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Trends indicate that the current surge of COVID-19 cases in West Virginia might be peaking.

However, hospitalizations, ICU visits and deaths are projected to continue climbing for two to six weeks, state officials said Monday. And they announced a plan to assist understaffed hospitals in dealing with a surge of patients.

The plan calls for reimbursing hospitals that are forced to defer elective surgical procedures, primarily in outpatient settings, and also are required to hire contract employees to fill staffing vacancies.

Dr. Clay Marsh, vice president for health sciences at West Virginia University and the state’s COVID-19 czar, said the goal is to avoid having to ration medical care at overcrowded hospitals, as has occurred in Alaska and Idaho.

“We are well positioned today to continue to provide full services to all West Virginians, regardless of illness,” Marsh said Monday. “We also know we are operating on a fragile precipice where, if we don’t pay attention and support our hospitals, we may not be able to in the future.”

He said details of the reimbursement program will be provided at a future briefing. The plan is to use unexpended federal CARES Act and American Recovery Plan funds to reimburse hospitals that lose revenue from deferring elective procedures to move staff from outpatient surgery centers into hospitals, and to hire contract workers to address staff shortages.

He said shifting staff from elective procedures to caring for hospitalized patients will result in a significant loss of revenue for those institutions.

On Monday, the Department of Health and Human Resources reported 21,490 active COVID-19 cases statewide, dropping from a pandemic peak of 29,744 cases on Friday.

There were 1,318 new cases reported Monday, down from more than 2,000 new cases a day on Thursday and Friday.

However, projections and historic trends show that hospitalizations, ICU cases and deaths will continue to trend upward for as long as six weeks after the peak in active cases, Marsh said.

“What we’re seeing now is the number of deaths in West Virginia are starting to increase every time we have a press briefing,” Marsh said.

At Monday’s briefing, Gov. Jim Justice read the names of 54 of the dead, after reading 74 names on Friday. As recently as August, the number of deaths reported at briefings was in the single digits, with no deaths on some days.

Hospitalizations ticked down slightly on Monday, at 955, down six from Sunday, but intensive care patients increased to a record 292, and patients on ventilators rose by four, to 164, according to the department.

According to the latest state COVID-19 projections by the University of Washington’s Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, the number of new daily cases might have peaked on Sept. 16.

The analysis projects that state hospitalizations will peak at 1,159 on Oct. 5-6, and that ICU cases will peak at 378 on Oct. 6. It also projects that 4,412 West Virginians will have died of COVID-19 by Dec. 1.

As of Monday, the death toll was 3,424.

On Sept. 2, the institute was projecting peak hospitalizations of 1,536, peak ICU cases of 510, and 4,958 deaths by Dec. 1.

The announcement of the hospital reimbursement plan was the first substantive action taken by Justice during the current record surge in COVID-19 cases.

“Our hospitals are on the verge of being overrun,” he said, adding, “We’re at a point in time where we’re reaching a crisis — we’re at a crisis.”

The governor has refused to act as COVID-19 cases began a surge from a low of 882 active cases on July 9 to nearly 30,000 cases last week. West Virginia ranked first in the nation for rate of COVID-19 spread and last in the nation for percentage of residents who are fully vaccinated.

Justice has eschewed face mask or vaccination mandates throughout, saying Monday, “We’re absolutely not putting mandates on people.”

The governor also has declined to reinstate measures requiring social distancing or limiting the size of public gatherings.

On Wednesday, he encouraged organizers of Bridge Day, the largest single-day festival in West Virginia, to proceed with the event, citing large crowds that are gathering this fall for football games.

On Saturday, he attended the WVU-Virginia Tech football game in Morgantown with his dog, Babydog.

On Monday, despite the record number of cases, and with the likelihood that hospitalizations and deaths will climb in the coming weeks, Justice said of the administration’s response, “We’ve made the right calls.”

He closed the briefing by saying, “I truly believe that the Lord has blessed this state and blessed me. He’s given me the wisdom to make the right calls at the right time, but they’ll never be perfect. We’re moving again right now to ensure the safety of our people, but also our institutions.”

Also during Monday’s briefing:

  • Marsh said results of a Pfizer trial study showing that its COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective for children ages 5 to 11 is “a welcome piece of news for all of us.”

He said West Virginia COVID-19 cases among children 18 years old and younger has increased 254% in the past week. Marsh said he’s optimistic the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will approve vaccinations for 5- to 11-year-olds by mid-October.

According to the DHHR dashboard, residents age 20 and under accounted for 29.6% of all new COVID-19 cases in the past week, with 3,753 cases.

  • James Hoyer, director of the state interagency task force and retired National Guard adjutant general, said activating Guard members with medical or health care backgrounds would not help the current hospital staffing shortages, since it would mean pulling the vast majority away from their full-time health care jobs.

“All we would be doing is shifting the deck chairs,” he said.

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

@PhilKabler on Twitter.

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