COVID-19 Toll in WVa Eclipses Worst US Coal Mine Disaster

John Raby, Associated Press

September 24, 2021

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Gov. Jim Justice compared the skyrocketing number of coronavirus deaths in West Virginia to some of the state's worst coal mining disasters, asking why the daily tolls don't motivate more people to get their COVID-19 shots.

This month's virus deaths have surpassed the total from the worst coal mining disaster in U.S. history and is on pace to eclipse the previous four months of the pandemic combined. The 25 deaths reported Thursday pushed the September total to at least 408 with a week still left, according to state health data.

From May through August there were at least 425 reported deaths statewide. And during the first eight months of the pandemic starting in March 2020, West Virginia reported 457 total deaths.

Justice opens each of his weekly news conferences by reading the ages and home counties of every COVID-19 victim. He occasionally asks why the deaths aren't treated the same as headline-grabbing disasters.

He brought it up again Monday. After reading a long list of deaths from over the weekend, the governor referred to a January 2006 explosion near Buckhannon, West Virginia. It captivated audiences as rescuers tried over 41 hours to reach them. One of the 13 trapped coal miners survived.

"I keep going back to that mine disaster at Sago," Justice said. "It was the focus of all of our attention for days as we prayed and prayed and prayed that they'd be OK. Lots of people trying to help them."

This month's deaths in West Virginia are more than the 1907 Monongah explosion in the northern part of the state that killed 362 men and boys. Thursday's death toll alone nearly matched that of the 29 coal miners who died in the 2010 Upper Big Branch disaster in southern West Virginia.

While the delta-fueled surge in infections may have peaked, U.S. deaths are running at over 1,900 a day on average, the highest level since early March, and the country's overall toll topped 675,000 Monday, according to the count kept by Johns Hopkins University, though the real number is believed to be higher.

Unlike the occasional mine disaster, the public seems to have become numb to news with the daily toll of COVID-related deaths.

Overall, at least 3,492 people have died from the virus statewide. Deaths have accelerated in September as the number of virus cases continue a monthslong surge.

Last week, the state set a weekly record for the pandemic with nearly 9,600 positive cases. While the overall number of active cases is on the decline, health officials have warned that deaths and hospitalizations could keep increasing for up to six weeks.

Some hospitals have said their intensive care units are full. Justice and others have pleaded with people not to inundate hospital emergency rooms with noncritical problems. The number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 hit a record 1,005 Thursday.

After going through the list of deaths Monday, Justice reiterated one of his key themes — that they could have been avoided.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, West Virginia ranks last among the states in doses administered per 100,000 population.

It's not like Justice hasn't tried. Along with his daily death list readings are repeated pleas for residents to get their shots.

"We just read 54," Justice said. "We can stop this if we'll just get vaccinated."