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CHARLESTON — With cases of the COVID-19 delta variant showing an uptick in West Virginia, Dr. Clay Marsh on Thursday issued his strongest call yet for people to get vaccinated.

“This is a different disease. This is much worse,” Marsh said during the state COVID-19 briefing. “The more I learn about this, the more I’m worried.”

Marsh, vice president for health sciences at West Virginia University and state COVID-19 czar, also paraphrased Scott Gottlieb, former FDA director under Donald Trump, who on “Face The Nation” on Sunday said that with the delta variant, most people will either get vaccinated or will get infected.

Likewise, Marsh cited Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data indicating that 99.5% of recent COVID-19 deaths nationally are people who had not been vaccinated.

Marsh said people infected with the delta variant have 1,000 times more virus in their airways compared to the original COVID-19 virus. That high concentration, he said, allows the variant to easily spread from person to person, noting the U.S. reported 60,000 new cases Wednesday.

As of Wednesday, confirmed cases of the delta variant in West Virginia had jumped to 35, up from 22 the day before, and active COVID-19 cases increased to 1,225, up 10.4% from Monday.

“The delta variant will take off and become the most common variant real soon,” Marsh said of the upturn of cases in West Virginia.

He said he is encouraging older West Virginians and people with health problems, including those who are immunosuppressed, to wear face masks and practice social distancing in crowded indoor settings.

He also encouraged parents and grandparents of vaccination-eligible children (ages 12 and up) to make sure their children are vaccinated, while encouraging mask wearing and social distancing for children under 12.

James Hoyer, head of the state COVID-19 vaccine distribution task force, said the state is working with the Department of Education and higher education institutions to encourage young people to get vaccinated before returning to school later this summer in what could potentially be a surge of delta variant cases.

“Going into the school year, we need to work cooperatively across West Virginia to make sure we get those young people, who now are more vulnerable to these variants, vaccinated,” he said.

Marsh has said previously that while children had natural immunity to the original COVID-19 virus, that does not appear to be the case with the delta variant.

Hoyer said state vaccination efforts among young people are lagging, however. Only 46.9% of residents ages 18 to 29 have had at least one dose of vaccine, a percentage that drops to 41.0% for the 12-17 age group.

That contrasts with 50-plus West Virginians, with more than 80% of that population having had at least one dose of vaccine.

Gov. Jim Justice reiterated Thursday he has no plans at this point to reinstate mask mandates for schoolchildren or anyone else, saying it is premature to discuss face masks. He added he is not “super concerned” about the delta variant.

“Really and truly, we’re still at only 35 cases,” he said.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@hdmediallc.com, 304-348-1220 or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.

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