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Gov. Justice declares state of emergency, says don’t panic, be a good West Virginian

MORGANTONW — Gov. Jim Justice declared a state of emergency in all 55 counties on Monday in connection with the coronavirus pandemic. While there are no confirmed cases yet, the declaration liberates agencies from certain rules and regulations to allow more flexibility in responding to the crisis, he and other officials said.

 His Monday press conference with the COVID-19 leadership team was part repetition of the pep talk and part diplomatic venting about the lack of test kits. In a separate press conference, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., also vented about the lack of testing materials.

As of Monday, according to, 84 people had been tested, with 80 negatives and 4 pending.

Justice said, “Without alarming anyone, the seriousness of this continues to be real.” There have been no positive tests. “But we should be concerned. We should really be concerned.” That’s because wh have such a high population of the elderly, who are at high risk.

“Don’t be asleep at the switch,” he said. “Stay calm. Be smart. Use great hygiene. Take care of the elderly that you can help.” And stay away from crowds and gatherings of more than 50 people. “Don’t make a mad rush on the grocery store.”

His office is starting to work on a personnel policy for who needs to be at their desks, he said. He’s letting the experts at each agency work on their own plans.

Cathy Slemp, state Health Officer and commissioner of the Bureau for Public Health, talked about testing. “I would love to be able to test everybody,” she said. The state has only 500 kits available, and some of those have been pieced together by temporarily taking items from flu test kits.

There are shortages all along the supply chain, she said. “None of it’s enough.” The commercial labs are ramping up, but they’re not ready yet. Hospitals are also ramping up, but not ready yet.

West Virginia, like other states, she said, would like to move form targeted testing of individuals with the highest risk factors to community-based testing of anybody who wants it. West Virginia has already done some planning to roll that out, but the supplies aren’t here yet.

The feds are rolling out community-based testing in 12 states, she said, but West Virginia isn’t on the list. She’s pleaded her case for the feds to simply send the supplies here and let health officials conduct the tests without federal handholding, but hasn’t had an answer.

On other topics, Pennsylvania has shut down al nonessential business and Justice was asked if he plans to close restaurants and bars. His decision is subject to change, he said, but not for now. “We’ve got to keep on living somewhat and doing what we’re doing.” If you want to go to Bob Evans, go to Bob Evans.

Schools will remain closed until at least march 27, he said, and they’ll reevaluate at that point.

He’s pondering the idea, he said, of making three hospital buildings that are closed or closing available to offer coronavirus care if other hospitals around the state become overwhelmed. He named Ohio Valley Medical Center in Wheeling and Fairmont Regional Medical Center in Fairmont.

FRMC, he said, will be closed for about 30 days while existing equipment is moved out and WVU Medicine moves new equipment in. The three hospitals would offer 400 additional beds for coronavirus treatment.

Justice concluded, “Help each other be great West Virginians. Be the people that love one another. … Let’s don’t panic. Let’s don’t be afraid. Let’s just get through it.”

Special session talk

Several legislators have floated the idea of a special session to pass some legislation to facilitate the public response to the coronavirus. The idea wasn’t raised during the press conference and Justice’s office didn’t reply to questions about it.

But the House Speaker’s and Senate President’s office both said that isn’t on the table at the moment. The Secretary of State’s office has sent a request to the attorney general regarding what they can legally do now to make some changes without requiring the 134 members of the Legislature and all the associated staff to congregate at the Capitol.

Sen. Joe Manchin

Manchin said his staff is teleworking at least through April 1, and he encouraged all West Virginia employers and workers who can do so to also do the same.

I don’t want the state of West Virginia or anyone in our state getting a false sense of any type of security we’re immune. We are not.”

A Kaiser Family Foundation issued last week shows that West Virginia has the highest risk of the 50 states for people who acquire coronavirus to develop serious illness, he said. The report cites various behavioral risk factors, including age and health condition.

Based on those factors, the report concludes that 734,590 West Virginians 18 and older – 52 percent of that age range – have the highest risk. For those under 60, 233,150 people, 24.9%, are highest risk.

“We should take every precaution humanly possible,” Manchin said.

Manchin also talked about the lack of test kits. His brother in Farmington runs a clinic and doesn’t have any. He’s been reaching out to the Food and Drug Administration to get testing supplies out to West Virginia and he urges state officials to keep the pressure on.

“It’s no excuse when you know how vulnerable our state is,” he said.

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