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CHARLESTON — With trends indicating that the current surge of COVID-19 cases may be peaking — but with COVID-19 hospitalizations, ICU visits, and deaths projected to continue to climb for at least two and as long as six weeks — state officials Monday announced a plan to assist hospitals around the state to deal with a surge of patients amid staffing shortages.

The plan calls for reimbursing hospitals that are forced to defer elective surgical procedures, primarily in outpatient settings, and are also required to hire contract employees to fill staffing vacancies.

Dr. Clay Marsh, vice president for health sciences at West Virginia University and state COVID-19 czar, said the goal is to avoid having to ration medical care at overcrowded hospitals, as has occurred in Alaska and Idaho.

“We are well positioned today to continue to provide full services to all West Virginians regardless of illness,” Marsh said Monday. “We also know we are operating on a fragile precipice where if we don’t pay attention and support our hospitals, we may not be able to in the future.”

He said details of the reimbursement program will be provided at future briefing. The plan is to use unexpended federal CARES Act and American Recovery Plan funds to reimburse hospitals that lose revenue from deferring elective procedures in order to move staff from outpatient surgery centers into hospitals, and to hire contract workers to address staff shortages.

He said shifting staff from elective procedures to caring for hospitalized patients will result in a significant loss of revenue for those institutions.

On Monday, the state Department of Health and Human Resources reported 21,490 active COVID-19 cases statewide, dropping from a pandemic peak of 29,744 cases on Friday.

There were 1,318 new cases reported Monday, down from more than 2,000 new cases a day last Thursday and Friday.

However, projections and historic trends show that hospitalizations, ICU cases, and deaths will continue to trend upward for as long as six weeks after the peak in active cases, Marsh said.

“What we’re seeing now is the number of deaths in West Virginia are starting to increase every time we have a press briefing,” Marsh said.

At Monday’s briefing, Gov. Jim Justice read 54 deaths, after reading 74 deaths on Friday. As recently as August, the number of deaths reported at briefings were in the single digits, with no deaths on some days.

State hospitalizations ticked down slightly on Monday, at 955, down six from Sunday, but intensive care patients increased to a record 292, and patients on ventilators rose by four to 164, according to the department.

According to the latest state COVID-19 projections by the University of Washington’s Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, the number of new daily cases may have peaked on Sept. 16.

The analysis projects that state hospitalizations will peak at 1,159 on Oct. 5-6, and that ICU cases will peak at 378 on Oct. 6. It also projects that a total of 4,412 West Virginians will have died of COVID-19 by Dec. 1.

As of Monday, the state death toll was 3,424.

(On Sept. 2, the institute was projecting peak hospitalizations of 1,536, peak ICU cases of 510, and 4,958 deaths by Dec. 1.)

The announcement of the hospital reimbursement plan was the first substantive action taken by Justice during the current record surge in state COVID-19 cases.

“Our hospitals are on the verge of being overrun,” he said, adding, “We’re at a point in time where we’re reaching a crisis — we’re at a crisis.”

Justice has refused to act as COVID-19 cases began a surge from a low of 882 active cases on July 9 to nearly 30,000 cases last week, as West Virginia ranked first in the nation for rate of COVID-19 spread, and last in the nation for percentage of residents who are fully vaccinated.

Justice has eschewed face mask or vaccination mandates throughout, saying Monday, “We’re absolutely not putting mandates on people.” He also has declined to reinstate measures requiring social distancing or limiting the size of public gatherings.

Also during Monday’s briefing, Marsh said results of a Pfizer trial study showing that its COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective for children ages 5 to 11 is “a welcome piece of news for all of us.”

He said state COVID-19 cases among children 18 and under has increased 254% in the past week. Marsh said he’s optimistic the FDA and CDC will approve vaccinations for 5- to 11-year-olds by mid-October.

According to the DHHR dashboard, residents age 20 and under accounted for 29.6% of all new COVID-19 cases in the past week, with 3,753 cases.

Phil Kabler covers politics. He can be reached at 304-348-1220 or Follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.

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