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Justice: Mask penalties may be coming

CHARLESTON — Just days after Gov. Jim Justice signed a mandatory but toothless executive order requiring face masks inside offices and businesses, Justice said penalties for not wearing masks could be coming if coronavirus cases continue to spike.

Justice signed an executive order Monday requiring masks for residents age 9 and up for indoors, an order that went into effect Tuesday. Exceptions include inside residences, when sitting at a table in a restaurant, when social distancing is possible, and for people with breathing problems or who are unable to put on a mask without assistance.

The executive order included no penalties for people who refuse to wear a face mask or for offices and businesses who refuse to require face masks in their buildings.

Justice said he was relying on West Virginians to follow his order but could add penalties at a later date.

“I am entrusting West Virginians can handle that and handle that from the standpoint of being on an honor system,” Justice said. “If you can’t, we’ll have to move and make that more strenuous from the standpoint that we’ll have to assess some level of penalties for your non-compliance and not wearing those masks.”

According to the Department of Health and Human Resources, active cases of COVID-19 — cases that involve self-quarantine or hospitalization — increased 9 percent since Monday. Active cases jumped from 826 Monday to 907 as of Wednesday, with Monongalia County’s 202 active cases making up 22 percent of all active cases in the state.

“That’s not good. That’s not good at all,” Justice said. “We absolutely have got to be as strong as we possibly can about wearing our mask or our face coverings in any public building.”

On Tuesday, the daily number of new coronavirus cases was 147, shattering all previous state records for daily cases since the first positive case was reported back on March 17 and since the record was broken July 4 with 115 cases.

Health officials said West Virginia’s current surge in cases cannot be attributed to increased testing but to community spread caused by residents traveling out-of-state to hot spots and bringing the virus back to the state. Justice said he didn’t see a possibility of another statewide shutdown of non-essential businesses, but he did see state health officials taking a regional approach to outbreaks, such as the Monongalia County spike.

“There may very well be a point in time when have to treat this on a county-by-county or in a regional assessment … differently than a statewide assessment,” Justice said. “If you’ll just absolutely try with all in you to protect yourself and protect others … we’ll be okay. It is something that we should be very concerned about as we move forward.”

The state’s daily percentage of positive cases to tests jumped up to 5 percent, the highest percentage since the Huttonsville Correctional Facility on May 26 when the daily percentage jumped to 7 percent but still below the record on April 14, when the daily percentage was 12 percent. The cumulative percentage of positive cases to tests was 1.88 percent.

The state’s Rt number, which shows how fast the virus is growing, was 1.29 – the third highest number nationally. Dr. Clay Marsh, the state’s coronavirus czar, said the Rt number shows the COVID-19 is spreading much more rapidly.

“Every time the Rt value is over 1, that means that COVID is spreading and growing,” Marsh said. “We’ve seen our Rt value go all the way from 0.6, meaning we had it under good control, to now almost 1.3, which says that it’s really spreading broadly.”

Hospitalizations have jumped from 23 last Wednesday to 47, with slight increases in patients in intensive care unit beds and patients on ventilators. Most of the new cases continue to be young people between the ages of 20 and 29. Since Monday, those cases jumped by one percentage point to 21 percent of all COVID-19 cases.

Marsh said that younger people who get the coronavirus can survive, but that doesn’t mean they don’t get hospitalized or placed in ICUs or ventilators. Marsh said that young adults can also come down with complication causes by COVID-19, such as strokes, heart attacks, and amputations caused by blood clots.

“We have this false understanding or belief that if younger people get infected, that somehow it’s okay that they don’t really get sick,” Marsh said. “This is a terrible disease, and we can’t forget that nobody is immune from having this problem.”

So far, there have been no deaths from COVID-19 since the weekend, with one death reported on Saturday and Sunday.

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