West Virginia officials urge calm as major coronavirus cluster develops in Eastern Panhandle

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice pounds the table at the conclusion of his press conference saying the state can beat the coronavirus challenge, Friday, March 13, 2020 at the state Capitol in Charleston, W.Va. Justice announced that all schools are to be closed by the end of the school day Friday. (Chris Dorst/Charleston Gazette-Mail via AP)

CHARLESTON – As the number of positive coronavirus cases jumped in the Eastern Panhandle, Gov. Jim Justice and state officials Friday sought to calm the nerves of the public.

According to numbers released by the Department of Health and Human Resources Friday morning, there are now 237 cases of the coronavirus in West Virginia – an increase by 20 from Thursday afternoon. Half of those cases are in Berkeley County, which increased from 27 cases Thursday to 37 cases Friday.

Justice, speaking during Friday’s virtual coronavirus briefing, said the cluster of cases in the Eastern Panhandle was not unexpected due to its geographical location so close to population centers in Virginia and Maryland.

“We’ve anticipated this,” Justice said. “Anything that is really close to a major city like the Eastern Panhandle is just in the backdoor of Washington, D.C. We’ve been on it. We’ve been concerned about it. We’re not going to be just a state that is left out of this virus and this terrible pandemic. We’re going to have issues and we’re going to have to deal with them.”

The state has tested 6,367 residents for the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, with only 3.72 percent of cases coming back positive. Dr. Clay Marsh, the state coronavirus czar, said there was no need to be alarmed by the increase of positive cases in Berkeley County.

“We knew that nobody was going to escape this pandemic without having people who will get sick,” Marsh said. “We want to reassure people that most folks who get the virus will get better and may have flu-like symptoms. If you are located in the Eastern Panhandle of the state, or any place in the state, then we have to presume if you do develop a cold or flu-like symptoms, then you very well might have an infection that is COVID-19.”

Health officials continue to urge people not to panic and encourage people who do have cold or flu symptoms – such as coughing, fever or shortness of breath – to stay home and self-quarantine for 14 days. If the symptoms worsen, call a healthcare provider.

“The truth is no matter how good we are, and people are doing amazing work and that’s the reason why our percent of tests we’ve done that are positive are so stable, we also know we’re not going to avoid having people getting infected and we’ll handle that,” Marsh said.

Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, adjutant general of the West Virginia National Guard, said there are more than 440 guardsmen on active duty with more than 500 likely being on active duty by next week. Some will be heading to the Eastern Panhandle to help local health departments.

“As we have done in both Monongalia County and Kanawha County, we will surge National Guard assets to help our public health partners…to address the surge in numbers in those areas,” Hoyer said. “That will include things such as personal protective equipment support, using the reusable systems that we were able to purchase. It also includes proving additional equipment support. We will also provide a surge of staff into the local public health offices in the counties affected to provide extra epidemiology support.”

Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch said the state is prepared for a surge in positive cases thanks to the measures taken by Justice over the last three weeks to slow the spread of COVID-19. Crouch said if projections hold, the state will have enough intensive care unit beds and acute care beds to handle the possible influx of severe cases.

“Those projections…are good,” Crouch said. “We’re one of the few states that took action before we had a positive case, so our curve is staying low. We have hospitals with empty beds, so we try to stay on top of that every day. We have several hundred beds in the state of West Virginia that are available should the surge start. We’re ready for that surge.”

According to projections from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, West Virginia could see peak resource usage by May 4 and could see a shortage by as much as 25 ICU beds, though it projects no shortage in total hospital beds.


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