cases of the delta variant in 29 counties, but as Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch noted, since the sequencing testing for the variant takes a week or more to complete, the actual number of cases could be 10 to 20 times higher.
“The fact that we have 100 right now means we probably have 1,000, we probably have 2,000,” Crouch said.
Because of the complexity of sequencing the variant, the Department of Health and Human Resources COVID-19 dashboard is updating delta variant cases only once a week, he said.
The department’s dashboard showed other signs of an upswing in COVID-19 cases, with 2,480 active cases reported Monday, up from less than 1,000 cases in early July, along with a daily positivity rate of 6.41%, after dropping below 2% earlier this summer.
The dashboard listed 152 hospitalizations as of Monday, but during the briefing, state COVID-19 task force director James Hoyer updated that number to 178 hospitalizations.
Dr. Clay Marsh, vice president for health sciences at West Virginia University and state COVID-19 czar, stressed that the delta variant is as infectious as chickenpox, and noted that the state of Florida — where state COVID-19 policy has been lax — is currently experiencing the highest infection rates of any point during the pandemic.
Given the experiences of India and the United Kingdom, the highly infectious delta variant appears to quickly surge, then plateau and drop off once it hits a population, Marsh said.
“The presumption is the delta variant goes through the population very quickly,” he said, predicting a similar surge for West Virginia.
“We are likely to see a much faster time frame of people getting sick with the delta variant,” Marsh said.
Marsh said the encouraging news from the delta surges is evidence that fully vaccinated individuals are less likely to be infected, and those who have breakthrough infections are likely to have less severe symptoms.
“It does appear people who are fully vaccinated are incredibly protected against the severe consequences of COVID-19, including the delta variant,” he said.
Marsh noted that currently, unvaccinated individuals account for 90% of COVID-19 hospitalizations and 95% to 99% of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S.
Meanwhile, Justice lamented that the unvaccinated are putting themselves, their families, and others at risk — at a time when crowds will soon be gathering for the State Fair of West Virginia and for college football games, and as public schools prepare to open for the fall semester.
“How are you going to feel, walking through these crowds and not being vaccinated?” Justice asked.
“I just don’t get it. Your kids need to be vaccinated. You need to be vaccinated,” Justice added. Under current CDC guidance, children under age 12 are not eligible to be vaccinated.
According to the CDC, as of Monday, West Virginia ranked 44th in the U.S. in percentage of total population fully vaccinated, at 39.06%.
Hoyer noted that the state did see an upswing in vaccinations over the weekend, with a total of about 7,500 doses administered.
However, at its peak in early March, the state was administering more than 20,000 vaccine doses a day.