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WVU expert weighs in on public health response, says key is keeping politics out

The preventive measures taken by all three branches of the government to curb the impact of the COVID-19 in the state are appropriate, said a West Virginia University policy expert.

“There was also a lot of apprehension after Sept. 11,” said Chris Plein, a professor of public administration in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences. “It is helpful for us to look at history.”

Schools in West Virginia were closed Friday by Gov. Jim Justice and will remain closed at least until the end of the month. The state took this action before similar announcements were made in Pennsylvania and Virginia.

President Trump declared a national emergency Friday and the World Health Organization declared the novel corona virus a pandemic. In addition, universities have gone to online classes, professional sports leagues have shut down, the Federal Reserve cut its target interest rate to zero. The Fed also said it would purchase another $700 billion worth of Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities, CNN said Monday.

Plein, whose expertise is public policy formation and implementation, welfare reform and health policy, said these kinds of measures may appear draconian, but are necessary and better positions the country to respond to COVID-19.  These actions limit the stress on the health care system, added Plein, who likens the situation to turning down the thermostat when there is an energy shortage.

To date, West Virginia is the only state not to have a confirmed COVID-19 patient.

“Mobilizing support for collective, public action for the general welfare of the country requires a level of trust and confidence in public authority. In our hyper-partisan environment, it may be even more difficult to mobilize public support, especially in a time when the capabilities of elected officials and the legitimacy of government institutions have been subjected to sustained criticism.”

Plein said officials at all levels of government are not over-reacting, or under-reacting.

“The reactions have been a series of improvisations,” he said. “The federal government is now understanding how serious this is.”

He also said it is important for government to have consistent and clear communication with the public because people will buy in and be confident.

“Americans don’t like to be told what they can or cannot do,” he said.

But, he said, it is important to set aside political differences for the greater good.

“The U.S. response to COVID-19 is taking place in our federal, intergovernmental system. This means that there may be conflict and tension between local, state and federal authority,” Plein said. “We may see more proactive efforts in some states that may set the tone for federal response. We may see strains in the coordination of effort.”