MORGANTOWN — Gov. Jim Justice said Friday that the statewide COVID-19 testing at jails and prisons – spurred by the Huttonsville prison outbreak – was completed by deadline, which was Friday.
In eight days he said, the state tested 10,000 inmates and 4,000 employees. The testing revealed only nine additional positive COVID-19 cases at five jails and two prisons. They are still waiting a few results.
WorkForce West Virginia Director Scott Adkins said that in 11 days, WorkForce has received more than 35,000 fraudulent claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits – which are intended for the self-employed, gig workers, independent contractors and those ineligible for Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation.
Justice commented on that, “At the end of the day, they’re hurting West Virginians. … Now we are micromanaging every single application and every single everything.”
Adkins said the fraudsters will do such things as use stolen ID information, simply lie on their application forms (for example, refusing to return to work and falsifying that on the form) or sign up for a legitimate claimant and have the money diverted into a pre-paid card.
This is requiring WorkForce, he said, to handle every case individually and pass each claim through a number of verification checks. It seriously delays the distribution of benefits.
This is happening across the nation, Adkins said, and West Virginia is among the states working with federal agencies to investigate the fraud. Several peole in Charleston have been identified as fraudsters.
People suspecting fraud, he said, can report it at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Questions during the COVID briefing led to a couple detours into politics, one of them COVID-related.
Sen. Joe Manchin issued a press release Friday morning announcing he’s introduced a bill called the Local Government Relief Act, which directs states governments to provide local governments with CARES Act money. It requires states to distrirbute 45% of their CARES money to to local governments with populations under 500,000 by June 30 or be required to provide a detailed report on why not, which would be published in the Federal Register.
“Tthe local governments in West Virginia haven’t seen a penny of that money despite repeated requests by Congress to get the money out the door and repeated clarifications from the Treasury Department on how these funds should be used,”Manchin said in the release. “Our local governments can’t wait any longer.”
The County Commissioners Association, the West Virginia Municipal League and the West Virginia Association of Counties all provided words of support for Manchin and the bill.
So did Boyd Vanhorn, president of the West Virginia Association of Local Health Departments. “Absent some type of immediate assistance, it will become increasingly difficult for our members to sustain efforts to protect the public from the coronavirus,” he said.
Of the 48 local health departments in West Virginia, 13% have less than 30 days cash on hand, Manchin said. Fire and EMS – which are facing $1.4 billion in budget losses – are also eligible. However, the National League of Cities recently released a report indicating that 32 states had not spent any of the funds they received.
The Dominion Post spoke to Manchin’s office about the bill and Manchin’s Communications Director Sam Runyon said in an email, “Sen. Manchin continues to hear from local leaders that they desperately need financial relief. It’s clear that the intent of Congress was for states to quickly distribute this emergency funding and Senator Manchin is working with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to ensure they receive it before the end of their fiscal year on June 30.”
Asked about the bill, Justice said, “This is more political junk.” Congress wrote the rules. “It’s clear as mud exactly what you’re supposed to do,” and the state has a fleet of lawyers trying to interpret the rules and send out the money.
“If Congress would have sent us something … that people could understand and read and everything, these dollars wouldn’t be parked over there.” And, he said, in an election season, people would assume he’d be pumping out money as fast as he could.
They’ve been talking with local governments, he said, the application portal is open and they’ve sent out $2.6 million so far. “We’ve got to all line up on the same side of the fence and pull the rope together.”
The other question dealt with the Legislature, which is losing three of its four top leaders. Senate President Mitch Carmichael lost his primary election bid, while Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso and House Minority Leader Tim Miley are not running for re-election.
The question was how does Justice plan to work with the new leaders that emerge.
He didn’t say exactly, but said, “We are too polarized.” He cited the two years of division over teacher and school employees pay and benefits, and divisive education reform bills.
“For decades and decades and decades West Virginia pitched 50th over and over,” he said, and has finally risen out of that. “How are we going to go forward in the most positive way? … We need to check our politics at the door.”
Next week, Justice is reducing his briefings to three per week, and they are tentatively set next week for Monday, Wednesday and Thursday.
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