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West Virginia’s COVID-19 numbers returning to near-fall lows

CHARLESTON — West Virginia’s COVID-19 numbers for March are a long way from the small number of cases, tests, and deaths when the pandemic first officially arrived in the state one year ago, but still lower than December and January’s peak.

According to an analysis of data released by the Department of Health and Human Resources, the state saw 10,384 COVID-19 cases in March, a 5,734 percent increase from the 178 cases reported in March 2020 when DHHR reported the state’s first confirmed case of the coronavirus.

Since last March, there have been a total of 142,233 COVID-19 cases in West Virginia, infecting nearly 8 percent of the state’s 1.79 million residents. Cases peaked in December with 39,279 cases. March numbers represent a 74 percent decrease in cases from December’s high.

There were 157 COVID-19 deaths reported by DHHR for March, not counting the 219 unreported deaths DHHR discovered last month when comparing their data to incoming death certificates. Many of those unreported deaths took place in December and January, caused when hospitals, long-term care facilities, and home health programs failed to turn in one-page death reports.

The 157 deaths in March are a massive increase from the one death reported on March 29, 2020, but last month’s deaths were a 77 percent decrease from the January peak of 686 deaths. The state’s death total as of the end of March stands at 2,683.

West Virginia’s senior population has been hit the hardest by COVID-19, with 77 being the average age of deaths reported by DHHR. Seniors age 60 and older made up 81 percent of all COVID-19 deaths in the state, with West Virginians between the ages of 70 and 80 making up 72 percent of the 1,560 senior deaths. West Virginians between the ages of 10 and 49 account for 68 COVID-19 deaths, followed by 162 deaths for residents age 50 to 59.

COVID-19 testing numbers for March came back up after dipping in February. The state reported 278,057 test results in March, a 9 percent increase over 256,190 tests in February. Testing is still down 32 percent from a peak of 409,057 tests in January when cases were much higher. Approximately 2.5 million tests have been conducted since March 11, 2020.

Much of the state’s drop in COVID-19 cases and deaths is attributable to West Virginia’s successful vaccine distribution plan. Since the first shot went into the arms of residents on Dec. 14, DHHR reported that 18 percent of West Virginians have been fully vaccinated with either both shots of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, or the single-shot Johnson and Johnson vaccine. As of Thursday, more than 28 percent of residents have been partially vaccinated.

According to DHHR, 181,621 residents age 65 and older have been fully vaccinated through the state’s Operation: Save Our Wisdom program. As of Thursday, 495 doses have been administered to residents age 65 and older per 1,000 people.

The focus on seniors early on once vaccines were available led to West Virginia’s declining death rate and the decrease in hospitalizations. The number of hospitalizations peaked on Jan. 5 at 818, followed the next day with a peak of 219 people in the state intensive care unit beds across the state. Hospitalizations dropped to a low of 151 on March 13 — an 82 percent drop. ICU cases also dropped by 82 percent, to 40 cases on March 6.

Since the beginning and middle of March, cases and hospitalizations have started to increase again, driven by COVID-19 infections in residents between the ages of 16 and 29.

Just in the last seven days, active COVID-19 cases increased from 5,811 as of last Thursday, to 6,499 cases as of Wednesday — a 12 percent increase. Hospitalizations increased to 224 — a 48 percent increase from the 151 low three weeks ago. ICU bed use has doubled since the beginning of March, up to 81 cases.

While West Virginia’s aging population continues to be a focus of vaccinations, state health officials are encouraging young people between the ages of 16 and 29 to sign up for COVID-19 vaccinations. While most occupancy limits and restrictions have been lifted on businesses, restaurants, and bars, social distancing is still encouraged, and mask mandates remain in place for public indoor locations.

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com.

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