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Justice announces changes to how virus spread is assessed for schools, sports

Gov. Jim Justice today announced changes to the map of coronavirus spread that determines the status of school systems.

Governor Justice

“It’s a big boy job right now,” the Republican governor said.

Earlier, his challenger in the upcoming election said such changes wouldn’t be necessary if leadership over the past few months had headed off “chaos.”

“He didn’t take the actions necessary in March, April, May and June to prepare us for school reentry,” said Ben Salango, a Democrat.

Justice and other officials today introduced a new color, gold, that represents 10-14.9 cases of infection, adjusted for 100,000 population. That’s the lower end of what had been the orange category.

Justice said, “I strongly believe what we needed to do was tweak our color-coded system and add another bracket.”

Counties categorized as gold may have classroom instruction with heightened precautions. The designation also means sports teams could compete against in-county opponents or teams from other gold counties.

The second change was the addition of another way to measure the coronavirus spread in counties.

Previously, counties were assessed by the average number of daily positive tests adjusted for 100,000 population.

Now there’s a second way. That is a percent positive rate at the county level. That’s the number of positive cases divided by the overall testing number.

Gold is defined as a positivity rate of 4 percent or less on a 7-day rolling average.

“This now becomes either-or,” Justice said, with whichever assessment is better being the one that determines county status.

With just the daily positives being used until now, some people concluded the only way to improve county status on the statewide map was to cut down on the overall number of tests.

Dr. Clay Marsh

Coronavirus response coordinator Clay Marsh said the original model “started to work in an opposite direction of what we wanted.”

“Every time we get a new case, you get a little bit worse on the color-coded map,” Marsh acknowledged.

So the change gives counties another way to demonstrate improving health. State officials said they hope that will encourage more testing overall, so West Virginia can know more specifically where virus spread is occurring.

“To make our communities safer and better, we need to accelerate testing,” Marsh said.

Counties that are designated as gold can start to adjust to it immediately, Justice said.

The state Department of Education rolled out a new map immediately after today’s briefing to show the changes. It was based on how last Saturday’s dominant map would have depicted counties if the gold designation had been in place at the time.

So, Putnam, Fayette, Boone, Logan and Mingo were shown as gold.

Justice indicated those counties could start school as soon as tomorrow.

‘It’ll be left up to the superintendents as to whether they want to immediately go back to school or wait,” he said.

Justice was confronted Monday by dozens of students and parents wanting for schools to be opened and games to go on. During Monday’s briefing, he alluded to likely changes but said he would not be swayed by protesters or “anyone from D.C.”

Asked today if he had reacted to public sentiment, Justice said he listens to people but had already determined on his own that changes needed to be made.

“I’m not going to let that or any influence from D.C. or any influence to cloud my mind to make the wrong decision,” he said.

Ben Salango (File)

Salango, a Kanawha County Commissioner, had his own news briefing this morning, criticizing Justice’s decisions that have led to this point.

“It’s time we take politics out of our covid response, out of our school reentry plan and out of our high school sports,” Salango said.

Salango said local officials should have more authority to make their own decisions based on their knowledge of communities.

He said precious time was wasted over relatively calm summer months. He criticized Justice for not using federal relief money to prepare for the start of the school year. And he counted six changes to the map system up to now.

“Jim Justice has changed the map so many times that parents are confused,” Salango said.

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