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Justice: ICU beds could become scarce as COVID stretches hospital resources

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice speaks during his COVID-19 briefing from the state Capitol Friday. (Photo Provided)

CHARLESTON — Gov. Jim Justice warned during Friday’s COVID-19 briefing that, as hospital beds fill up and health care resources are stretched thinner and thinner, “there will be ICU patients that will not have a bed.”

It’s already happened at least once.

During the briefing, James Hoyer, director of West Virginia’s Joint Interagency Task Force, said the governor’s leadership team was contacted about a West Virginia man, under the age of 30, who needed an ICU bed but could not get one.

“Before we were able to make that happen, because of the challenges with ICU beds across the state, that individual succumbed to their COVID disease,” Hoyer said, adding the man was a foster parent to three young children.

Nearly 73.5 percent of West Virginians age 12 and up have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine. That’s good, Hoyer said, but not good enough.

“This is not just impacting us as individuals when we get COVID,” he said. “It impacts our families and our communities and our entire state and our entire nation.”

Hoyer said the state is working with the West Virginia Primary Care Association to expand testing capabilities, triage support and antibody treatments to clinic facilities next week to help reduce the burden on hospitals.

Justice read the ages and home counties of 38 West Virginians whose deaths due to COVID-19 had been confirmed since Wednesday’s briefing, pausing for emphasis when he got to a 34-year-old man from Randolph County and a 33-year-old man from Kanawha County.

The state had 24,532 active cases as of Friday morning.

Dr. Clay Marsh, the state’s coronavirus czar, noted records were again set for COVID patients in intensive care units, at 252, and on ventilators, 152. He compared that to the first week in July, when there were 17 people in ICUs because of the virus and just six on ventilators.

At that time, 52 people were hospitalized with COVID, compared to 818 as of Friday morning, Marsh said.

“We are still in the midst of that growth phase of the delta variant,” he said. “About 85 percent of our hospitalized patients are not vaccinated.”

That figure grows to 90 percent for those in ICUs and 91 to 93 percent of patients on ventilators, Marsh said.

While there are still breakthrough infections of vaccinated individuals, and even deaths, the vaccines provide the best protection against the virus and its variants, Marsh said, even better than natural immunity after having COVID-19.

Recent data released by the American Red Cross shows that up to 80 percent of Americans over the age of 16 have “evidence of reaction to the COVID virus,” Marsh said, “and about twice as many Americans as has been documented have likely been infected by COVID-19 at some point.

“Because this delta variant is so incredibly infectious … we know that the combination of native (immunity) and immunization gives people the absolute best protection,” he said.

Full vaccination is the “cornerstone” of the effort to protect against COVID-19 and slow the influx of patients into hospitals, Marsh said. It also includes wearing masks in public places, getting tested if feeling sick and staying home when a person has symptoms, he said.

“Ultimately, it is really up to each of us to protect ourselves, our families and the state of West Virginia,” Marsh said.

Justice urged people who are not yet vaccinated to step up.

“Whether I believe in it or don’t believe in it, I’ve got to do my part,” he said.

The governor said he opposes vaccine mandates by the government — both those requiring people to get the shots and those preventing businesses from imposing that condition themselves.

Justice strongly opposed President Joe Biden’s order that businesses with more than 100 employees require vaccinations or weekly testing of those who don’t get the shot. He also said he does not support convening a special session of the West Virginia Legislature to pass legislation prohibiting businesses from making their own requirements in that regard.

“We’re talking about intervening in businesses’ business,” Justice said. “It just seems to me like we have really lost our way. I always thought that true Republicans stood for letting private business do what they want to do.”

As for Biden’s announcement Thursday, Justice described it as “doubling down to (try) to change the news cycle,” referencing the chaotic evacuation from Afghanistan and the influx of immigrants at the southern border.

But Justice continued to emphasize that getting vaccinated is the best way to protect against COVID-19. He said Republican governors support vaccination but they should do so strongly.

“We want to be super-respectful of everybody’s rights,” he said. “But we’ve got to encourage people as Republican governors, without any question, to go get vaccinated and without qualifiers.

“People are dying right and left. Now that doesn’t mean we have to mandate anything. But we have got to be the biggest cheerleaders of all to get vaccinated,” Justice said.

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