Healthcare, Latest News, State Government

Justice: Hospitals can gear up, apply to resume elective procedures

MORGANTOWN — Gov. Jim Justice again focused his Monday coronavirus press briefing on restarting the state, and announced an executive order to take the first step in doing that.

Hospitals and medical facilities, will need to start offering care again. So, under his order, starting April 27, hospitals will be permitted to submit applications to the Department of Health and Human Resources that demonstrate they meet the criteria established in the order to be able to restart elective procedure and general care.

That raised the question of testing patients. COVID-19 Czar Clay Marsh said the state will stand ready to work with each hospital and medical system to define how they want to approach testing – patients, physicians, nurses, EMS workers coming to the emergency rooms and other staff.

The state is currently able to test about 2,500 people per day, 17,000 per week; and will be able to test about 4,566 per day, 31,900 per week. And the largest independent lab, LabCorp, will be able to test 65,000 per day nationwide, so there will be no issue of testing capacity, Marsh said, for hospitals restarting or for general containment measures as the state reopens.

Marsh noted that LabCorp Executive Vice President and President of Diagnostics Brian Caveney is a WVU alumnus and has committed resources to helping West Virginia boost its testing capacity.

Also, antibody testing for immunity is coming soon, he said, and that will open up further opportunities.

Justice talked about the pressures the White House faces as it looks to reopen the nation. If it continues down the path it’s going, “there is a real, real possibility that the engine won’t start back.” We could enter a depression. “If that were to happen we would lose lives like you can’t imagine. … We have got to start the engines back.”

But, he said again, nationally and in West Virginia it’s a balancing act of maintaining public health and restoring the economy with no way to avoid risks. He will oversee West Virginia easing into a restart. “We’ll take baby steps on coming back.”

Marsh and others at the daily briefings have often referred to the model created by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation for predicting when the COVID-19 surge would peak and the maximum number of deaths in West Virginia and nationally.

IHME announced over the weekend that its model shows that West Virginia was among four states that could consider lifting social distancing restrictions after May 4 if proper containment measures are put in place. The model predicts that border states, with far higher incidences of virus and death, would have to come later: Ohio, May 18; Pennsylvania, June 1; Kentucky, Maryland and Virginia, June 8.

Asked about that in the context of taking baby steps here, Justice said: “I’m not going to let a model in the state of Washington, all the way across the country, push us into doing something to endanger our people.”

He said we have to show that we’re ready to move forward. “I am 100 percent behind moving forward and starting the engine back. But for someone in Washington State to say, Dag, West Virginia doesn’t hardly have anything going on there compared to New York.’ … We’re not going to take that advice. We’re going to take our own advice.”

Last week, Justice ordered that all patients and staff at all nursing homes and long-term care facilities in the state be tested for COVID-19. He revisited the topic Monday, noting that this involves 28,000 people, and so far only 20,000 people have been tested statewide in the past 40 days. So fulfilling his order could take weeks or months. (DHHR said afterward that the 28,000 is an esitmate based on all facilities at 100% capacity; most are at 80% so the figure could be closer to 22,000.)

But, he said, he’s been assured it will all be done within a week.

DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch clarified that the order doesn’t cover assisted living facilities. It covers 124 nursing homes and two VA facilities. With the testing capacity figures cited above, it can be done. Six facilities started Friday, eight more on Monday and 28 have committed to start. And LabCorp has caught up on its national backlog and can promise a one- to two-day turnaround on results.

WorkForce West Virginia Acting Commissioner Scott Adkins said they’ve taken 140,000 unemployment claims since March 16. All eligible claimants without issues will be processed by Wednesday night. Also, the self-employed, gig workers and independent contractors will be able to apply starting 10 p.m. Friday.

Monday afternoon’s numbers from DHHR were 908 positive cases out of 22,357 tests – a 4.06% rate – with 26 deaths. The rate was better than all bordering states (with Kentucky the closest at 9.11%) and the national rate of 19.33%. West Virginia’s death rate of 2.661% is also better than the neighboring states’ (Virginia the closest at 3.245%) and the nation’s, 4.777%.

Justice commented, “West Virginia continues to pace at a rate that is phenomenally good.” But with 24 deaths, “There’s no way to celebrate this in my book. … It’s just tough stuff.”

But, he said, the nation should look to us as the example for all we’ve done to contain the spread. This is a state where manufacturers aren’t jammed together. We abound in smart people, innovation and room for distancing.

“You have done really good,” he said. “West Virginia, you are the place where people should come. You’re the new place,West Virginia.”

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