MORGANTOWN — Gov. Jim Justice and his team again focused on rebooting the state after COVID-19 during their Wednesday press briefing.
Justice and the others are calling it Phase 2.
Phase 2 will begin, they said, sometime after they see eight to 14 days of no positive case growth. No one can pinpoint that date yet, they said.
“Things will be somewhat different for sure,” Justice said. They don’t want to rush out and reopen everything too quickly and create new problems worse than the first go-round. So there will still remain some social distancing and other such measures we’re practicing now. They have a set of Phase 2 contingencies in the works.
COVID-19 Czar Clay Marsh said that so far, we’ve taken a “blunt object approach” to containing the spread – with everyone staying home, social distancing, closing nonessential businesses.
For Phase 2, he said, “We have to become much more like a scalpel than a hammer.” That means testing more broadly; moving to a second type of test now in development that indicates if people are immune to the virus; and moving from widespread isolation to more targeted isolation for those who test positive and their contacts.
This is all new, he reiterated. “These capabilities really haven’t existed in our state and our country to the level we need.”
Asked if everyone will be tested when testing is expanded, Marsh said they are looking to create a surveillance system to understand areas that are higher risk. For instance, the Eastern Panhandle is surrounded by hot spots. They’d want to test people in those areas more broadly – those with symptoms but also those who are per-symptomatic or asymptomatic.
Other areas,where there are no positive cases, might be tested less extensively, he said.
Asked how targeted isolation will be enforced, Marsh said that so far the state has done well simply relying on people’s cooperation and studies show this is the most effective means. So they would try that initially. But if it doesn’t work, they’d work with the governor and his office to decide how to move forward.
A member of the press noted that the CDC has four bullet points for states to consider as they prepare to reopen: low infection rates, a well-functioning monitoring system to detect case increases, a robust public health system and a hospital system with sufficient beds and staff t be ready for a surge.
Asked about that relative to Phase 2, Justice said we meet those criteria. And he won’t re-open the state too soon, or without the advice of his experts.
“My job is to protect you,” he said. “I can get you all through this safely.” If they move too quick, people will die. But if they don’t restart the engine people could die as well – drug overdoses, suicides. “I want to get as close to being right as we can possibly be.”
Justice said he remains hopeful that voters will be able to go to polls on June 9 and not vote absentee.
And while schools are set to re-open April 30, he said he won’t open them until he’s advised “that we’re good to go.” He won’t put the kids, the teachers and their families at risk.
Justice acknowledged the state’s 10th COVID-19 death, a 62-year-old Marion County man. Statistically, we’re still doing better than the rest of the nation, he said. But there’s a human factor. “With every one of these deaths there’s a name and a family.”
Justice said the unemployment claim system – with more than 130,000 unemployment claims flooding in to something designed for 3,000 to 5,000 – is still backlogged. “We’re catching up, we’re catching up really fast.” They expect all claims to processed and caught up by the end of next week.
In the meantime, they have a new means for delivering payments. There will be no debit cards that take a week or so to deliver. Instead, recipients who sign up will receive direct bank deposits or checks.
The Department of Health and Human Resources has a dashboard – accessible at coronavirus.wv.gov – that gives twice daily updates on case numbers and provides other charts and data. There have been daily questions because the data often lags.
Marsh described the reasons for the lag – data coming from two sources with one source not updating as quickly – and said they are working to make it easier to read and more current, so that every day’s 5 p.m. update will be current.
Last week, Justice aid that the state would be sending out $100,000 block grants to all 55 counties for them to use at their discretion for “hero pay” to supplement the income of first responders and oter front-line workers.
In response to a question, he said Wednesday that those grants wold be going out that day. He reiterated that they’re discretionary. “We want to give our counties as much latitude as we possibly can.”
The decision shouldn’t be made at the state level, he said. “How do you describe this person’s a hero and this person’s not?”
But counties will have to report back how they spent the money, as an accountability measure, he said.
And he knows the grants are relatively small. The real money will come from D.C., he said. “This is only a bridge.”
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