A casual survey of mask wearing inside Calhoun buildings this week indicated about half are wearing masks. - BW

CHARLESTON GAZETTE - Two of the state's top health officials warned of a very grim future for West Virginia if more aggressive measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 aren't taken soon.

During Thursday's minority health task force meeting, Dr. Clay Marsh, the state's coronavirus czar, said now is the time to be proactive in combating COVID-19. West Virginia recorded its highest total of daily positive cases multiple times this week.

"We have more outbreaks going on right now and more active cases of COVID than we've ever had before," Marsh said.

Community spread is triggering the spike in outbreaks, especially in regions like North Central West Virginia, where "Monongalia County, right now, is the hottest of the places in West Virginia," Marsh said.

Nationally, death rates are falling but positive cases are on the rise. Marsh said that is due to young people becoming infected at a greater rate than before. While the severity of the disease might be less for younger people, new research shows COVID-19 can have detrimental lifelong effects on anyone.

"It doesn't mean young people aren't dying of COVID, because they are," Marsh said. "Or they are being hurt for the rest of their life by having a stroke or a heart attack or having a limb amputated because of the blood vessel problems that can exist with COVID."

Acute strokes, heart attacks, kidney failure and blood clotting problems have occurred with people who've been infected and recovered, Marsh said, as research is showing complications with COVID-19 are going well beyond the respiratory system.

"More and more we're seeing this virus is really a blood vessel problem," Marsh said, noting it could have severe effects on those with high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

Bill Crouch, the Department of Health and Human Resources secretary, said if enough West Virginians don't wear masks in public and the rate of spread continues to increase, the state's hospitals will be overwhelmed.

"We're really reaching that point where … our health care system is going to be overrun -- and kind of everything's out the window at that point," Crouch said during Thursday's public meeting.

"Clay mentioned he didn't want to scare you," Crouch told the task force. "I would say I'd like to worry you a little bit. We're worried. We're again on a cusp right here, in a crossroads of how we go in this state."

Crouch credited Gov. Jim Justice's decision to implement the mandatory mask order, but said divisiveness over wearing masks is a barrier for the state. The struggle is even present in DHHR offices, Crouch said.

"We have folks in DHHR who don't want to wear masks," he said. "Folks have said, 'We don't want to wear a mask, we don't think we should be forced to.' I'm right now struggling with how do we deal with that?"

"It's hard not to wear a mask. You're really protecting your family, your neighbors, your friends. This is an act of love for people that shows you don't want to see this spread in West Virginia," Crouch said.

Marsh also warned a lack of mask use could lead to an insurmountable surge in emergency room and ICU patients.

"We're starting to see our hospital bed usage start to tick up. It's not really very high yet, but it's going up. It's about doubled over the past few weeks," Marsh said. "If we don't do better than we've done, then we are going to see the ICUs start to fill up just like the other states have done."

Florida, Texas and Arizona have already activated emergency plans to be able to expand hospital capacity, Marsh said. Houston is practically out of ICU space right now -- and 55 hospitals in Florida don't have any ICU beds available.

Florida's average age of infection is now 28, Marsh said.

States with executive orders or laws that fully enforce mask wearing in public have seen decreases in daily positive case rates, Marsh said, while states without strong laws are seeing sharp increases.

Justice has strayed from enforcing the mask order in hopes people will voluntarily comply, but has said he may reverse course if mask wearing does not become prevalent.

In Monongalia County, health department officials are struggling to keep up with contact tracing because of the recent spikes, Marsh said. Crouch warned against a point where contact tracing may become impossible.

For West Virginians with lung disease or breathing issues that would be complicated by a mask, Marsh said they should reach out to the state about securing face shields, which have been shown to reduce respiratory droplets.