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As the delta variant continues to rage in West Virginia, the number of COVID-19 cases rose to a new high Friday, taking the number of hospitalizations with it, state officials said.

On Friday, the state had a record number of 29,744 active cases.

“We are seeing a challenge to our hospital system in a way that we haven’t seen before,” state coronavirus czar Dr. Clay Marsh said.

In West Virginia, 922 people are in a hospital with COVID-19, up from a previous high of 818. As recently as the first week of July, only 52 West Virginians were hospitalized, said Marsh, who is West Virginia University’s chief health officer.

The number of West Virginians being treated in intensive care units has also risen, to 277, up from a previous high of 218, Marsh said.

A new record of 169 people are on ventilators, up from a previous high of 104.

Marsh said Gov. Jim Justice had instructed him to focus on saving lives, protecting health and the hospital system. If the hospitals are overtaxed, they’ll struggle to care not only for people with COVID-19 but those with other ailments, Marsh said.

State officials on Friday announced the expansion of monoclonal antibody treatment clinics at local health departments, pharmacies and health centers in 30 counties, in an attempt to relieve pressure on hospitals, which had been the primary sources of the treatments.

The vast majority — 82% — of West Virginians being treated in hospitals have not been vaccinated, Marsh said.

Since Wednesday, 74 more residents have died from the virus.

Even as Justice announced the “overwhelming amount” of new COVID-19 deaths, he again discouraged employer vaccine requirements and said he opposed reinstating a mask mandate for indoor spaces.

Asked about the possibility of a mask mandate, the governor said “masks are not the answer. The answer is the vaccination.”

Justice continued to call for people to be vaccinated but said they are ultimately free to choose.

More people will die as vaccine hesitancy persists, the governor acknowledged.

“They’ll keep dying,” Justice said. “That’s all there is to it. We just are going to keep lining the body bags up, and we’re gonna line ’em up and line ’em up,” until herd immunity is reached through vaccination or enough people recovering from the disease.

“At the end of the day, were going to do one of two things,” he said. “We’re going to run to the fire and get vaccinated right now or we’re going to pile the body bags up.”

Retired Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, director of the state interagency task force, said officials predict that the state is nearing its peak number of cases in the current wave.

Marsh said that, while the number of cases might peak soon, hospitalizations might continue to rise for two to four weeks after cases hit that peak. And deaths will continue after that, he said.

Lori Kersey covers the city and county. She can be reached at 304-348-1240 or Follow @LoriKerseyWV on Twitter.

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