Government, Healthcare, Latest News, State Government, West Virginia Legislature

Latest COVID surge, hospital capacity, special session on taxes dominate governor’s briefing

MORGANTOWN — The ability of hospitals across the state to handle the latest COVID surge is significantly reduced, said Joint Interagency Task Force Director Gen. James Hoyer during Tuesday’s briefing from the governor’s office.

During the same briefing, Gov. Jim Justice offered some thoughts on the income tax reduction plan he’ll bring before the Legislature in the coming special session, and the unlikely possibility that an update to state abortion law will be on the same call.

COVID update

While there’ve been a few dips and bumps, COVID cases have climbed steadily since the April 4 low of 263, standing at 2,817 on Tuesday, with 761 new cases reported since Monday.

Hospital cases also continue to climb, standing at 312, with 49 people in ICUs and seven on ventilators.

“Please take heed this stuff is not gone,” Justice said. But with vaccines and boosters, “We absolutely can live with it.”

Hoyer said that hospital system COVID case capacity had been about 800 during earlier surges, but with staffing challenges and other issues arising from prior surges, that’s been reduced to 500.

Justice has called on the task force to be more proactive, Hoyer said. It is conducting more frequent coordination calls with hospitals and other providers and looking at staffing issues for hospitals.

COVID-19 czar Dr. Clay Marsh attributed some of the case growth to the front-end impact of the omicron BA.5 variant, which has become the dominant in the nation and around the world.

The variant is highly contagious, he said, and has a couple properties that make it more difficult. Like the delta variant, and unlike prior omicron variants, it binds to cells more avidly, and it’s better able to evade our immune systems.

That emphasizes the need, he said, for people of all eligible ages to get vaccinated, and for those over 50 to get their first and second boosters. Those who’ve been previously infected or vaccinated long ago may be getting infected or reinfected.

But, “the vaccines are still really good at protecting people from getting severely ill and dying.” Vaccines reduce risk of death by 42 times, and for those over 50, the second booster reduces risk by four times compared to those with just one booster.

New vaccines in the works now won’t be available until fall, he said, so don’t wait — get your next dose now.

Hoyer echoed that. “It’s not about preventing you now from getting this. It’s about protecting you for serious illness and death.” And meanwhile, “When the new version of the vaccine comes in the fall, we’ll be prepared.”

Special session

Justice announced on July 6 that he’ll be calling a special session to coincide with the July 24-26 legislative interim meetings for a vote on his proposal to cut personal income taxes by 10%.

He said then that the state finished Fiscal Year 2022 with a $1.308 billion surplus. The tax cut would be retroactive to the beginning of this calendar year and put $250 million back in residents’ pockets. The 10% is the maximum cut allowed under American Rescue Plan Act regulations.

Asked on Tuesday about talks with the Legislature on the subject, he said, “We’ve had a lot of conversations with a lot of different folks,” particularly a long talk with House Speaker Roger Hanshaw.

“The lowering and, hopeful of someday, the elimination of the personal income tax will be unquestionably the greatest thing we could possibly do to drive people to West Virginia and give us more and more opportunities,” he said.

He alluded to an alternative Senate proposal to first cut the personal property tax. Without mentioning the proposal directly, he talked about building the base budget by $500 million to $600 million and taking away county income streams.

That proposal may be the right thing but, “we should always pause and think,” he said. “The elimination of the income tax has the most sex appeal of anything period.” It’s the fastest way to get money into people’s hands.

If the Senate or House don’t want to do it, he said, we’ve missed a great opportunity, but “I’m not going to worry about it.”

Justice also fielded a question about putting new abortion legislation on the call, in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, the attorney general’s subsequent advisory and the two cases in Kanawha County Circuit Court regarding the state’s original 1863 law (tweaked in 1870).

He said he’s ready to call a special session right away, but whenever the Legislature is ready. “The right stuff is to give our Legislature time; it’s a sensitive, sensitive topic.” He doesn’t think they’ll be ready to have it at the same time as the tax issue.

Asked about the timing on this, both the speaker’s and the Senate president’s offices said they stand by their June 24 joint statement: “We are ready to expeditiously take any necessary steps to ensure we continue to save and protect as many innocent lives as possible in West Virginia. Our legislative attorneys have been preparing for this decision for weeks. Abortion is addressed in numerous statutes in West Virginia Code, and now our attorneys will need to further review those statutes to determine how they apply in light of this decision.”

They left it implied that nothing will be ready for July 24-26.

On the tax issue, Justice’s plan is about the same as the House plan that failed during the regular session. Hanshaw’s office said on Tuesday, “House leaders are always eager to cut taxes, but the discussions are always in the details, and until the executive issues a call for an extraordinary session outlining his plan, it’s difficult to say how much support there may be in the House right now.”

Senate President Craig Blair was traveling and couldn’t be reached, but his office referred back to his prior comments to MetroNews Talkline that he hasn’t polled his caucus but most support the property tax idea first. “It’s significant,” Blair told MetroNews. “It applies to all West Virginians, and a 10 or 20% reduction in the personal income tax doesn’t produce any economic growth or any economic opportunities to grow the state, to grow the fiscal pie.”

TWEET David Beard @dbeardtdp