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Gov. Justice: West Virginia Schools to Close Over Coronavirus Concerns

CHARLESTON – Schools in all 55 counties in West Virginia followed the lead of Ohio and Kentucky and closed at the end of the school day Friday and for the foreseeable future.

Gov. Jim Justice joined state health and emergency services leaders for the second day in a row to update the press on the latest information on the state’s COVID-19 coronavirus response. It was the third briefing since Wednesday.

“I’m closing the schools, that’s all there is to it,” Justice said. “I feel in my heart the probability is likely that we will have to close our schools. To me, the risk outweighs the good…we’ll close the schools as long as we have to close the schools.”

Justice said the schools will remain indefinitely closed. Many county school systems were on two-hour delays or closing early Friday to do deep cleans of schools. The state Department of Education announced Friday morning that all after-school activities are canceled until April 10 and will be re-evaluated after that.

“They’re ready to take care of our kids who are at risk, to follow up with calls to their homes and check on them and how things are going, and to absolutely still be able to feed our kids,” Justice said. “There is a downside to this, but it is the right thing in my mind to do.”

Clayton Burch, acting state superintendent of schools, said all 55 county school superintendents were in Charleston Friday being briefed by DHHR officials. The Department of Education has been working the last few weeks with counties to make sure emergency plans are in place to help provide for students with special needs. The West Virginia National Guard will help deliver food and other goods to families in need.

“This is not something we decided today…we knew it would be an issue,” Burch said. “We have around 200,000 children in the state that rely on meals. We’ve already been working with the U.S. Department of Education on waivers on how to do that and serve meals and provide meals…we have put a lot of resources in schools to care for children.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture approved a waiver for the state to provide meals to students in their homes, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said. Manchin said he supported Justice’s decision to close schools.

“The decision by Gov. Justice to close West Virginia schools due to the coronavirus outbreak was the most prudent decision based on the advice we have received from public health experts,” Manchin said. “I remain concerned about the safety and well-being of the more than 10,500 homeless and all at risk students in West Virginia. I am working with state and local officials to ensure there are plans in place to provide the necessary resources to these students.”

As of Friday morning, the Department of Health and Human Resources was tracking 12 tests of West Virginians for coronavirus, with 11 tests coming back negative and one test still under investigation.

“We have a monster that is looming, but the monster is not here,” Justice said. “Every single one of us believes the monster is coming to some degree. Everyone believes we’ll be able to handle the monster.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, as of noon Friday there were 1,629 reported cases of coronavirus in the U.S. in 47 states and Washington, D.C. with a total of 36 deaths. The World Health Organization said there were 132,536 confirmed cases across the globe with 4,947 deaths.

COVID-19 is a virus that started in December in Wuhan city in China. It’s a respiratory illness with symptoms of fever, dry cough, difficulty in breathing, body aches, vomiting and diarrhea. While the coronavirus shares similarities with the flu, a Johns Hopkins Medical report states there is no immunity to coronavirus since it is new, making it potentially more deadly.

According to DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch, more than 11,000 people in the U.S. have been tested for coronavirus. Crouch said the state is following CDC guidelines for testing and limiting tests to those who have traveled recently and show symptoms, and those with severe symptoms. Crouch said commercial testing options continue to come online, and some hospitals can now do COVID-19 testing. Crouch expects testing to increase.

“At this point, we are ahead of this,” Crouch said. “Are we going to have cases? Yes, we will have cases in West Virginia. It would be highly unusual if that virus didn’t reach West Virginians at some point. Testing is an issue, a huge issue…we need to get more testing and we are.”

While most adults can recover from the coronavirus, adults over the age of 60 and people with chronic medical conditions – such as heart disease, diabetes, and lung disease – are more susceptible. Health officials are encouraging people in the high-risk category avoid unnecessary travel, stock up on supplies and avoid large crowds. Other recommendations for the public include washing hands, covering the mouth when coughing and maintaining 6 feet of distance from others.

Numerous state colleges and universities are taking precautions to avoid the potential spread of coronavirus from returning out-of-state and international students by extending spring break and implementing online or alternative learning programs. The Big 12 which includes West Virginia University and Conference USA which includes Marshall University have canceled spring sports competitions, and the Mountain East Conference, home to many of West Virginia’s Division II athletics programs, has followed suit.

On Thursday, Justice announced a state employee ban on out-of-state and international travel, released state agencies purchasing restrictions, called for nursing homes and assisted living facilities to limit regular visitations and called on the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission to halt and postpone the girls and boys state basketball tournaments.

State officials are encouraging the public to visit coronavirus.wv.gov for more information on COVID-19, local health department contact information, and frequently asked questions. West Virginians can call 1-800-877-4304 for coronavirus questions and information. Justice also encouraged all West Virginians to look out for each other.

“West Virginians are the best and the greatest of all,” Justice said. “If we have a need and someone is across the street from you and they need a helping hand or they need a hot meal, we have the whole network set up. If we have someone falling through the cracks, for God’s sake of living, let’s as West Virginians rally around and try to help every single one of our neighbors in every way, shape, form and fashion. We’ll beat this thing; I promise you that.”

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