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West Virginia’s COVID-19 death toll reached 4,219 Wednesday, including 2,878 deaths of unvaccinated or partially vaccinated individuals since vaccines became available, a point state coronavirus czar Dr. Clay Marsh drove home during the state COVID-19 briefing.

Since COVID-19 vaccines became available last December, the virus has killed 3,102 West Virginians, but only 225 of those deaths were breakthrough cases in fully vaccinated individuals, he noted.

“Everybody else had not been vaccinated,” said Marsh, vice president of health sciences at West Virginia University. “This really does reinforce the benefit of full vaccination.”

Since vaccinations have become available, roughly 93% of all state COVID-19 deaths have been unvaccinated or partially vaccinated individuals, Department of Health and Human Resources data shows.

Through Wednesday, West Virginia remained last in vaccination rates among the 50 states and Washington, D.C., with 40.86% of the total population fully vaccinated, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That’s well below the national average of 57.1%, according to the CDC.

Marsh’s comments came as the Legislature was poised to take final passage votes Wednesday on legislation to make it easier for the 575,665 unvaccinated adult West Virginians to evade employer vaccination mandates through broadly defined medical and religious exemptions (House Bill 335).

On Wednesday, Justice defended the bill against critics who contend it amounts to government overreach on public and private employers.

“I surely to goodness don’t want to be infringing on businesses, and their feelings and beliefs,” Justice said.

“We do need to make exceptions for people who have medical conditions or religious beliefs,” he added. “I hate like crazy for someone to lose their job when they have a legitimate medical or religious exemption.”

A number of major employers, hospitals and health care providers have objected to the legislation. In a letter to lawmakers, the state Chamber of Commerce warned the legislation runs contrary to federal rules and laws, and will make state employers subject to a barrage of lawsuits.

While the total number of active COVID-19 cases in the state dropped to 8,469 on Wednesday, and as hospitalizations dropped slightly to 714, the number of COVID-19 patients being treated in intensive care units increased by four to 211, and the number of critically ill patients on ventilators increased by three to 128, according to DHHR data.

  • Earlier Wednesday, Justice held a separate virtual briefing citing what he said is a record-low unemployment rate for the state, at a seasonally adjusted rate of 4.6% for September.

Scott Adkins, acting director for WorkForce West Virginia, said 765,000 West Virginians were in the workforce in September, up about 1,900 from Sept. 2019, prior to the pandemic.

At the height of pandemic shutdowns, state unemployment reached 15.6% in April 2020, he said.

However, Sean O’Leary, senior policy analyst with the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy, said Wednesday the unemployment numbers are misleading because they do not account for the nearly 14,000 people who have left the labor force since February 2020 and are no longer counted in employment figures.

“A part of the reason for West Virginia’s falling unemployment rate is workers leaving the labor force and no longer being counted as unemployed,” he said Wednesday. “The state’s labor force fell from 805,700 in February 2020 to 768,100 in April 2020. By December 2020, it had recovered to 796,000, but has been flat for most of 2021, and started declining in recent months. It has fallen by 4,100 since April, including 900 in September.”

O’Leary concluded, “Overall, the labor force is down 13,900 workers since February 2020. If those workers were still counted as unemployed, the state’s unemployment rate would be 6.2%.”

Inexplicably, Justice used the statewide forum to criticize the Charleston Gazette-Mail on two occasions.

“Oftentimes, I think about the state newspaper. It’s become the state enquirer,” he said at one point, apparently referring to the National Enquirer tabloid. “It doesn’t really matter anymore, because nobody listens to them anyway, and they’ve become a frivolous enquirer.”

Phil Kabler covers politics.

He can be reached at 304-348-1220 or philk@hdmediallc.com.

Follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.

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