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Justice: Heads could roll for failure to respond to nursing home outbreaks; also addresses fed dollars and Phase 2

MORGANTOWN — Gov. Jim Justice expressed frustration during his Thursday COVID-19 press briefing over people who fail to respond properly to nursing home outbreaks and said their jobs will be on the line.

More positively, he talked about the arrival of federal CARES Act dollars and again raised the issue of rebooting the state in Phase 2.

Justice didn’t reference the exact nursing home that sparked his ire, but opened broadly by saying good people are working in an antiquated system of healthcare never designed to handle a pandemic.

So in some ways, he said, it’s excusable for data to come in late. But when his direct order to have everyone tied to the home tested when there’s a single positive case is disobeyed, “This I cannot tolerate. … We have failed in that effort and who knows why. … I’m going to get to the bottom of this.”

Because a home’s poplation is the most at-risk, “We should be running to the fire to do everything we possibly can,” he said. If it’s discovered that some deliberately failed, “They’re going to be gone.”

Justice declined to specify the home because the issue is still being investigated. But he did acknowledge, in response to a question, that the National Guard was sent Thursday a a Jackson County home where a total of 15 staff and residents have tested positive to have everyone tested.

Also in response to that question, which same at the end of the briefing, Justice spontaneously ordered the National Guard and the Department of Health and Human Resources to post nursing home outbreak information on the DHHR’s COVID-19 site, as Ohio does.

Justice started to read a written speech on the state economy and the CARES Act, but then put it aside and closed the folder to speak his mind as he generally does.

His financial advisors, he said, are projecting a $376 million budget hole when the fiscal year ends June 30. Their options included raiding the Medicaid reserve and the Rainy Day Fund, laying off state employees and cutting social services.

“You elected a business guy,” he said. He respects the work of his advisors, but “none of it will happen today.”

On Wednesday, he said, the first $625 million of the promised$1.25 billion of CARES Act money arrived in the special bank account set up to receive it. The other half is expected next week.

“At the end of the day we’re going to get through this,” he said. But there’s still uncertainty of how the money can be used and the state is waiting on the rules to be issued. He doesn’t know if any of it can be used to backfill budget holes caused by the economic shutdown.

Also, he said, so far only $62.5 billion of the total $350 billion for the states has been allotted. He hope West Virginia may qualify for more than the minimum $1.25 billion it is receiving.

Justice expressed frustration that the federal $350 billion Paycheck Protection Program to sustainsmall businesses – part of CARES – has been exhausted and that Congress has failed to pass the proposal currently in the works to add $250 billion to it. He directed his frustration at the Democrat House leaders, who have chosen not to reconvene until May 4, but as of Thursday the Senate was at a stalemate too, with Senate Democrats wanting to add another $250 billion to it for other measures.

Justice began his 4:15 p.m. briefing just shy of 30 minutes late. He said that was because he was on a conference call with President Trump and Vice President Pence regarding Trump’s 18-page guidance (the number is according to The Hill news site) document giving governors final say in reopening their states – called Phase 2 in West Virginia.

Justice talked again about the fine line between reopening too soon before the virus is truly contained and reopening to late, with all the economic and human harm that could cause. “You’re dad gum if you do and you’re dad gum if you don’t,” he said.

Models projected anywhere from 1 million deaths nationally, Justice said, but the number now looks more like 55,000 to 65,000. “There’s been a lot of correct buttons pushed a lot of times,” he said, and Trump was more optimistic Thursday than he has been for some time.

Asked if hell be facing any federal pressure to reopen too soon, he said, “There’s plenty of pressure to go around. I can handle that.”

He won’t decide, he said, because he’s being pushed in a direction he doesn’t think we should go. “I’m going to listen to everybody and I’m going to err on the side of our health officials. … We do have to restart this engine and get back to work.”

Thursday’s numbers from the DHHR were 739 positive cases out of 18,306 tested – a 4.04% rate – with 13 deaths.

Justice commented on the deaths, “These are not just statistics; these people have names, they have families.” He urged all to pray for the families. “Prayer’s a powerful, powerful tool we have been given.”

COVID-19 Czar Clay Marsh also commented on the tragedy of the deaths, but compared West Virginia’s positive and death rates to the nation’s much higher numbers. “We continue to do really well.”

Moving into Phase 2, he said, it’s important to note that half of the people who infect others are pre-symptomatic and that’s the reason broad testing will important.

But all the equipment and preparation and available hospital beds won’t be the most important factor. “It’s really you.” It’s the social distancing and staying at home and keeping your hands off y our face and washing your hands. “This will continue through Phase 2 and whatever other phase we need.”

The briefing yielded a few other items. Among them, Justice announced that DHHR is $69 million worth of checks to hospitals to help them cope with their losses from ending elective procedures, as a bridge until federal dollars arrive.

And DHHR on Thursday issued its statewide emergency rule to regulate public health standards for retailers during the pandemic. DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch said the rule makes the regulations unifor statewide instead of have variance among the counties.

The rule covers social distancing, occupancy, sanitation and hygiene, building occupancy and staffing, among other things.

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