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With weeks of pleading, cajoling and offering prizes doing little to convince more than 500,000 adult West Virginians to get vaccinated for COVID-19, Gov. Jim Justice took a new approach Monday, with testimonials from a Charleston pulmonary physician and the mother of a 40-year-old who has been hospitalized in the ICU for nearly seven weeks with the virus.

During Monday’s state COVID-19 briefing, Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, a pulmonary physician, urged West Virginians to rely on the advice of their health care providers and medical experts, rather than “what you’ve been reading on social media.”

Takubo said he and other medical providers have tried multiple approaches to treating COVID-19 victims as the pandemic has progressed.

“The one thing I’m seeing is that the vaccine does work,” he said.

He said 88% to 95% of patients being admitted to hospitals during the current surge are unvaccinated. He also rebutted concerns about whether the vaccines are safe.

“Show me a hospital that’s overrun by vaccination reaction,” Takubo said, as the state set pandemic records for patients hospitalized, in intensive care units and on ventilators Monday. “I’ve yet to admit one person or treat one person with an adverse reaction to the vaccine.”

While social media has made nebulous claims about possible long-term effects of the vaccinations, Takubo said he and other doctors are dealing with post-recovery effects of COVID-19 infections, including blood clots, heart problems and chronic shortness of breath. He said long-term health issues remain unknown.

Justice also introduced Linda Lainer, whose son has been hospitalized on a ventilator in intensive care for nearly seven weeks after contracting COVID-19 while visiting a vacation spot that she did not identify by name.

She said she and her husband also contracted COVID-19 during the trip, but had mild cases because they are vaccinated. She said her son, Joey, had “listened to the garbage” on social media and refused to be vaccinated.

“This COVID is a monster,” Lainer said, noting that her son, a father of two young boys, is a mixed martial arts fighter and former Toughman boxing champion. “What’s it going to do to the average person? What’s it going to do to your children?”

As of Monday, a record 852 West Virginians were hospitalized with COVID-19, up from 52 in early July. Of those, 267 were receiving treatment in intensive care units, up from 17, and 162 were on ventilators, up from six, in early July.

Additionally, state public health director Dr. Ayne Amjad said Monday that cases involving children ages 5 to 15 are on the upswing, accounting for about 2,400 of the roughly 12,000 new cases reported in the past week, or 20% of all new cases.

“We’re seeing larger numbers of cases in the elementary school ages,” she said, “We’re seeing a significant amount in the hospital.”

While Justice on Monday declared the current surge to be a “pandemic of the unvaccinated” and said vaccination is the only tool to end the pandemic, he also said he remains adamantly opposed to vaccination mandates, saying people should have free choice.

“It’s their decision. It’s not Joe Biden’s decision. It’s not Jim Justice’s decision, but we hope they make the right decision,” said Justice, who has joined other Republican governors in criticizing the president’s order to use Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations to require employees of larger companies be vaccinated.

Justice noted that there was a gathering of protesters outside the Capitol entrance Monday, objecting to the Biden policy, adding, “I concur 1,000%.”

In closing, Justice again pleaded with those unwilling to get the vaccine, calling on them to set aside the “by God, I ain’t doing it” rhetoric.

“Why in the world can’t we just listen, why can’t we just get vaccinated on a voluntary basis?” he asked, adding, “Nobody’s holding a gun to your head, nobody’s telling you that you have to do it, but just go on a voluntary basis.”

As of Sunday, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranked West Virginia 50th in the United States in percentage of population fully vaccinated, down from 47th last week. The ranking includes all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

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

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