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West Virginia Suffers as Delta Variant Spreads and Vaccinations Lag

Coronavirus cases are nearing record levels in West Virginia, and the state’s schools are closing and its hospitals are choked with patients stricken by the perniciously infectious Delta variant.

Just seven months ago, as the Covid vaccine was still being rolled out, the state was a national leader. By late June the state’s governor, Jim Justice, a Republican, had removed a statewide mask requirement.

But West Virginia has since fallen far behind, and its pandemic status has deteriorated, a situation shared with other states with large unvaccinated populations. Just under 48 percent of West Virginia’s 18 and over population is fully vaccinated, the lowest of any state, according to federal data compiled by The New York Times.

President Biden tried to push the roughly 80 million eligible but unvaccinated people in the United States to be inoculated when he announced on Thursday a sweeping plan that included vaccine requirements he said would cover some 100 million American workers.

Federally authorized vaccines greatly decrease the risk of hospitalization and death, even from the Delta variant, according to three studies released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday.

Governor Justice has been more outspoken about vaccinations than many other Republican governors.

“We can stop this, West Virginia, we can stop it,” Mr. Justice said at a news conference on Friday. “The vaccines are safe. The vaccines are not an invasion on anyone.”

Even though Mr. Justice regularly beseeches his constituents to get a shot, vaccine mandates are “something that I absolutely do not believe in,” he said. In a video Mr. Justice tweeted the same day, he suggested that Mr. Biden’s announcement of new vaccine mandates was a ploy to try to distract the public from the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan or the crush of migrants at the southern border.

The latest surge has enveloped West Virginia with a ferocity the virus had not shown before there, said the official running the state’s coronavirus response, Dr. Clay Marsh.

“The rapid rate of growth and the level of severity of illness has really been much greater than we’ve ever seen before,” Dr. Marsh said.

West Virginia’s seven-day average of new reported cases has neared record levels for all of September, hovering above 1,500 per day for most of the past week, according to data compiled by The New York Times. The state recently surpassed a total of 200,000 cases, more than four times the population of Charleston, the capital and largest city.

Hospitalizations are nearing the state’s pandemic high, pushing its understaffed health centers to near capacity, and record numbers of Covid patients are being treated in intensive care units. Dr. Marsh said the state was reducing the number of elective procedures and taking steps to ensure that hospitals were adequately staffed.

And while deaths are averaging just 12 a day, that is more than 41 percent of the state’s peak average for the pandemic, reached in January.

Last January, when the state faced the worst conditions it had seen up to that point, West Virginia’s vaccine rollout was the envy of other states. But demand for the vaccine fell off, as it did in much of the country. Since then Mr. Justice has turned to a number of incentive programs, including $100 savings bonds for young people and a vaccine sweepstakes in which West Virginians can win cash, a scholarship, a sports car or a pontoon boat.

Maj. Gen. Jim Hoyer, a retired National Guard officer who leads the interagency task force that coordinates West Virginia’s vaccination efforts, said multiple approaches were necessary.

“Somebody said, ‘What’s the one thing that worked?’” Major General Hoyer said. “And there wasn’t one thing that worked. There was a whole series of things.”

The recent surge spurred more vaccinations, Major General Hoyer said, but the pace has slowed somewhat in recent days. Surveys showed that less than 20 percent of the people in the state were adamantly opposed to vaccination, he said, and direct outreach from health care providers was one important way to reach people who were hesitant.

Mr. Justice said that even with more West Virginians vaccinated there was no guarantee that the current surge was near its peak.

“Maybe we won’t peak until Halloween or Thanksgiving, and in all of that how many more are going to die, and die a horrible death, a death where you can’t breathe?” He asked.

Sarah Cahalan and Mitch Smith contributed reporting.



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