June Leffler Published

Omicron Surge Has Likely Peaked In W.Va.

Clay Marsh.jpg

The highly contagious omicron variant may have reached its peak in West Virginia.

About two weeks ago, West Virginia reported more than 5,252 new COVID-19 cases in a single day. That struck a new record during the pandemic. Since then, the seven-day rolling average of cases has dropped 22 percent, though testing has also dropped.

“It looks like our cases may be plateauing and may be even starting to come down,” said Dr. Clay Marsh, the state’s coronavirus czar.

Marsh says someone with the virus is now spreading it to less than one other person, according to the state’s reproduction number.

The state may be over the hump when it comes to cases, but it should take at least another week for hospitalizations to begin to fall. It will take even longer for deaths to trail off.

COVID-19 hospitalizations are higher than they’ve ever been in the state, at 1097 patients Wednesday.

Marsh urged older residents to get a booster shot to avoid having to go to the hospital.

“If you’re over 65… your risk of being hospitalized is improved by 49 times if you’re fully vaccinated and boosted versus if you’re unvaccinated,” Marsh said.

An increase in hospitalizations has put a strain on health care facilities that don’t have enough staff to best serve patients. State officials say most hospitals are working at “crisis levels,” with long waits in emergency rooms and delays for procedures being common.

With health care workers in high demand, Gov. Jim Justice has asked federal agencies to budge on a new rule for unvaccinated hospital staff.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently signed off on President Joe Biden’s mandate that all health care workers be vaccinated, though religious and medical exemptions still apply.

Justice sent a letter Monday asking the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to reconsider this mandate for rural hospitals, saying it could cause workers to walk off the job. Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia signed onto the letter.

“It is only putting additional pressures. It is not saving lives. It is not helping people in this situation, It is hurting us and hurting us in a bad way,” Justice said.

Justice said he has heard back from CMS and will have a call with the agency later this week.

He has made other pleas to the feds, like asking the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to authorize a second booster. The CDC has not so far responded.

Jim Kaufman represents the interests of health care facilities as president of the West Virginia Hospital Association. He neither supports or opposes the governor’s request, and said hospitals are working towards being compliant with federal standards.

“We appreciate the governor being so sensitive to the staffing challenges hospitals are facing,” Kaufman said. “We’re working with the CMS policies because we know they are effective tools to protect hospital co-workers and patients.”

Kaufman said most health care facilities have already encouraged their staff to get vaccinated or required it.

The mandate was scheduled to take effect on January 4th. Federal officials say they’ll give non-compliant facilities until March 15 to get all staff vaccinated.

Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting with support from Charleston Area Medical Center and Marshall Health.