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Gov. Justice, Health Officials Look to Future as COVID-19 Cases Trend Down

Justice

CHARLESTON — Despite a few locations in the state where coronavirus cases have spiked, state officials said Tuesday they were cautiously optimistic about easing up on certain restrictions and allowing some businesses to re-open next month.

Gov. Jim Justice, speaking Tuesday during his daily coronavirus briefing from the Capitol, said things are looking good for West Virginia, but said the state still had a way to go. He encouraged residents to continue to stay home and practice social distancing guidelines.

“As we continue to trend in a great way, a lot of good things will start to happen,” Justice said. “We have to stay the course, but you can see the results are really rock solid. If we keep trending this way, hopefully we can go back to a way of life where we’re working and even the possibility of school. Absolutely our polls will be open for a June 9 election. We have to be cautious.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, an adviser to President Donald Trump on the coronavirus pandemic, told the Associated Press Tuesday that re-opening businesses across the country by May 1, would not be possible for much of the nation. But Fauci did say some areas least affected by COVID-19 could probably start easing restrictions on a rolling basis.

In West Virginia, public and private schools have been closed since March 13 and are not expected to re-open until after April 30. All non-essential businesses were closed by executive order March 23 for an indefinite period. Workforce West Virginia has received more than 120,000 applications for unemployment compensation since March due to coronavirus-related shutdowns and furloughs.

Justice said the state’s number of coronavirus cases are beginning to plateau, with most of the surge in cases taking place between April 8 and April 10 with 191 cases during those three days. Since then, the total number of cases between April 11-13 was only 63, though an outbreak in a nursing home in Wayne County has infected 66 patients and employees over the last several days. As of Tuesday evening, official statewide totals of COVID-19 confirmed by the Department of Health and Human Resources sits at 694 – an increase of 61 cases since Monday evening.

Justice continued to praise state residents who were staying at home, maintaining social distancing when going out, wearing cloth masks, washing hands and working at essential businesses and organizations. West Virginia’s death count remains at nine people, while surrounding states continue to have higher death totals.

“It’s nine too many, but it’s one heck of a lot better than anything that’s going on around us,” Justice said. “There is no other state that is anywhere close to us that has any kind of results like that until you go way out west where the populations are few and far between. Remember, we’re within a rock’s throw of two-thirds of the population of this country. … West Virginians, please understand just how good you’re doing.”

Dr. Clay Marsh, the state coronavirus czar, said the state’s mortality rate from COVID-19 is 1.4%, which is still significantly below other states while the national average is 4%. Marsh thanked West Virginians for helping get the state through the first stage of the pandemic and not over burdening the state hospitals and health systems.

The next step, Marsh said, was thinking about how to re-open the state while COVID-19 treatments and vaccines are being developed. A vaccine is still nearly a year away, he said.

“West Virginia is really leading the country in the response that you, the citizens, are able to do,” Marsh said. “There’s a lot of things that are going on…to get us prepared to start to come back out again. As we do that, we know in many ways this next stage is going to be much trickier than the first stage.”

Part of stage two will likely include greater surveillance of the infected and increased contact investigations to find those who may be infected and self-quarantine those people. New testing and tracing procedures are still a work in progress, he said.

“We are thinking about this longer-term piece, because we know as we move forward over the next months ahead that contact tracing and our ability to test widely are really key to what we want to be able to do,” said Dr. Cathy Slemp, state health officer and commissioner of the Bureau of Public Health. “We have to make sure we build the capacities to be able to do the level of contact investigation and tracing we want to do.”

Justice said cooperation with neighboring states would also be key to how quickly West Virginia can open back up. Several states are joining together in regional groups to plan for gradual re-opening of businesses and economic activity. No such group has been created among West Virginia’s neighboring states, but Justice said he has been in contact with those governors.

“We’re in constant contact with all our neighbors, and we’re in constant contact with all the different governors, as well as the president and vice president and everything,” Justice said. “We have done amazingly well, but this next phase will be tedious and very difficult. We want our people back to work and we want our kids back in school and we want our life back to as close as normal as we can possibly get it.”

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