Governor Jim Justice ...

Governor Jim Justice speaks during a pandemic briefing Monday.

CHARLESTON — Gov. Jim Justice is expected to announce this morning on the possibility of adding another color to the County Alert System, basically expanding the yellow and tightening the orange category.

Justice said on Monday during his COVID-19 briefing that the orange category is “too wide” and a “gold” color code should be added between yellow and orange, which would allow students to return to school and athletic teams to play.

The orange code category now is from 10 to 25 (rolling average of daily positive cases adjusted for per-100,000 population), and he suggested changing it to 16-25 with gold covering the 10-25 range.

Justice said the suggestion was prompted by the “unfairness” of the wide orange range, leaving counties only a few points above 10 in the same category as those in the 20s.

He used Monroe County as an example, which was 11 Monday, and Kanawha County at 22, but both are in orange this week, which means students cannot attend school and no games.

“I don’t think that’s fair,” he said.

The orange category does not allow students in school and only sports conditioning, not practice for contact sports or games.

“Some counties have not even started kids back in school yet,” he said. “We need to do something about that.”

Justice set an emergency meeting with medical experts and Superintendent of Schools Clayton Burch for 5 p.m. on Monday to discuss the possible change and  “turn over every rock and look at every feasible” option to achieve safety and to do what is best for everyone.

“It would be plain stupid to be stubborn and not change and adapt as we go forward,” he said. “We change it and we try to make it better.”

But a statement released by Justice Monday evening said the panel of experts continues to discuss any adjustments to the County Alert System color-coding plan and will provide an update on those discussions this morning at 11 a.m.

Justice said Monday kids need to be back in school if at all possible because keeping them out of school can mean other problems with some students who need school resources.

“We stand ready to lose there as well,” he said of students not being able to attend school. “Dadgum if you do, dadgum if you don’t. Anything we do causes some level of concern.”

Raising the threshold for the orange category would also make more sense from a practical standpoint of having more restrictions in orange counties to help stop community spread.

Justice said “it doesn’t make a lot of sense” to keep students out of school in orange and red counties but allow everything else to remain open.

He suggested last week the possibility of shutting down bars, hair salons and indoor restaurant dining in those orange and red counties.

Burch said all the reports he received from the 46 counties that did begin in-person instruction last week have been “nothing but positive.”

During the briefing, Justice also said there is a “situation” in Kanawha County of a faith-based private school that has defied his Executive Order by bringing kids into classes when the county is in the orange color code.

Calling it a “crying, pitiful shame,” he said ignoring the order and doing things on their own can “cause a lot of heartache to a lot of people.”

Justice said his staff has been talking with the school to try to convince them to follow the order, but so far that has not worked.

Kanawha County has problems with community spread, he said, and has a high rating in the orange category of the County Alert System.

The people who are making the decision to bring students back into classrooms may be doing what they think is the right thing to do, he said, but it’s against the knowledge and recommendations of the experts.

Justice said his staff will try to get on the same page with the school and try to persuade them to back off, but enforcement may be an alternative.

“If we have to be enforceful, then we will be enforceful,” he said.

However, before that move is made, Justice said he will seek legal guidance on the Executive Order and how it may be impacted by freedom of religion.

— Contact Charles Boothe at cboothe@bdtonline.com

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