A spike in positive COVID-19 cases in Berkeley and Jefferson counties is not a surprise to COVID-19 Czar Clay Marsh.
That’s what he said during Gov. Jim Justice’s Thursday COVID-19 press briefing.
Marsh also said repeat tests — such as those at Sundale nursing home — are included with the cumulative number, but they are also looking at daily positives to stay on top of the virus.
Justice said he sent the National Guard to Berkeley and Jefferson counties to help local health officials investigate what may be an outbreak.
Numbers from the Department of Health and Human Resources show that Berkeley’s positive cases jumped by 29 in two days, from 219 Tuesday morning to 248 Thursday morning. Jefferson also saw a jump of 29 in that period, from 102 to 131. Both counties have been placed on high alert. The Guard will try to help the local officials determine the cause and then report back to Justice. They’ll determine what steps to take from there. It may be they’ll have to mandate mask-wearing.
Justice and Marsh both noted that the two Eastern Panhandle counties lie in the D.C.-Baltimore-Virginia area, which is seeing high positive growth rates, and so has the highest risk of more problems.
So the number spike is no surprise, Marsh said.
He daily calls this phase of The Comeback a dance — a balancing act of reopening while trying to suppress case growth, and responding locally as needed. In that vein, he said, “This is not an emergency in that way. This is the first steps we need to learn in this new dance.”
Whatever we see today has likely been going on for two weeks, Marsh said, referring to the time it takes to see symptoms, if they appear at all. “This is running to the fire but also not panicking.”
Marsh reiterated the importance of wearing masks, citing Sweden, which took no precautions beyond encouraging distancing and has a population-based death rate of 38 per 100,000. The U.S. is at 28 per 100,000, while Japan, a mask-wearing culture, is 0.61 per 100,000.
The Dominion Post asked about testing numbers, citing the example of a Monongalia County nursing home that tests its staff and some residents weekly.
This will produce repeated negative tests for the same people and, considered statewide, could artificially skew downward the cumulative positive rate DHHR reports daily and is part of the criteria for maintaining The Comeback.
Bureau of Public Health Commissioner Cathy Slemp said yes, all tests are factored in, but didn’t comment any further.
Marsh reiterated that they are watching new cases at the county level to gauge the spread of the virus and determine any needed response. “I just want to assure people we are looking very, very precisely.”
Marsh amplified on his point in a phone interview with The Dominion Post later in the afternoon. Two separate issues are getting intertwined, he said, The cumulative number of positives — 1.9% Thursday afternoon — is a metric that allows a comparison with similar numbers published at a national level.
But it has its limits. “That is such a big number now … it would take a lot of cases to move that backwards.”
What they’re doing now, he said, is looking underneath the cumulative at the daily positives at a county level, and following the R0 level at a community level.
“By seeing that trend change, that tells us that in those communities, those counties, that we’re seeing more activity, and that’s when we will focus many more resources and try to help those communities solve those problems.” That includes testing to see who might be asymptomatic or presymptomatic and able to spread the virus.
The total number of test results reported Thursday afternoon — including repeat tests on some — was 84,319, out of nearly 1.8 million residents, with 1,603 positives to date. Marsh said one prominent expert suggests the real number of positives is 800 times the number who’ve died from community spread. Others have said 10 times the number of people are infected than are picked up on testing.
“So we don’t really know. What we do know is in every complex system … a smaller number of things or people or places account for much more of the activity,” he said.
In West Virginia, he said, that means a majority of cases are going to be restricted to a relatively small number of areas: the eastern and northern panhandles, Mon County, the Ohio River valley, which are all more exposed to neighboring areas of high activity.
“I think we can really change our focus to those areas with the majority of cases,” he said. And look at such places as the Hatfield-McCoy Trail that will be drawing people as The Comeback progresses.
“So as we go forward it’s not like you have to look at every place equally. You need to really focus on those places that might have more activity, and if you find activity, you keep going deeper in those places.”
And that all circles back to wearing masks — and all the other measures — to limit the spread between people.
Justice announced on Thursday that bowling alleys, swimming pools, pool halls, roller rinks and other indoor amusements will be allowed to open May 30. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has issued guidance for opening public pools, he said.
CDC’s lengthy guidance for spacing, sanitizing and so on can be found at cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/parks-rec/aquatic-venues.html.
Movie theaters will be allowed to reopen June 5, he said.
DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch raised the issue of vaccinations for children. With some people on lockdown, and others losing health insurance, the specter of new outbreaks of other preventable diseases, such as measles, becomes more real.
Crouch said DHHR provides free vaccines to eligible children from birth through age 18 through the Vaccines for Children (VFC) program. DHHR said in a related release the eligible children may receive free vaccines at more than 420 participating provider sites.
Eligible children fall under at least one of these categories: Eligibility requirements for the
VFC program (must meet one of the below): Medicaid-eligible; uninsured; American Indian or Alaskan Native; underinsured,meaning children with insurance that does not cover vaccines.
For more information on VFC call 800-643-3634 or go to oeps.wv.gov.