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A volunteer from Valley Health unscrews a sample capsule as she helps conduct free COVID-19 testing at Wayne Elementary School in Wayne in this Sept. 12, 2020, file photo.

CHARLESTON — Gov. Jim Justice, who campaigned for governor promising to move West Virginia from 50th to first, conceded Wednesday that the state is leading the nation in an unwanted category: highest rate of COVID-19 case acceleration in the nation.

During the state COVID-19 briefing, Justice announced, “I hate to tell you this, but West Virginia leads the nation in the acceleration rate of new cases.”

He was citing a report by the STAT news service, compiled from data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Johns Hopkins University and other sources.

That milestone came on a day when the state Department of Health and Human Resources reported a daily positivity rate of 17.96%, the highest to date in the current surge of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

Dr. Clay Marsh, vice president for health sciences at West Virginia University and state COVID-19 czar, said it will be at least another five to seven days — and possibly as many as 10 to 14 days — before the current surge of new cases peaks. Hospitalizations and deaths will continue to increase for some time after that, he said.

“Here in West Virginia, we’re seeing the explosive growth phase,” he said, likening the current situation to when separate brush fires grow together to create a raging forest fire.

“The way to generate firewalls is vaccination,” Marsh said, adding, “Vaccination won’t get us out of the surge right now. It has already started.”

Marsh’s projections are consistent with modeling by the University of Washington’s Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, which calculated the current COVID-19 surge is on pace to peak Sept. 25, with 1,536 West Virginians hospitalized and 510 receiving treatment in intensive care units.

On Wednesday, Justice provided updated hospitalization numbers, reporting 813 West Virginians hospitalized with COVID-19, with 252 in the ICU and 132 on ventilators. The ICU and ventilator figures are the highest of the pandemic to date, exceeding prior peaks set in January, and the hospitalizations are five below the prior peak of 818.

The University of Washington data also projects 4,958 West Virginians will have died of COVID-19 by Dec. 1. As of Wednesday, West Virginia had a total of 3,169 COVID-19 deaths, with 21 deaths since the Monday briefing.

As he has done throughout the current surge, Justice declined to enact any state mandates aimed at curbing the rate of virus spread, continuing to insist that mandates would “fragment” the state, but he did encourage West Virginians to get vaccinated and to consider wearing face masks in crowded indoor settings.

He said of voluntary mask-wearing, “It can’t hurt.”

Justice and the COVID-19 team continued to implore the roughly 750,000 West Virginians over age 12 who are not vaccinated to get their shots. According to the CDC, West Virginia continues to rank 47th in the U.S. in percentage of population that is fully vaccinated.

James Hoyer, director of the state interagency task force, said unvaccinated people account for 83% of total hospitalizations, 90% of ICU patients and 92% of patients on ventilators. Marsh said earlier that the elderly account for almost all of the breakthrough cases among the vaccinated.

“We wouldn’t be reinforcing it if it weren’t the right thing to do to protect yourself and to protect others,” Hoyer said of getting vaccinated.

Dr. Ayne Amjad, state Public Health officer, said low vaccination rates among 12- to 18-year-olds is particularly disappointing.

“We are not seeing a lot of young people getting vaccinated, as we thought we would,” she said Wednesday. “We do want people to get their children vaccinated.”

According to the DHHR, about 35% of 12- to 15-year-olds and 46% of 16- to 20-year-olds have had at least one dose of vaccine.

Meanwhile, 34% of new COVID-19 cases in the past week are age 20 or younger, according to the DHHR’s COVID-19 dashboard.

Justice on Wednesday reported 68 school outbreaks in 31 counties, with 10 schools around the state and the entire Clay County school system closed because of COVID-19.

Hoyer said the state is working with hospitals on patient overflow plans, saying individual hospitals are managing high caseloads, with some looking at postponing elective procedures.

Justice closed the briefing by revisiting an analogy he used in his first State of the State address in 2017, regarding the lumbering Frankenstein monster from horror movies.

“I used to think anybody that gets caught by Frankenstein deserves to die,” Justice said. “If you’re not vaccinated, are you not falling into the Frankenstein syndrome?”

He implored, “You’ve got to do something for yourself.”

Justice also responded to a comment that he has looked in ill health during recent briefings.

“I don’t feel good. It’s hard to sleep at night,” he said, later adding, “I look bad, probably. Yeah, it has taken a toll.”

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

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