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COVID hospitalizations on the rise in West Virginia

CHARLESTON — Hospitalizations for COVID-19 in West Virginia have been slowly rising throughout the summer and fall, but with the spike upward in cases over the last several weeks, hospitalizations have seen a dramatic increase.

“It is jumping very quickly,” Gov. Jim Justice said during his COVID-19 briefing Wednesday.

According to data collected by the Department of Health and Human Resources, there are 429 people with confirmed cases of COVID-19 spread among West Virginia’s 65 hospitals as of Tuesday.

“We still have capacity, but if we don’t slow this thing down, how long are we going to have capacity?” Justice asked.

Since Nov. 10, hospitalizations increased by 55 percent from 277 hospitalizations last week, an increase of 152 being hospitalized for severe COVID-19 symptoms, such as fatigue, difficulty in breathing, muscle or body aches, or pain or pressure in the chest.

Along with the increase in hospitalizations has come increases in people being placed in intensive care units and being placed on ventilators. As of Tuesday, 126 people are in intensive care unit beds, up from 85 people in intensive care unit beds Nov. 10. There are now 50 confirmed cases of people on ventilators, up from 28 last week.

Hospitalizations are up because COVID-19 cases are up. According to DHHR, there are 11,172 active coronavirus cases in West Virginia as of Tuesday, up 8 percent since Monday’s COVID briefing. The state saw 953 new cases through midnight the previous day. Deaths increased to 612 since March, with 27 new deaths reported since Monday.

“We are averaging more positive cases per day over the last seven days than we have at any other time during the pandemic,” said Dr. Clay Marsh, the state coronavirus czar. “Across the United States, we’re seeing more people in hospitals, and we are seeing more people in hospitals in West Virginia with COVID though as the governor said, we still have plenty of capacity.”

According to projections by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, a project at the University of Washington, West Virginia is projected to run out of ICU beds by Dec. 4 if COVID-19 cases keep increasing. The state has 3,032 hospital beds including 196 beds in intensive care units.

Hospitalizations also are high nationwide. According to The Atlantic’s COVID Tracking Project, the U.S. broke a record last week for the number of hospitalizations from a high of 60,000 in the spring to more than 73,000. The issue also goes beyond hospitalizations, with 22 percent of U.S. hospitals facing staff shortages this week. Marsh said that was an issue state officials were keeping an eye on in West Virginia as well.

“We have to protect our staff, because we know that opening beds without the expert caregivers is not nearly as effective,” Marsh said. “Our caregivers work in the same communities we live in, so trying to help them avoid getting infected with COVID, not in the hospital during their work hours, but as they go home.”

Officials with DHHR and the West Virginia National Guard said they are in constant contact with hospital leaders and the West Virginia Hospital Association to talk about capacity and needs, such as additional personal protective equipment. Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, adjutant general for the National Guard, said the statewide benchmark for intensive care unit beds and ventilators and overall hospital capacity was 85 percent.

“We also work with those facilities as well as the Hospital Association to balance load across hospitals,” Hoyer said. “This time of year, we see ICU and other capacities within hospitals at normally 85 percent or in some cases higher depending on the facilities, so it’s a balancing act across the system.”

The state also has agreements with both Thomas Health Systems and West Virginia University Hospitals for use of St. Francis Hospital in Charleston and Fairmont Medical Center for COVID-19 surge capacity. If needed, less severe coronavirus cases could be transferred to these hospitals to make room for intensive care unit beds in other hospitals. St. Francis has 30 beds available and could expand to 60 beds if needed.

“Those agreements have been renewed. They are definitely in place,” said DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch. “We’re preparing and have been preparing for a surge. We had communications this morning about St. Francis. In regard to Fairmont, it’s a secondary backup surge hospital for northern West Virginia. WVU and the WVU system are prepared for a surge and we’ve had constant communication with them, as well as our larger tertiary hospitals in Huntington and Charleston. We’re focused on this and working to make sure we’re prepared.”

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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