Doctors push governor for a mask order; parents sue over patchwork covid guidance

Leaders of the West Virginia Osteopathic Medical Association have called on Gov. Jim Justice to provide “clear leadership,” particularly a statewide mask mandate.

Separately, a group of parents has filed a lawsuit in Kanawha Circuit Court contending the state has failed to provide consistent covid guidelines for local school districts to follow.

These developments come as West Virginia’s active covid cases and hospitalizations continue to surge.

Governor Justice, while acknowledging that the state’s rising covid numbers, so far has said he is not convinced that a statewide mask mandate would help. Justice has repeatedly urged residents to get vaccinated. But the governor has also said many times that he would rely on the advice of medical experts.

The Osteopathic Medical Association sent the governor a letter this week saying now is the time.

Michael Robie

Michael Robie, the president of the association, wrote that current challenges are leading West Virginia farther from the goal of containing the pandemic to keep children safely in school, maintain the workforce, prevent overcapacity and substandard care in hospitals and clinics, reduce the financial burden on institutions, and reduce disparities.

“For these reasons, we request clear leadership from your office on these important public health measures without which we cannot achieve these goals,” Robie wrote.

The association represents doctors trained in osteopathic medicine, which emphasizes treating the whole person rather than just the symptoms. The approach to training differs somewhat from medical doctors.

The osteopathic doctors are advocating for masking not as a solution unto itself but as one device for protection along with vaccination and social distancing.

“When you layer them all together that’s when you get the best bang for your buck. We’ve got to slow this rate down because this is becoming very concerning for our association,” Robie said.

In a telephone interview, Robie cited recent data showing West Virginia covid cases have shot up 163 percent over the past two weeks.

West Virginia identified 16,743 active cases today. Two weeks ago, August 17, there were just 7,579 cases. Two weeks before that, there were 2,848.

Hospitalizations from covid-19 have shot up to 640 through Monday. The pandemic’s high number of hospitalizations was 818 last Jan. 5.

“We’ve got to get even a 30- or 40- day masking order so we can get control of these cases so our hospitals are not overrun,” Robie said.

Governor Justice has resisted a statewide mandate, saying such an order would be divisive.

“I’m not convinced whatsoever at this point in time to do any mandates,” Justice said during Monday’s statewide briefing.

Justice has left such decisions to officials at the local level. On Monday, he discussed whether his own action could alleviate pressure on local officials.

“At times, nobody wants to make a decision and would love to see a decision come from the governor, but one size does not fit all,” Justice said.

The osteopathic doctors asked the governor to recognize the difficulty county health officers and community physicians face in recommending established public health measures.

Catherine Feaga

“We ask the governor to fill those big shoes and bring us together as a state to fight this together,” wrote Dr. Catherine Feaga, an osteopathic physician in Jefferson County and member of the osteopathic medical association’s board of trustees.

“We have so much to be proud of, and to let some virus tear us apart because we’re not listening to the folks who have the training and expertise to take us through this is a crying shame. That’s why we respectfully ask the governor to step up, support our county public health officers and set some real state-level guidance on beating this together.”

More West Virginia health organizations earlier this month asked for mask requirements for students returning to classrooms. The organizations included the American Academy of Pediatrics-West Virginia chapter, CAMC Women’s and Children’s Hospital and WVU Medicine Children’s Hospital.

Separately from those actions, a group of Cabell County parents filed a lawsuit asking for consistent guidelines for school systems across the state.

Sam Petsonk

“Currently, certain schools are contradicting the advice of their medical advisers and providing highly unequal protections across the state’s 55 counties, in violation of the Constitution and mandatory statutory duties,” wrote attorney Sam Petsonk for the families who sued.

Some of the children of the plaintiffs have autism, and the lawsuit describe their struggles with the pandemic’s disruption to education. Other family members of the plaintiffs are immunocompromised.

The lawsuit named the West Virginia Board of Education, the state Department of Education, the governor and more.

“The State has now delegated essentially all covid-related decision-making to county school boards, without providing any required metrics or minimum planning standards for those lay decision-makers, thus leaving children without adequate or equitable risk-assessment metrics or Exposure Control Plans,” according to the lawsuit.

“Children with special needs are especially vulnerable and totally unprotected without consistent, risk-based exposure control planning.”

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