As the first doses of COVID-19 vaccine began arriving in West Virginia, Gov. Jim Justice on Monday called for weekly testing of all college students in the state in hopes of curbing an ongoing surge in virus cases.
Justice said the state’s third surge of COVID-19 cases is the longest and most severe to date, and blamed 18- to 35-year-olds for the spread.
“They’re running around everywhere under the sun, and many of them — many of them — are people with COVID, and they have no idea,” Justice said Monday, blaming young, asymptomatic carriers for the surge.
“We need to really bear down on the sector of 18- to 35-year-old people,” Justice said, calling for weekly testing of all college students to reach a portion of that age group.
The governor, who in recent weeks has refused to impose any new restrictions on businesses or activities to curb COVID-19 spread, said the magnitude of the current surge is much more severe than surges in April and in late-June through July.
On Monday, Justice again downplayed the usefulness of closures, saying, “How many times have I told you? There’s not any need I can see to going into Mineral County and shutting down the bars.”
The county, which borders Maryland, has been particularly hard-hit, with daily infection rates approaching 200 per 100,000 population in the past week, or nearly eight times the rate to be designated under the red color code for extremely high rates of spread.
On Monday, the state set records for total number of active cases (21,076), total deaths (978), people currently hospitalized (720), and in intensive care (199), as well as for the daily positivity rate (8.33%) and cumulative positivity (4.10%).
During his COVID-19 briefing Monday, the governor used charts to show how the spring surge of cases peaked after four weeks and the summer surge peaked after five weeks. The charts showed that the current surge is in its eighth week, with no signs of abating.
Justice said he has directed the Department of Health and Human Resources to come up with a plan for weekly testing of college students, potentially by using lower-cost antigen tests, frequently referred to as rapid tests.
DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch said the state has about 86,000 antigen tests warehoused, 200,000 tests on order and would need about 550,000 to test college students on four consecutive weeks.
“We’re constantly trying to find low-cost, quality tests,” he said Monday.
With the first deliveries of a COVID-19 vaccine arriving Monday morning in Charleston and Morgantown, the first vaccinations were set to begin Monday evening.
While first priority for vaccinations goes to acute-care health care providers and nursing home residents and staff, Justice said during the briefing that he would be vaccinated at 5:30 p.m. Monday.
National Guard Adj. Gen. James Hoyer said Monday he’s optimistic that all nursing home residents and staff statewide will be vaccinated within three weeks to 30 days.
At his Friday briefing, the governor said he hopes vaccinations will be available to the general public beginning in mid-March 2021.
“We need to all get vaccinated when it’s our time, and that will be in the next several months for everyone,” Crouch said Monday.
Dr. Clay Marsh, the state’s COVID-19 czar and vice president of health sciences at West Virginia University, stressed Monday that the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective.
“For people who are worried, this might be the safest vaccine we’ve put out there so far,” he said. “This is a very safe vaccine. This is a very effective vaccine. This is something all West Virginians need to do.”
Until availability of the vaccine becomes widespread, speakers Monday stressed the need for West Virginians to continue to wear face masks and social distance.
Dr. Ayne Amjad, West Virginia’s public health officer, said counties that have reduced numbers of COVID-19 cases have four things in common: Robust testing; businesses united in requiring face masks; strong local leadership; and churches going to virtual services.
“You can’t possibly argue about the effectiveness of these masks,” Justice said, saying that 96 percent of West Virginians are “all-in” on wearing masks. “That’s all there is to it: You have got to wear your mask.”