A group of human experts needs to be able to assess the raw data that will determine whether West Virginia schools open this week, said Bill Crouch, the state’s secretary of health and human resources.
“We really want to make sure we’re as accurate as possible because this is very important,” Crouch said. “School is so important in every county and every community, and we want to see as many children to back to school as possible. So we want to make sure we do this accurately.”
A color-coded map that locks in at 9 p.m. today is likely to show several West Virginia counties as orange or red, which means they would have to start the school year on Tuesday with remote learning only.
But the map is only as good as the data that goes into it, which is why Crouch says several health experts from around the state will be reviewing it today.
“We truly have a tight timeline between when data comes in and trying to vet that data, make sure it’s accurate,” Crouch said.
“This group is really looking at this from more of a public health, science, background in terms of whether or not the data is accurate. Is it complete? Are the trends reasonable? Are there numbers there that stick out and make you think ‘We need to look at this a little further, a little deeper?’”
West Virginia is basing its map on daily positive cases, adjusted for 100,000 population. For small counties under 16,000 residents it’s a 14-day rolling average. For counties larger than that, it’s a 7-day rolling average.
Gov. Jim Justice for the first time Friday mentioned a “school opening panel.”
“Tomorrow they will scrub numbers and scrub numbers and scrub numbers,” Justice said during a Friday afternoon briefing.
The group was convening today by telephone or virtual teleconferencing, said Clay Marsh, West Virginia’s coronavirus response coordinator.
Participants consist of Crouch and Marsh, plus State Health Officer Ayne Amjad; Jeff Coben, dean of the School of Public Health at West Virginia University; and Amy Atkins, director of the Office of Epidemiology and Prevention Services at DHHR’s Bureau for Public Health.
Although their work directly affects the start of school, Crouch said there are no education leaders because the work is epidemiological.
“It’s a public health review of what we’re doing here, of the numbers and to make sure that perspective is scientific” Crouch said.
“That’s what this is, making sure we’re looking at this from a solid, scientific perspective.”
Crouch, in a Friday evening telephone interview, said those health experts will be looking at the numbers that go into the map with a critical eye toward whether they’re a true reflection of what’s happening in affected counties.
“It is not being done for any other purpose than to make sure we’re accurate and that we provide good, solid data into the model to make the decisions,” he said.
For instance, he said, health experts would assess whether sample sizes of coronavirus tests were appropriate for a county’s population.
“We talked about the data being enough numbers to be representative of the communities,” Crouch said.
“So if you have a very small county with low population numbers, it doesn’t take a lot of cases to influence the color changes – the changes of one level of the map to another.”
Also, participants will go back over whether people from congregate populations such as nursing homes or jails are inadvertently included in the numbers. State officials have been pulling nursing home residents and inmates out of the numbers affecting schools because they mix so little in communities.
And they’ll check whether people with positive tests are truly reflected in their counties of residence, as opposed to wherever they were tested.
“Keep in mind, a lot of this is done manually right now. In fact, that’s a great part of our concern here. And any time you have one person doing things manually or a couple of people doing things manually, you need to get several people reviewing this to make sure it’s accurate,” he said.
There was already public pushback on the panel on Friday, with some people commenting on social media that they suspected members would try to suppress the true reflection of coronavirus in communities.
Crouch acknowledged degrees of public skepticism but said members intend to go about their work honestly.
“Someone will say that. Someone has said that every day since we’ve started,” Crouch said. “I can tell you our only interest, our sole interest in making sure this data is accurate.
“It’s based on science. We’re really looking at this with regard to community spread. We’re looking at whether or not we can get children back to school safe.”
The group is in the spotlight today, just prior to the start of the school year. But Crouch said it is likely to continue reviewing the data that forms the map in coming weeks too.
“We’re going to have some eyes on this and more than one set of eyes,” he said.
In communities around West Virginia, Crouch said, people can have a direct effect on how virus is spreading and whether that affects schools.
“The impact that people can have in their community on these incidence rates is huge. If people wear masks and they social distance and people really pay attention to what they do, their numbers will come down,” he said.
“The masks and the social distancing is just as effective as a vaccine. So we have an opportunity here to watch these numbers. And counties that are yellow that begin to trend up and begin to move towards orange, people can see that if they watch these maps.”