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Trump cites zero confirmations in West Virginia, but limited testing capacity raises big doubts

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — During a coronavirus task force update today, President Donald Trump cited West Virginia as the only state in the nation with no confirmed cases of coronavirus.

It was a bit of praise for the state, but also came with an unfortunate twist. The president seemed to be saying that with no confirmations West Virginia isn’t demonstrating enough risk to necessitate placement of a field hospital if there’s a surge.

“We’re not going to need them in West Virginia where so far, I guess they have none. Still none? Still none, West Virginia. Big Jim the governor, he must be doing a good job,” Trump said.

When asked if it’s an issue of a lack of reporting cases, the president elaborated. “I just see West Virginia is the only one that has no cases. So obviously that’s being treated differently than in New York or California.”

It’s true that West Virginia still doesn’t have a confirmed case of coronavirus, but does the state have enough testing capacity to know?

By today, West Virginia had tested 84 people and 80 of those came back negative with four pending, state officials said.

“I believe without question it’s here,” Gov. Jim Justice said near the end of a Monday afternoon press conference at the state Capitol.

Senator Joe Manchin, in Monday remarks, said West Virginia’s status as the only state in the country without confirmation should not make people feel falsely secure.

“I don’t want the state of West Virginia or anyone in our state getting a false sense of any type of security that we’re immune. We are not,” Manchin said.

Countries that have been most aggressive in fighting the spread of the covid-19 have instituted vigorous testing.

South Korea has tested more than 270,000 people, which amounts to more than 5,200 tests per million inhabitants.

About 125 people per million have been tested in the United States, available data suggests. 

With more aggressive testing, it’s easier to track the spread and anticipate hotspots.

Without that, shutdowns and social distancing practices become more prevalent.

During an update of the federal coronavirus task force today, Vice President Mike Pence described new efforts to roll out more testing capacity across the country.

West Virginia is surrounded by states with confirmed cases, all taking greater and greater precautions to shut down large groups and ways people might pass along the virus.

West Virginia’s public health officer, Cathy Slemp, has said she only has 500 tests available. Of those, she said, components of flu tests had to be jerry-rigged to provide components and increase capacity for the coronavirus tests.

“We currently are having to prioritize that testing because we don’t have the supplies we would like to have,” she said.

Capacity will continue to improve, she said, as private labs such as LabCorp come online.

“We all wish we had testing for anyone who wanted it,” Slemp said today on MetroNews’ “Talkline.

“Unfortunately the supplies have been limited and the ability to get up and running quickly through the private sector has been slower than we would have liked.”

WVU Medicine, responding to a MetroNews question about testing capacity, said it is working to establish its own supply of test kits.

“We are working with national vendors to secure test kits and developing our own internal test as well,” said Angela Knopf, a spokeswoman for WVU Medicine.

State government’s priorities for testing have evolved over the past week or so. On Monday evening, the state Department of Health and Human Resources sent out a clarification to let people know more about the standard.

There are two groups right now for top-priority testing:

  • Seriously ill individuals hospitalized or otherwise at high risk of complications: This includes seriously ill  individuals with symptoms of COVID-19 who are hospitalized, near hospitalization or otherwise at highest risk of poor health outcomes (e.g., those who are elderly or have serious underlying chronic diseases, nursing home residents, etc.) AND who do not have another identified cause for their illness (e.g., flu, other respiratory viruses).  No history of potential exposure is needed for these patients.
  • Individuals at medium to high risk of having been infected: This includes any individual with symptoms of lower respiratory illness (fever, cough, shortness of breath) AND a history of likely exposure to COVID-19 within 14 days of symptom onset (e.g., close contact with an individual confirmed to have COVID-19 or recent travel history from or living in areas with widespread community transmission) AND do not have another identified cause for their illness (e.g., flu, or other respiratory viruses).

All medical providers seeing patients who meet those criteria and requesting testing through the state’s public health lab are being asked to first obtain a public health consultation to provide applicable patient information and coordinate specimen submission.
Most individuals who are seriously ill have testing arranged by their healthcare provider. Individuals with a likely history of medium or high-risk exposure  may contact their healthcare provider by phone or call the Coronavirus Hotline, 1-800-887-4304, to help determine their need for testing.

Slemp advocated for the federal government to consider not just positive test results or overall population, but also the age and health of the population when providing test kits and other supplies.

“We know we have a high risk population in West Virginia,” she said. “We have a lot of elderly, we have individuals with chronic diseases, so we know we are at significant high risk as a state compared to other states in the nation.

“We need to consider risk to the population so we can have the supplies and materials we need.”


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