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Mercer County Technical Education Venter LPN students help with COVID-19 testing at the Mercer County Health Department on Wednesday. 

BLUEFIELD — Another Mercer County resident has died from COVID-19 as state records continue to be set with the surge.

Gov. Jim Justice said Wednesday during his pandemic briefing that a 78-year-old female was the latest death in the county, increasing the total number of COVID-19 related deaths in Mercer County to 38.

During the last two days, 27 more deaths have raised the statewide total to 612, with new records of 11,172 current active cases and 429 hospitalizations. Of those 429, 126 are in ICU and 50 on ventilators.

“It is jumping very, very quickly,” he said of the hospitalizations. “We still have (hospital) capacity. But if we don’t slow this thing down (that could change).”

In the last 24 hours, 953 new cases have been reported, raising the daily positivity rate to 5.66 percent and the cumulative rate to 3.35 percent.

“We’ve got a real problem all across our land, not just in West Virginia,” Justice said. “It is a real problem, and it is running wild.”

Nothing is being shut down, he said, referring to what he said were rumors going around.

“I also want to address some rumors that I’ve heard recently, and I don’t know where they’re coming from, but I want to make one thing clear: Jim Justice does not want to shut anything down in this state,” he said. “I’m trying, with all in me, to just go one teeny step: asking you to wear your masks. There is not a part of me that has a thought, today, to shut anything down. Stop this nonsense. All we’re trying to do is to get to that vaccine by asking everyone to wear their masks. Stop the hogwash. That’s just all we’ve got to do.”

Although every option remains on the table, he said, wearing a mask is the way to keep going to get through until a vaccine is available.

“Every health expert across the country is saying to wear a mask,” he said. “Testing is great, but you have got to wear the mask.”

If everyone pulls together and not get divided, he said, “we will get through this without shutting anything down.”

Justice used the example of what happened at Stevens Correctional Center in McDowell County as an example of how quickly the virus can move once it enters a door.

The number of positive cases in that facility has now jumped to 260 inmates and 30 staff, he said, compared to a total of only eight inmates and 32 staff among all the rest of the state’s incarceration facilities.

“It goes through us like a knife through butter,” he said, “and at a speed that is very, very difficult to stop.”

Justice also said the state now has 20 outbreaks in churches in 13 counties, including Monroe County, with a total of 280 positive cases.

He again emphasized wearing a mask, using every other pew, physical distancing and, especially for the elderly, watching the sermon remotely.

Dr. Clay Marsh, state COVID-19 Czar, said the state has averaged more positive cases over the last seven days than at any time during the pandemic, and the virus is hitting more people in the 30 to 64-year-old range.

“We know increases in this population generally precedes increasing cases in older people,” he said.

National Guard Adjutant Gen. James Hoyer said 42 percent of the total number of positive cases in the state have occurred during the last 30 days, with the average age of those dying at 77.

“It’s time for us as West Virginians to step up and do the things we need to do to protect our vulnerable citizens,” he said.

Hoyer said the NG has been busy installing protective barriers in nursing homes as a mitigation and protection move.

As far as hospitalizations and capacity, Hoyer said it is not an issue at this time and work is ongoing to make sure it will not be.

Agencies, including the DHHR and state Hospital Association, are working together to be ready to “balance” the load of cases around the state to keep the hospital system’s capability “solid.”

Both Justice and Marsh also said a vaccine is coming soon and a plan is in place to be ready when it does.

Hoyer said representatives of the NG, DHHR and CDC met this week to go over the plan.

“Twenty organizations are involved in the planning process,” he said, adding that freezers, which maintain a temperature 90 degrees below zero for the vaccine, are available as well as the means to transport the vaccine.

Prioritization of who receives the first vaccinations are also part of the plan, he added.

According to the CDC, those include health care workers, first-responders and residents of long-term care facilities.

As records continue to be broken with the pandemic, Justice said there is no playbook and whatever happens must be handled with the advice of experts.

“I am going to keep everything on the table and monitor this in every way,” he said. “I don’t know where this is going to go. Nobody knows where this is going to go. We keep all the ‘what ifs’ on the table and we keep moving forward with expert advice.”

But wearing masks will help get the state through until the vaccine is ready for widespread use, he added.

— Contact Charles Boothe at cboothe@bdtonline.com

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