Governor: West Virginia finds 34 unreported COVID-19 deaths

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announced 34 previously unreported coronavirus deaths on Wednesday, the latest in fatalities that the state hadn’t counted.

Justice for the first time pinned blame on the Department of Health and Human Resources for a data issue that has led to the late disclosure of more than 200 deaths so far.

“Once we got into this situation, our people at DHHR should’ve recognized this issue and moved. They didn’t move, and I’m not happy about that,” the Republican governor said at a regularly scheduled coronavirus briefing.

“I can’t tell you that it is completely over yet, but I surely hope and pray that this is the last” of unreported deaths, he added.

Justice said he has ordered the department to implement “a new electronic death reporting system.”

Dr. Ayne Amjad, the state health officer, said the new system would be in place “as soon as possible” but that they are searching for a vendor for the program.

Justice and Amjad have previously said batches of unreported deaths, including 165 earlier this month, were a result of hospitals and nursing homes not reporting the fatalities in a timely manner to the state. But Justice was less certain this time.

“I don’t really know if it has come from a nursing home or a hospital or within DHHR; I don’t know,” Justice said about the deaths. “But I know they’re just getting to us.”

The governor said an internal review didn’t find any purposeful intent to cover up data, but he has not made the full findings public yet.

Officials also said the state expects an increase in vaccine supply next week, up from about 50,000 doses to 72,000. James Hoyer, a retired major general leading the state’s coronavirus task force, said the increase will “give us a lot more flexibility” to deploy more vaccines, including to West Virginia’s eastern panhandle, where supply has been constrained.

The state is also working with the business and manufacturing sectors to set up vaccine clinics at sites of employment, where eligible family members can also receive a shot. The governor also said church pastors can request clinics for their congregations by calling the state’s vaccine hotline at 1-833-734-0965.

Justice also earlier this week told residents aged 65 and over who are still awaiting a vaccine to call the number for a same-day appointment.

Hospitalizations of coronavirus patients continued to increase to 237 on Wednesday, up 57% from a recent low on March 12. The daily percent positivity rate is 3.64%.

Dr. Clay Marsh, a West Virginia health official and the state coronavirus czar, said new and more infectious variants of the coronavirus are spreading among unvaccinated younger people.

“It is very critical that we slow down the rate of spread, which we see happening in younger West Virginians, and allow ourselves more time to continue to vaccinate more and more people,” he said. “The more people we vaccinate, the more it stops the spread of COVID-19.”