As hard as it is to believe, West Virginia is starting the 2021-22 school year in worse shape than last year in regard to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gov. Jim Justice delayed the start of the 2020-21 school year to Sept. 8 because of the virus. Some schools didn’t qualify to go back that day because of the number of cases in a respective county.
When most schools reopened, there were about 2,800 active COVID-19 cases in West Virginia. Monday, Kanawha County and several other school districts reopened for the 2021-22 year, with 4,010 reported active cases in the state. And that’s with vaccines available that didn’t exist last fall.
During a briefing Monday, Justice bemoaned this “fourth surge” of the virus — propelled by the delta variant and stalling vaccine rates — adding “it didn’t have to happen.” He’s right. Still, it did and continues to happen.
More than 1,000 new cases were reported over the weekend, as West Virginia surpassed 4,000 active cases for the first time since June 2. The state Department of Health and Human Resources also reported 217 COVID-19 hospitalizations on Monday, the highest number since May 25.
Active COVID-19 cases hit nearly 30,000 in the winter, and started a gradual decline once vaccines became available. So, while the numbers are worse than 11 months ago, it’s not as bad as it has been.
But cases have been climbing since bottoming out below 1,000 just a month ago. The best defense is the vaccine, but those rates across the state, especially in those under the age of 65, are crawling.
On Friday, 56.7% of West Virginians 12 and older were fully vaccinated against COVID-19. By Monday, that number was 56.9%. The percentages have languished in the mid-50s for months. Meanwhile, more than 90% of the new cases the state is seeing are from the delta variant, and even more of those cases are in people who aren’t vaccinated.
West Virginia COVID-19 Czar Dr. Clay Marsh added additional cause for concern during Monday’s briefing, noting during the past week across the United States, there’s been an 84% increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations for children and infants — a group largely unaffected by previous strains of the virus.
Cases in West Virginia accelerated slowly last year, seeing some upticks around spring and summer holidays. But they didn’t really take off until school resumed, and got especially bad after Thanksgiving, forcing most schools to go online only and not resume in-person learning until mid-January. At the time, Marsh said outbreaks in the schools themselves weren’t an area of concern, but outbreaks linked to events like high school football were problematic. Now school is resuming with higher case numbers than a year prior, with a variant that is more likely to spread among children and no clear urgency from the unvaccinated to get the shot.
There were also numerous public health mandates in place when West Virginia kids went back to school last year. Justice has mentioned the possible return of mask mandates and other restrictions, but it’s clear those are things he’s not going to do unless the situation gets considerably worse, despite the fact that’s exactly where it is trending.
Justice voiced another concern Monday, mentioning it won’t be long until the weather cools and everyone spends more time indoors, which is when viruses tend to run rampant.
The conditions are ripe for this to get very bad very quickly, if it’s not already happening. The state or federal government shouldn’t have to mandate people get vaccinated, but those who don’t get the shot also need to realize that choice has consequences, the least of which might be more canceled events and the return of masks. The more severe impact is all too obvious.