West Virginia governor delays action as virus spikes

In this March 12, 2020, file photo, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice speaks during a press conference at the State Capitol in Charleston.

CHARLESTON — Younger people are now seeing more positive COVID-19 cases around the country, and as social activities are picking up in West Virginia with outdoor concerts, fairs and festivals reopening Wednesday in Week 10 of the state’s Comeback plan, concern is evident.

Gov. Jim Justice on Monday afternoon called the growth in cases among younger age groups a “secondary type of outbreak” in the country after the topic was discussed during a phone conversation with Vice President Mike Spence Monday morning.

“This outbreak is affecting our younger people as well,” he said.”Young people are dying of this and… it is becoming very troublesome. They did not seem to have an issue but do now.”

Justice said most younger people recover quickly, “but some are getting really sick” and that has prompted health experts to try to find differences between people who see very different impacts from the virus.

With summer and more social gatherings on the horizon, protection remains crucial, he said, adding that many states are seeing huge surges, setting new records with positive cases.

During the call with Pence and other governors, Justice said he learned that Texas went from a 4 percent positive rate (of the total tested) to 14 percent.

Reopening quickly came back and “bit them” he said, and Florida’s positive rate is now 15.5 percent. Both states have recently closed bars again.

It’s a danger for a younger person to get it even if they don’t get sick, he added, because they can “bring it home” and give it to an elderly loved one or someone with a chronic underlying condition, the two groups that are the most vulnerable and have been hit the hardest.

Dr. Clay Marsh, the state’s COVID-19 Czar, said an all-time record high of positive cases in the country was set three days last week, very different from the projections that warm weather would effectively help stop the spread.

Ultraviolet light may make the life span of the virus on surfaces short-lived, he added, but it primarily spreads through face-to-face contact since it is airborne.

“Hot weather is not helping (to slow it down),” he said, adding that the United States has 4 percent of the world’s population but has seen about 25 percent of the positive cases and 20 percent of the total deaths so far.

And now, more than 70 percent of the people testing positive are less than 60 years old, with the average age of those infected 48.

But in states hard hit like Florida, Texas and South Carolina, the average ages of positives is between 20 and 40 years old, and there is concern about a shortage of ICU beds in Texas, Arizona and Florida, he said. “This is what we desperately don’t want in West Virginia.”

Both Marsh and Justice once again emphasized how crucial it is to wear facial coverings when around people and inside public places.

Wearing facial coverings is a top priority for protection, but Justice said he is not quite ready to make wearing them in social and indoor public settings mandatory.

“Please help me not to have to mandate the wearing of masks,” he said to West Virginians. “I know it will divide us somewhat but I am absolutely continuing to be concerned and wonder if this is what it’s going to take to do better.”

A mandate is “still on the table,” he said.”It has not left the table … and it may very well be that’s what will come to pass.”

Justice said the state continues to have outbreaks related to vacationing in Myrtle Beach, with more than 100 reported, and anyone who has been there should get tested.

The first church-related positive case death has also been reported, he said, as a result from the outbreak at Graystone Baptist Church in Greenbrier County.

Justice said it was a 92-year-old man and he once again emphasized the importance of wearing masks in church and using every other pew.

“It is a little inconvenient,” he said, but could save a life. “We have to keep our guard up. This thing can turn really, really bad, really, really quickly.”

During the briefing Monday, Justice also responded to several questions related to the forced resignation last week of Dr. Cathy Slemp, who was the state Health Officer and head of the Bureau for Public Health.

Justice said it was based on a “discrepancy in numbers” related to those who had tested positive but then recovered and not been removed from the active list.

“It is a great problem to have found because we are better than what I have been telling you,” he said, referring to a drop in active cases after those recovered were removed from the list.

The state has taken a “deeper dive” into how the statistics have been reported, he said, and there may be up 300 active cases that could be pulled off the list, but “it probably won’t be that high.”

The reason for what amounted to a firing is because, he said, regardless of the fact the errors resulted in better numbers, “we have got to have accurate numbers. I am not going to tolerate people somewhat asleep at the wheel.”

But Justice indicated another possible reason for Slemp’s resignation, related to a question about her comments during the June 24 briefing, two days before she was asked to resign.

During that briefing, Slemp said a 28 percent increase in active cases had been seen in the state during the previous two weeks and “this has been a shift from what we have seen before.”

“It’s starting to change directions,” she said of the positive cases. “We are seeing outbreaks at churches and from family gatherings.”

Slemp said the higher positive numbers is not just about increased testing. Rather, the trend toward seeing more positive cases is “truly changing.”

When asked directly about those comments Monday, Justice said, “I don’t see there was truth to that.”

But he would not elaborate and said he thinks “we should go forward.”

When asked if Slemp had wanted to “slow down the reopening plan,” Justice said there was a “multitude of things” that led to his lack of confidence in her, and “lots and lots of issues.”

 

Contact Charles Boothe at cboothe@bdtonline.com.

 

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