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CHARLESTON — State officials on Tuesday continued to warn West Virginians of the deadly delta COVID-19 variant, which now makes up 83% of all virus cases in the United States.

There has been a “dramatic increase” in U.S. cases of the delta variant, a more transmissible form of the original virus, during the month of July, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said during a Senate hearing Tuesday. On July 3, 50% of U.S. cases were recorded as the delta variant, and virus deaths have increased 48%, to an average of about 239 per day, Walensky said.

Dr. Clay Marsh, West Virginia’s coronavirus czar, pointed to a recent study from Chinese scientists and the University of Oxford that showed the viral loads — or the quantity of a virus in a given volume of bodily fluid — of people infected with the delta variant to be 1,000 times higher than that of people who were infected during the first weeks of the pandemic.

Marsh said Tuesday that, while the delta variant count remains low in the Mountain State — 22 cases recorded Tuesday — increased cases, hospitalizations and deaths are certainly coming.

The most effective way to prevent serious illness and death against all strains of the virus is still to take any of the three vaccines approved for use, Marsh said.

“Most of the deaths and most of the hospitalizations — 97.5% of hospitalizations and 99% of the deaths — are in people not fully vaccinated for the hospitalizations, and unvaccinated for the deaths,” Marsh said during Gov. Jim Justice’s COVID-19 briefing Tuesday. “So we see what an important role these vaccines are (playing).”

Marsh echoed the similar comments Tuesday from top federal health officials.

“The message from (the) CDC remains clear: The best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 variants is to prevent the spread of disease, and vaccination is the most powerful tool we have,” Walensky said. “Each death is tragic, and even more heartbreaking when we know that the majority of these deaths could be prevented with a simple, safe, available vaccine.”

Marsh closed his remarks by citing the recent warning from Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the head of former president Donald Trump’s Food and Drug Administration, who said Sunday that Americans who choose not to get fully vaccinated will soon face the respiratory fight of their life.

“(Gottlieb) said if you’re not vaccinated for COVID-19, you will become infected with the delta variant, and this will be the most severe viral infection you’ll have ever faced in your life,” Marsh said. “Although those are very dramatic terms, we’re really, really concerned about the unvaccinated, number one, and also the folks that aren’t fully vaccinated.”

Justice announced Tuesday — in a pandemic first — that COVID-19 had not killed any West Virginians since his last virus briefing. He celebrated the achievement but expressed cautious optimism.

“We’ve come a long ways — a long, long ways,” the governor said. “We’re still not out of the woods, we know that — we’ve lost 2,919 folks in West Virginia … but we have come a long way, West Virginia.”

Justice again pleaded for residents to get fully vaccinated.

Reach Joe Severino at joe.severino@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-4814 or follow @jj_severino on Twitter.

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