Liz McCormick Published

W.Va. Hits New High Of Virus Cases, Hospitalizations; Governor Talks State Vaccine Plan

Governor Justice COVID Vaccine Plan - 10172020.jpg

Updated on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020 at 6:30 p.m.

New confirmed coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in West Virginia have hit new highs over the past week as outbreaks are growing in some of the most rural pockets of the state.

There were nearly 240 cases reported statewide on average over the past seven days Thursday, the highest ever in the state, and there are at least 4,839 active cases of the virus as of Saturday evening.

There are at least 188 people currently hospitalized, according to Gov. Jim Justice. At least 31 people are on ventilators.

“We continue to run to the fire,” Justice said in a virtual press briefing Friday. “We continue, absolutely in every way, to try to do all the testing we can possibly do to stop this thing.”

After a dip, the state’s positive testing rate has been rising for over a week, up to 3.64 percent over seven days, according to the Associated Press. The state recorded about three deaths a day on average over the past seven days, down from the high of over six in late September. There have been 399 virus-linked deaths as of Saturday evening.

Five counties, Barbour, Doddridge, Mingo, Randolph and Upshur, with populations under 30,000 people, have more than 25 cases per 100,000 residents, the most severe category of spread under the state’s metrics.

The smallest of the five, Doddridge County with about 8,500 residents, on Wednesday became the only county in the red category on the state’s color-coded map. Doddridge was the last county in the state to confirm a positive case back in July. The county remains in red as of Saturday.

The red category brings the most restrictions under the state’s map of five colors. Public schools are prohibited from conducting in-person classes while sports events and other extracurricular activities are postponed. Schools in Doddridge County were closed starting Oct. 6 due to the rise in cases.

Earlier this week, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources confirmed that more than 50 patients and employees at Mildred Mitchell-Bateman Hospital in Huntington tested positive for the virus. On Thursday, the Cabell County Health Department pushed out a voluntary stay-at-home order for residents there.

However, DHHR’s county alert system map shows Cabell as green, meaning minimal community spread. In Friday’s virtual press briefing, DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch didn’t clarify why the county is labeled green when the county health department issued a stay-at-home advisory. But he explained the Cabell County Health Department made the decision out of caution.

“There’s more to the dashboard than just the map,” Crouch said. “One of the reasons we include the data beside the map is so that you can look at incident rates separately from positivity rates. And if you look at Cabell, their infection rate a week ago was 16.16 [percent]. It’s now 20. So, I think what [Dr. Michael Kilkenny, physician director], and the folks at Cabell are seeing, and are reacting to, is an increase in the infection rate there, which is part of the dashboard.”

The governor also mentioned Friday the state submitted its COVID-19 vaccine plan to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for review and approval. He said more details of the plan would be released soon.

“This has been an incredible collaborative effort by our DHHR, our National Guard, our medical experts, the Office of Minority Affairs,” Justice said. “Countless others. [They] have done really, really good work.”

Justice said once a vaccine is ready, the state’s medical experts would review the data on its safety.

State Health Officer Dr. Ayne Amjad said health care workers would be the first West Virginians to receive the vaccine when it becomes available, followed by at risk populations such as residents in nursing homes.

“We’re hoping to lead the country with our document to see how the vaccine will be prepared,” Amjad said.

Justice said he thinks a vaccine could be available by the end of the year, but felt confident one would be available by February.

Dr. Clay Marsh echoed the governor, and said he thinks by spring 2021, a vaccine could be widely distributed to the general public.

“Depending on when the first doses come out, hopefully in the first quarter of 2021 or so, then you’ll see probably by the next quarter, you’ll see more people getting vaccinated,” Marsh said. “And then eventually things will be completely distributed throughout, as you say, the commercial sector as well.”

Justice urged West Virginians to continue to be on guard, get tested, social distance and wear a mask.

“This a bumpy ride,” Justice said Friday. “Just know there’s still some stormy water in front of us, and for those that are going through really bad water right now, you’re not alone. We’re with you.”