Gov. Jim Justice today repeatedly defended changes made to a state map meant to depict coronavirus spread and how the tweaks have affected school openings.
“There is not one chance on earth — not one slither of chance — that I’m going to put up with us manipulating numbers,” Justice said.
The map has undergone multiple changes since its introduction before the school year began, and some counties were affected by sudden status changes late last week.
Changes over the past few weeks have included placing smaller counties on a 14-day rolling average; having nursing home residents, corrections inmates and now some isolating college students count as one unit; altering the cutoff points for colors meant to indicate county status; and adding an additional color, gold.
The most recent change had a dramatic effect last week.
Initially the map counted just daily positive cases on a rolling average and adjusted for 100,000 population. State officials concluded people were holding back on getting tested because positives would count against their local numbers.
So state officials now allow use of a percent positive figure. Counties are assessed by whichever is better, the average daily positives or the percent positive.
A daily state map appeared with that change for the first time Friday, and then a dominant Saturday map that dictates school status also reflected the switch.
Significantly more counties were depicted as green, the lowest levels, on the map. Monongalia County, which has been red for weeks, very quickly went to green.
During a briefing today, several reporters asked the governor about public trust in the changes.
Reporter Kennie Bass of WCHS-TV told the governor, “Many people have contacted me expressing continued confusion and frustration” with the state map. “What do you say to parents to convince them the moves you’ve made are purely health-based?”
Justice responded that the previous system discouraged testing because only positive cases counted toward the result. The latest change has encouraged more testing, the governor said.
“Well, we needed people to test. That’s all there is to it,” Justice said.
“I am very pleased with what we’re doing. I know it’s difficult. I know it’s confusing. I know it’s all those things.”
Justice also indicated, though, that he wants more counties to have opportunities to get their numbers down. Kanawha County is still orange, which means there has been no in-class instruction all year so far.
“The kids in Kanawha County have not been in school. We want ’em in school so bad,” Justice said.
So, he said, “What we need to do is blanket the orange counties and, God forbid, a red county. And we need to test and test and test.”
The governor then announced three nights of testing at George Washington High School in Kanawha, followed by another daytime testing period.
“The more we test, the more we learn,” Justice said, adding that it’s likely some asymptomatic cases will be caught.
Asked why George Washington was specified as the site for a testing blitz in the state’s largest county, Justice said, “It was just referenced to me that area has kind of been left out a little bit.”
He then cited previously-scheduled testing opportunities in Elkview, South Charleston and Belle in Kanawha County.
Kanawha County Commissioner Kent Carper said little notice and little rationale was provided about the GW blitz. The Kanawha-Charleston Health Department has already done more testing, 20,000 tests, than any other health department in the state.
“We certainly concur, as we are the leaders in the state of West Virginia, as to the importance of tests,” Carper said, agreeing that more testing will help suppress further community spread.
Carper agreed that he’s heard questions from the public about how changes are affecting the state map. “I will tell you what a lot of people tell me: How can a county go from red to green faster than this country can go from red to green anywhere else? People ask that question. I think that’s a legitimate question.”
More reporters today asked about public perception that the map is being gamed by people getting tested — perhaps multiple times — to try to reduce the percent positive.
Reporter Mark Curtis of the Nexstar television stations asked about reports of prep athletes being tested several times to drive down numbers.
“The testing idea is rock solid,” Justice responded. “Surely to God above, our coaches are better than trying to dupe the system and run athletes through multiple times.”
State Health Officer Ayne Amjad later addressed the issue on social media, saying “If parents and coaches are having their kids get tested multiple times then it is a character flaw on the coaches and parents. Not on our testing.”
If parents and coaches are having their kids get tested multiple times then it is a character flaw on the coaches and parents. Not on our testing.
— Ayne (like “Ein”-stein)Amjad, M.D., MPH (@AyneAmjad) September 28, 2020
West Virginia’s map was based on a similar one from Harvard Global Health that shows far fewer counties with the lowest green level, more in yellow or orange and two counties — Kanawha and Gilmer — as red.
Reporter Phil Kabler of The Charleston Gazette-Mail asked how parents can be confident if they look at the differences between the state map and the Harvard map.
Justice responded, “I don’t know why in the world all of a sudden the Harvard map is a better map than the experts right here in West Virginia are doing.”
The governor continued, “The Harvard people naturally want their map to be one-size-fits-all.”
In his concluding statements, Justice reiterated that the current incentive is for more testing and he believes that will catch positive cases.
“The more we test, the more we’re going to find and the more we’re going to be able to do something about it. That’s how we’ll win the battle. I’m not going to apologize for that in any way,” he said.
He specifically addressed teachers and school service personnel by saying, “Have I not since the get-go done every single thing I can do to keep you safe, to keep our kids safe?”
“Have I ever told you something that’s not the truth?”
West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee, in a telephone interview, said educators have expressed major concerns about state government’s handling of information.
“When you continually change almost weekly what the rules are, they tend to lose a lot of confidence in how everything’s being determined,” Lee said.
Lee also pointed toward a listing of school outbreaks on the Department of Education website, wondering if it truly reflects what’s happening in schools across the state.
“We still feel like when you’re putting people in situations without all the knowledge, like whether you have active cases and things like that, you are indeed putting people at risk,” Lee said.