Dave Mistich Published

Gov. Justice Holding Off On Reinstating Mask Mandate As CDC Guidance Shifts

Virus Outbreak CDC Delta

Despite growing concerns about the highly infectious coronavirus delta variant, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice said Monday he is not yet going to reinstate a mask mandate. However, in lieu of such a measure, Justice and his health advisers are urging high-risk individuals to wear masks in public and continue to ask all residents to get vaccinated.

That decision follows a study that showed that even those who are vaccinated can catch and spread the delta variant.

Given those findings, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently changed course and is now recommending that everyone wear a face mask in indoor public places in any community where there is “substantial” or “high” transmission of COVID-19 — regardless of vaccination status.

The CDC defines a “high transmission” rate as 100 or more new cases per 100,000 residents in the past week and “substantial transmission” as 50 to 99.99 new cases per 100,000 residents in the past week.

According to the CDC’s COVID Data Tracker, at least 60 percent of the counties in the U.S. fall in those two categories of worrisome spread.

Many states and localities across the nation are reinstating mask mandates — including 12 of 17 counties in Nevada, two counties in California, New Orleans and Kansas City.

In West Virginia, 38 of the state’s 55 counties have substantial or high transmission of the virus, according to the CDC’s tracking system — which differs from a map developed and used by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources to guide the state’s response to the pandemic.

At a virtual news briefing Monday, Justice said reinstating a mask mandate would be “fragmenting our population like we can’t imagine” — alluding to the lingering politicization of the pandemic across the U.S.

“We absolutely do not need to do that today. But, absolutely always, it should be on the table — should it not? We have got to continue to monitor,” Justice said. “The medical experts will come to me and they will give me recommendations — and they have not recommended we do that.”

He added that much-anticipated events like the West Virginia State Fair and college football games are just around the corner and that he hopes residents can enjoy those gatherings.

“All of us want to continue — do we not — to try to live our life with a level of normalcy,” Justice said.

The governor and his advisers cited data that indicates the effectiveness of vaccines as a reason for their continued push to get shots in arms, as well as holding off on a mask mandate.

State Coronavirus Czar Dr. Clay Marsh reiterated that vaccines are the best defense to protect people from serious illness or death from COVID-19, including the delta variant.

“In the United States, we know that the average [number of] people who are fully vaccinated [are] going to the hospital, going to the ICU or dying — are less than .1 percent — .01 percent, as I read the CDC data that just came out recently,” Marsh said.

Given that information, Justice continued Monday in making a push for more residents to get their shots so things can return to normal.

“What are you waiting on?” Justice asked West Virginians who have yet to get innoculated. “If we get vaccinated, we will absolutely be able to do exactly that.”

According to the DHHR’s Monday update, only seven counties are in the “red” and “orange” — the two colors that indicate the highest levels of spread in the state public health agency’s five-color system.

On Monday, State health officials reported 665 new cases of the coronavirus since the governor’s last briefing, which was held Thursday.

The DHHR currently reports 100 total cases of the delta variant statewide. During Monday’s briefing, Justice said the highly transmissible variant has been found in 29 West Virginia counties, and is most prevalent in Berkeley County.

DHHR Sec. Bill Crouch said Monday that data on variant sequencing may be lagging and not showing the current spread of delta — a strain first detected in India earlier this year that’s now the most common variant nationwide.

“The fact that we have 100 right now means we probably have 1,000 — we probably have 2,000 — we don’t know what the numbers are in the general population,” Crouch said. “What we know is what we’ve sequenced from those individuals [who’ve been positive]. ”

In total, the DHHR reports 167,681 cases of the virus since the pandemic began. Of those cases, 2,480 are considered active.

Officials report 772,988 residents have been fully vaccinated, and 869,921 — or 48.5 percent of the state’s population — have received at least one dose.