6:00: Morning News

With Eastern Panhandle case spike, Justice sends National Guard and may consider mask order

Gov. Jim Justice says he is worried about a spike of positive coronavirus testing results in Eastern Panhandle counties and will send the National Guard to investigate.

“In Berkeley and Jefferson counties we have an issue,” Justice said.

During a briefing on Thursday, Justice said West Virginia’s daily coronavirus positive percentage had moved to 3.1 percent. That compared to 2.4 percent the prior day.

“This move of 3.1 shows us we have an issue. But we have an issue enough that we take off and we send our Guard and we bear down. We bear down like crazy to suppress,” he said.

Weeks ago, when Justice announced West Virginia’s restrictions would be incrementally lifted, the governor cited a trigger of a 3 percent cumulative positive percentage. Going above that could prompt a slowdown or halt to reopenings, he said then.

Today, Justice said he still regards the cumulative number as the key figure but that action may need to be taken — at least in the Eastern Panhandle — if a spike continues to be evident in the shorter term.

The governor emphasized the need for people to wear face coverings to protect others and alluded to the possibility of making masks mandatory.

But he also announced more openings, saying movie theaters, bowling alleys, roller rinks and other indoor recreation may resume on May 30. And movies may reopen on June 5, he said, saying a later date is necessary because people would be sitting indoors for extended periods.

As a range of restrictions has been lifted, the Justice administration removed Berkeley and Jefferson counties as official “hotspots” just this week.

There was a surge of testing availability in the area just last weekend when free testing was made available to anyone over two days.

Berkeley County now has the most confirmed cases in the state, with 248. Jefferson is fourth with 131.

“Those numbers are not good. That’s all there is to it,” Justice said.

State officials have long said the Eastern Panhandle is an area of concern because of its proximity to Washington, D.C., Virginia and Maryland.

Clay Marsh

“The Eastern Panhandle, because of their location, would be a place with the highest risk of developing more problems,” West Virginia’s coronavirus response coordinator, Clay Marsh, said today.

Marsh and Justice emphasized the use of masks as a way to protect others from the virus’s spread.

“The level of inconvenience from the mask is miniscule, compared to the benefit,” Justice said.

Justice acknowledged he has given thought to making masks mandatory in public.

The governor indicated such a decision would depend on how the situation in the Eastern Panhandle develops.

“Tomorrow we may have to pull back the reins, we may have to go to mandatory masks,” he said.

John Unger

State Senator John Unger, D-Jefferson, responded to the governor’s comments by saying what’s really needed is a more systematic approach.

“That’s the first thing they need to put in place is a more consistent, adequate, voluntary testing,” said Unger, who has expressed concern for weeks about whether testing is truly adequate.

“Without it, that’s like sending your team out on the field without helmets, without pads, without a playbook.”

Unger said he’s seen a series of missteps — starting with easing restrictions with the whole state at once, then by providing little clarity on hotspots and now by identifying an Eastern Panhandle flare-up that’s probably been developing for 14 days or so, the incubation period of the virus.

“It definitely could have been avoided,” Unger said. “There’s people suffering and going to die unnecessarily because of what has happened up to this point.

He wondered what the National Guard’s role will be.

“That’s like putting a band aid on a bullet wound,” he said.

Speaking today on the Panhandle News Network radio, Bill Kearns, the director of the Berkeley-Morgan County Health Department, described work to get a handle on the area’s true situation.

From last week to this week, he said, an additional 47 people in Berkeley were identified by positive tests.

“Everyone needs to be cautious while they’re out; wear your face coverings or masks or even a bandanna — something that’s going to help you from each other,” Kearns said.

Last weekend’s testing drive resulted in about 1,600 tests being completed in the area.

Of about 872 people tested in Berkeley County, Kearns said, 14 positives were identified. Six of those had been asymptomatic. “Those people had zero symptoms; they did not know they had it,” he said.

Kearns said those people didn’t have anything in particular in common aside from being members of the community.

“All of our identified positive cases have been community-identfied, so it’s not just in one certain area or one certain race or anything like that,” he said.

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