2020 0726 antimaskers 03.jpg

Emi-jo Hammond, left, and Gabby Hall arrive for lunch wearing protective masks in 2020 at The Peddler in Huntington.

CHARLESTON — With the nation experiencing a new surge of delta variant-driven cases, West Virginia COVID-19 czar Dr. Clay Marsh advised Friday that children younger than 12, the medically vulnerable and the unvaccinated wear masks in crowded indoor settings.

“By protecting ourselves and protecting our families, we protect other people as well,” said Marsh, West Virginia University’s vice president of health sciences.

His remarks during a COVID-19 news briefing were in response to a question about whether West Virginia should follow the lead of Los Angeles, which is reinstating mandatory mask requirements, and other jurisdictions, which are considering mask mandates.

“It’s important that each person make sure that they’re taking care of their own health and that of their family,” Marsh said. “Rather than waiting for mandates, take care of family members and anyone who isn’t vaccinated.”

On June 20, West Virginia lifted a requirement to wear masks in indoor settings.

Marsh repeatedly has warned in recent state COVID-19 briefings that it is a matter of when, not if, an outbreak of the more virulent delta variant will hit West Virginia.

On Tuesday, he cited subtle warning signs that the variant has reached West Virginia, as numbers of COVID-19 active cases, hospitalizations and patients in intensive care units have been creeping up. Active state cases on Friday topped 1,000 after dropping below that threshold for most of the past two weeks.

As of Friday, West Virginia had 19 confirmed cases of the delta variant, although Marsh said the number likely is higher because of a lag in confirming new cases.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday reported a 70% jump in COVID-19 cases in the past week as the delta variant preys on unvaccinated Americans.

“As we’re looking around the country, we note that every state is reporting a rise in cases of COVID-19,” Marsh said.

He stressed that vaccines are highly effective against the delta variant, noting that unvaccinated people are accounting for 98% of hospitalizations and 99% of COVID-19 deaths.

“Once this virus hits here, it’s going to be too late for people to get vaccinated,” he said.

Marsh said there have been 883 breakthrough infections among the more than 760,000 state residents who are fully vaccinated.

“It’s 99.9% effective,” he said, noting that, nationally, fully vaccinated people who contract the virus have had extremely low hospitalization rates and death rates of almost zero.

With the effectiveness of the vaccines, Marsh said, COVID-19 is a preventable problem, with preventable infections, preventable hospitalizations and preventable deaths.

Gov. Jim Justice said he does not have plans to bring back restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19 as the more contagious variant begins spreading in the state.

“From the standpoint of bringing back the mask or whatever like that, again I pray to God above that we never have to consider such a thing ever again,” the Republican governor said at a news conference. “But we’ve always got to watch.”

West Virginia lags behind all five bordering states in total vaccine doses administered per 100,000 people, according to federal data.

State data show that 58.2% of all residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

Justice set a new goal this week of vaccinating 85% of residents 50 and older, a group that currently has 81.5% coverage. He also wants 90% of those age 65 and older to receive a shot, while 88.7% currently have one.

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