Stevens Correctional Center

The ongoing outbreak at Stevens Correctional Center in Welch has grown exponentially over recent days. Gov. Jim Justice announced on Monday that there were now 254 positive cases among inmates and 28 among staff, which he called ‘unbelievable,’ and compared the situation to a wildfire.

WELCH — Stevens Correctional Center in McDowell County has a massive COVID-19 outbreak, with 254 positive cases among inmates and 28 staff.

Gov. Jim Justice called the outbreak “unbelievable” during his pandemic briefing Monday morning.

“This is running like wildfire,” he said of the virus.

Justice said McDowell County Commissioner Cecil Patterson called him and asked for help.

“We ran to the fire,” Justice said. “We ran to that facility.”

The center is on lockdown and all protocol is being followed to mitigate, he added.

“When this gets into a (congregate) population it goes everywhere,” he said.

Records continue to broken with COVID-19 in the state and nation, he said, as the recent surge grows.

Justice said the state now has 383 hospitalized and 108 in ICUs (Intensive Care Units), both record highs, with the number of active cases rising to 10,377 and deaths at 585.

Positive cases keep soaring, he said, with the daily positivity rate (the percentage of positive cases of the total number tested) rising to 5.31 percent, and the cumulative rate at 3.27 percent.

Four counties were in the red on the color-coded County Alert System and 16 in orange.

Justice said all of this points to the importance of wearing a mask inside any public buildings or when around people not in a household.

On Friday, Justice signed an Executive Order requiring facial coverings in all indoor public buildings and said business owners and customers who do not comply could be subject to a charge of obstructing justice or trespassing.

Justice said Monday the mask mandate had already in place but the new Executive Order does not provide exceptions, other than people who have medical issues (they must wear a face shield) or children under 9 years old. Restaurant diners can remove their masks when eating.

The previous order allowed masks to be removed in such places if adequate social distancing could be maintained. Under the new order, that exception no longer exists.

The new order also requires that all businesses and organizations that invite the public into their facilities must post adequate signage advising guests of the requirement and are also responsible for enforcing the requirement to ensure it is being followed, he said.

But since Friday, he said he has been criticized by some “outliers” who see the order as violating their constitutional rights as well as those who still believe the virus is a hoax.

“It’s just silly to believe we are stripping away your constitutional freedoms,” he said, adding that some are also complaining their guns will be taken away, an idea that he called “ridiculous.”

“It is an absolutely preposterous belief that they are coming to get our guns,” he said.

Justice blamed much of the discontent with the order to “rebel rousers” who have lost elections but want to remain “relevant.”

“It is childish,” he said, adding that the pandemic is “running across our state like crazy.”

Justice said he does not like to wear a mask either, but people do not have a right to infect others because they won’t wear a mask.

He said 96 percent of state residents believe masks should be worn.

“That is all we’ve got to go on right now,” he said, adding that he continues to hear people say the virus is not real, that it’s made up by the media.

North Dakota was an example he used for what can happen without mask and other mandates.

The state finally mandated facial coverings and limited gatherings two days ago, but a surge had already started and produced 2,373 (per 100,000 people) new cases in the last two weeks. As of Monday, the state had recorded 742 deaths and more than 63,000 positive cases, and a daily positivity rate of almost 13 percent.

Justice said the hospitals there are in such dire straits that health care workers who are positive but asymptomatic can keep working in COVID units.

According to The Associated Press, health care professionals and some community leaders had been pleading for months with Gov. Doug Burgum to impose such restrictions. On a tour of Bismarck last month, Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, described the state’s mask use and COVID-19 protocols as the worst she had seen anywhere in the country.

Justice said the mask is the only tool he has in his “toolbox” until a vaccine is ready and state residents must “pull the rope together” to avoid a virus spread that is “eating us alive.”

“It will absolutely save lives,” he said. “I need you to wear your masks. I need your help.”

Justice also addressed criticism from the West Virginia Education Association, which is urging the state to shift to remote learning now and keep it through the end of this year.

Justice said the criticism “cut deep” when the “union bosses trotted off in a different direction.”

He touted his education record and noted he won all 55 counties in the recent election.

“If I was one of those members (of the union) I would be looking for new representation,” he said. “I am going to stand rock solid with education.”

Justice said the virus “numbers in schools are not bad,” with many cases related to travel sports and classrooms themselves are safe havens.

He pointed out the positives to be gained by keeping students in schools, including a better education, needed structure and a caring environment.

“We are struggling to even half-way educate our kids (with remote learning),” Justice said.

Dr. Clay Marsh, state COVID-19 Czar, said there are “very significant ramifications” that come with a loss of structure schools provide.

Staying at home with remote only learning can have a “significant impact on a generation of young people who have no internet connectivity or a home structure,” he said, adding that some countries make keeping students in the classroom a priority to “maximize that structure.”

Marsh also said a Brown University study has shown young children have a “much lower risk” of spreading the virus to adults.

Dr. Ayne Amjad, state Health Officer and head of the Bureau of Public Health, said that, although nothing can be off the table, she talks with school nurses and “young children are safe in the classroom if protocol are followed,” referring to kindergarten and elementary school ages.

“They need to be in school,” she said. “They cannot learn on the internet and may not have the family structure (that promotes learning and stability).”

Amjad said older students can learn remotely, but “they may not be getting the education they need” if not in the classroom.

Justice said a vaccine is on the way, but it may be some time before the vaccinations can see widespread use.

“We are ready,” he said of being prepared to handle and administer the vaccine.

State National Guard Adjutant Gen. James Hoyer said a group led by the Department of Health and Human Resources has been planning for the vaccine.

Plans include making sure enough freezer space is available as well vehicle support for deliveries.

“That is an ongoing effort,” he said. “They work on it daily” and consult with the CDC (Centers for Disease Controls). “We have a good team working forward on the planning of the process and execution.”

On another issue, Justice said he wants the vote counting in the 2020 election to be completed.

“I want all the legal votes to be counted and however it falls, it falls,” he said. “I will try to work with them (President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris) and support them … I still believe we have votes to count and we need to make sure the votes are legal.”

— Contact Charles Boothe at cboothe@bdtonline.com

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