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West Virginia is on pace to eclipse 4,000 COVID-19 deaths as early as Tuesday, with 72% of those deaths occurring after vaccines became readily available, data from the Department of Health and Human Resources show.

At Monday’s state COVID-19 briefing, Gov. Jim Justice noted that a 4,000-death milestone was inconceivable early in the pandemic, when initial projections were that COVID-19 would kill fewer than 100 West Virginians.

“In West Virginia, we may very well lose 5,000 West Virginians before all this is over,” said Justice, who opened the briefing Monday spending more than 10 minutes reading the 110 deaths recorded since the last briefing, on Thursday.

Those deaths, which included 28 reconciliations from death certificates, brought the total number of state COVID-19 deaths to 3,976. That includes 2,866 who have died since vaccines that are highly effective at preventing COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths became readily available statewide, according to DHHR data.

Of those 2,866 deaths, 194 people were fully vaccinated, putting the percentage of “breakthrough” deaths at 6.8% of the total, with the other 2,672 deaths being people who were either unvaccinated or had only one of two shots.

The governor once again sent a mixed message to viewers of the teleconference, alternately imploring the more than 700,000 eligible West Virginians who are not fully vaccinated to get their shots, while also “standing up” for the purported rights of those who refuse to be vaccinated.

On Monday, that included a group of protesters gathered outside the governor’s reception room, whose shouting could be heard during the teleconference.

Justice said the protesters were parents who oppose any requirements to have their children vaccinated.

“They want their choice, and it’s the parents’ choice, absolutely, without any question, with regard to getting vaccinated,” he said.

Later in the briefing, state COVID-19 czar Dr. Clay Marsh cited a study in the new issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association showing that children and adults have the same level of infectability from exposure to the COVID-19 virus.

“The mystique that children are somehow more protected than adults from COVID-19 is not true,” said Marsh, who is vice president of health sciences at West Virginia University. He said the study found that about half of all children with COVID-19 are asymptomatic.

Justice, however, continued Monday to oppose implementing state public health mandates of any kind.

“When we get to the point in time when we’re imposing our individual beliefs in America on others, that’s the wrong thing to do,” he said.

Also during Monday’s briefing, the governor said he is considering hosting a third vaccination-incentive sweepstakes, one that potentially would be geared to younger West Virginians, in anticipation of FDA approval of Pfizer vaccines for 5- to 11-year-olds later this month or early in November.

“We don’t have it put together right yet, but I think we would sure try,” he said. “It would be more directed, even more than the last round, toward kids.”

Justice has called the two prior vaccination-incentive sweepstakes, which spent upward of $18 million in federal pandemic relief funds on prizes, a “super success” — even though data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that state vaccination rates dropped off precipitously during the giveaway campaigns.

The second round of the sweepstakes, supposedly geared to young adults, included prizes of sports cars, “dream” weddings, bass boats and riding lawnmowers.

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

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