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CHARLESTON — With just 10 days remaining for West Virginia to allocate more than $125 million in CARES Act funds, Gov. Jim Justice announced Tuesday that $45 million of that money will go toward attracting, training and retaining nurses in the state.

The announcement came as the hospital systems approach a “breaking point” because of the COVID-19 pandemic. On Monday, the West Virginia Hospital Association said leadership expects to see hospitalizations for COVID-19 increase to levels not seen before in the Mountain State as the new year approaches.

The $45 million from the CARES Act will help fully fund the West Virginia Nursing Scholarship program and will assist in developing loan repayment programs for nurses who work in the state.

Glenville State College, Concord University and BridgeValley Community and Technical College will be allocated funds to expand — or, for Concord, create — capacity for programs for registered nurses and licensed practical nurses.

Specifics for the $45 million investment in nursing development will be announced at a later date, Justice said.

When asked Tuesday what he plans to do with the remaining $77 million in CARES Act funds, Justice did not provide an answer.

Also during Tuesday’s COVID-19 briefing, James Hoyer, head of the state’s interagency task force, said his team has been working on “tabletop exercises” to prepare for an inevitable COVID-19 surge from the omicron variant and cold weather.

This includes working with federal agencies to ensure West Virginia will continue to receive support and seeing what can be done to increase access to services from community health centers. The exercise evaluates hospital capacity and checks equipment on hand, as well as morgue capacity because of a potential increase in deaths from a surge.

Hoyer said the state also is working on maximizing the efficiency of monoclonal antibody treatments. Those are currently available in West Virginia, but global supply chain challenges could threaten that soon, Hoyer said.

“It’s difficult, but those are all the things we have to look at,” Hoyer said.

Outside of repeatedly urging vaccination, neither Hoyer nor Justice mentioned any initiatives to try to prevent increased rates of COVID-19.

So far, three cases of the more infectious omicron COVID-19 variant have been detected in West Virginia, according to state coronavirus czar Dr. Clay Marsh. While low — especially as the strain is quickly infiltrating surrounding states at high rates — Marsh said he expects to see omicron replace delta as the dominant variant in West Virginia by February.

“I am very, very worried for what the next month to 2 1/2 months will bring,” Marsh said.

As of Tuesday, there were 8,598 active COVID-19 cases in West Virginia, with 820 of those reported overnight. There have been 316,391 total cases confirmed in the state since the pandemic began in the spring of 2020.

Deaths tied to COVID-19 in West Virginia totaled 5,211 on Tuesday, according to the state Department of Health and Human Resources, with 20 of those reported overnight.

Of the 605 West Virginians hospitalized with COVID-19, 208 were in an intensive care unit and 114 were on ventilators. Nearly 80% of people hospitalized were unvaccinated. That increased to 87% for both people in the ICU and those on ventilators.

Nearly 54% of eligible West Virginians — 913,426 people — are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Another 10.5% — 179,389 of those eligible — have received one dose of the vaccine. Of people who are fully vaccinated, nearly 33% — 297,589 residents — have received a booster dose.

Booster doses are recommended for anyone age 16 and older who received their full round of mRNA vaccines six months ago or the Johnson & Johnson one-shot two months ago.

Caity Coyne covers health for HD Media. She can be reached at 304-348-7939 or Follow @CaityCoyne on Twitter.

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