By Phil Kabler

West Virginia officials did not dispute projections by the University of Washington’s Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation that the current COVID-19 surge is on pace to peak with 1,536 West Virginians hospitalized and 510 in intensive care units by Sept. 25.

That number would more than double the 714 hospitalizations reported by the Department of Health and Human Resources on Friday, and nearly double the previous peak of 818 hospitalizations on Jan. 5.

The data also projects that 4,958 West Virginians will have died of COVID-19 by Dec. 1, which would be an additional 1,834 deaths over the 3,124 COVID-19 deaths as of Friday.

“It would be tracking generally with the numbers we’re seeing now,” James Hoyer, director of the state interagency task force, said Friday of the IHME projections.

He said the state is working with hospitals to try to manage that potential influx of cases.

“As we trend higher toward these numbers, hospitals will have to make decisions about other types of care,” he added.

About three weeks ahead of the projected peak, COVID-19 numbers continued to trend upward Friday, with 19,434 active cases statewide, and 2,075 new cases since Thursday.

Of the 714 people currently hospitalized, 206 were in intensive care units, nearing the prior pandemic peak of 219 on Jan. 6.

Hoyer noted that, as of Friday, 111 patients needed ventilators to breathe, the highest number during the pandemic, which first hit West Virginia in March 2020.

“The bottom line, West Virginia, is people are going to the hospital faster, they’re sicker and they’re younger,” he said. “The best way to address this is to get vaccinated.”

Hoyer said 82% of the hospitalized West Virginians are unvaccinated.

Dr. Ayne Amjad, state public health officer, said the surge has gotten to the point that local health departments are overwhelmed with contact-tracing requests. She said the state has instructed health departments to conduct contact tracing only for people who have tested positive for COVID-19, not those with potential exposure.

Meanwhile, Gov. Jim Justice continued to take no action Friday in the face of the delta variant surge, but he did continue to plead with the half of the eligible population that has not been vaccinated.

Justice urged those who “believe beyond belief that, by God, I don’t need to take the shot” to get vaccinated, saying it is the only way to prevent the projected peak cases from becoming reality.

“It’s your choice, but you can really help all of us,” Justice said.

He continued to rule out instituting any statewide public health mandates, including face masks in elementary and middle schools, where all or many students are too young to be eligible for vaccinations, saying he prefers to let localities make those decisions.

“We continue to allow that flexibility, because local wisdom is better than what we can do from Charleston with mandates,” Justice said, noting that, as of Friday, 30 of 55 county school systems had imposed mask mandates.

“I think we’re still on hold, as far as making any mandates,” Justice said of any general requirement for face masks, while encouraging people to consider voluntarily wearing masks in public places.

The governor devoted much of Friday’s televised COVID-19 briefing to unrelated matters, including announcing expansion of the state’s Communities in Schools program, reviewing how he presented prizes to Thursday’s vaccination-incentive sweepstakes winners and announcing the retirement of state Transportation Secretary Byrd White, a longtime friend.