CHARLESTON — More COVID restrictions may be eased in West Virginia, possibly as soon as this weekend.
Gov. Jim Justice said Wednesday during his pandemic briefing he plans to have information today related to the restrictions as COVID numbers in the state continue to improve.
“I hope to be able to do another announcement ... to lessen restrictions even more,” he said, referring to previous action two weeks ago. “We want to be smart. We want to be safe. But we’ve got to keep on living.”
Those actions two weeks ago included increasing capacity at restaurants from 50 percent to 75 percent and changing social gathering limits from 25 to 75.
At that time, he also said he wanted to increase the capacity at restaurants to 100 percent as soon as possible.
These moves are the result of deaths, new and active cases, as well as hospitalizations falling dramatically in recent weeks.
Justice said in the last seven weeks the death toll has dropped 85 percent, with only 18 reported in the last five days as of Wednesday.
Hospitalizations dropped below 200, to 197, for the first time in four months. Most counties in the state are now green on the County Alert System map.
Vaccinations are also picking up, he said, another factor in lowering cases, and saving lives.
Justice said Pres. Joe Biden has now said all adults will have a chance to be vaccinated by the end of May as production is increasing for all three companies: Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.
“That is real progress,” he said, adding that West Virginia is ready. “Getting vaccines is our problem.”
Justice also said the age of those who can now be vaccinated has been lowered to 50 for all residents, and teachers and school personnel 40 to 50 years old are now a priority as well. Anyone 16 or older who has a pre-existing medical conditions is also now eligible for the vaccine.
The list includes:
• Down syndrome
• Intellectual and developmental disabilities and their caretakers
• Caretakers of those with congenital or acquired disease
• Organ or bone marrow transplant
• Obesity (BMI > 35)
• Sickle cell anemia
• Cystic fibrosis
• Pregnancy The 65 and older population still has priority and will move to the front of the line when they sign up, he said, but with more vaccines arriving this is the time to make the change.
Residents are urged to preregister so an appointment can be made for the vaccine.
More than 320,000 were registered as of Wednesday. To preregister, go online at vaccinate. wv.gov or call 1-833-734-0965.
Maj. Gen. (Retired) James Hoyer, director of the state Joint InterAgency Vaccine Task Force, said the “base level” of the number of vaccines coming to the state is now about 60,000 and that number is “fluctuating up.”
Increases are coming, but the timeline right now is uncertain.
“We are really close to having a flood of vaccines available,” Justice said. “Then we can really move.”
As an example of how effective the vaccines are, Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch highlighted what happened with a recent outbreak of COVID in a nursing home.
“Several weeks ago, we had an outbreak at a facility in West Virginia,” he said. “All of the residents had been vaccinated and, as a result, zero residents were positive in that outbreak. This is a direct result of the Governor’s priority for our elderly in West Virginia – making sure they were the first to be tested and the first to be vaccinated. Interestingly, of the 60 staff members, seven chose not to take the vaccine, and all seven of those individuals tested positive during this outbreak.”
Crouch said West Virginia has experienced a 93 percent reduction in the number of nursing home outbreaks reported from December, when vaccines first became available, to February.
“Vaccines work,” he said. “We’re asking all nursing home staff who have not yet been vaccinated to please get your vaccination.”
But Justice once again cautioned about the importance of continuing to wear a mask and social distance.
“I caution everyone, don’t drop your guard,” he said.
— Contact Charles Boothe at cboothe@bdtonline. com