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Amjad, Marsh talk to city and county officials about rising COVID-19 cases

MORGANTOWN — “This is our big one,” West Virginia State Medical Officer Anye Amjad said of Monongalia County’s climbing COVID-19 numbers on Thursday.

“If we cannot handle Mon County, how are we going to handle Cabell County, Kanawha County? This group is going to be what sets the tone for  all the other counties.”

Amjad — who was named to the position about a week ago after her predecessor,  Cathy Slemp, was asked to resign on June 24 — took part in an online meeting with county and Morgantown officials, as well as COVID-19 Czar Clay Marsh, Monongalia County Chief Medical Officer Lee Smith and Sam Chico, the county board of health president.    

Using the Harvard Global Health Institute’s COVID Risk Level map, Monongalia County is the only red county in West Virginia. According to the metric, red means “tipping point,” and is defined as 25 daily new cases per 100,000 people.

Smith went over the numbers, noting the county saw 197 new cases between July 1-7. Between July 8-14, another 231 cases were identified. Thus far, the county has seen a total of 627 cases. Of those, 436 are active. Of the active cases, Smith said about half are WVU students.

“I’m concerned we’ll continued to have increasing numbers because of testing conducted last weekend and additional testing this weekend,” Smith said. “Plus, WVU is going to begin testing faculty and staff on the 20th.”

Not to mention, students are going to keep arriving as WVU gears up to begin its Fall semester on Aug. 19.

Amjad pointed out that Monongalia County represents about 30% of the state’s active COVID-19 cases. She backed up Smith’s numbers, explaining that of the 436 active cases, 321 are between the ages of 18-29.

Monongalia County Commission President Ed Hawkins expressed  frustration that the county began asking for an enforceable mask order in early May, when WVU students returned to campus to move out, and, in some cases, begin moving into off-campus housing. That request went out roughly two months before Justice implemented a statewide mask mandate without any specific enforcement measures.

Hawkins said he got a call just prior to Thursday’s meeting.

“Almost seven weeks ago, we petitioned and have been petitioning to have masks and enforcement. This morning, just a few minutes before this call, I got a call from the state and it was direct, ‘What do you want.’ Well, we’ve been asking to have masking and enforcement and we came together with a plan,” Hawkins said, referencing a community-backed proposal that was delivered to Justice on Monday.

“So then, at the last minute today, to be asked ‘What do you want.’ We’ve been saying what we wanted. We’re seven weeks behind doing what we should have been doing all along.”

Hawkins went on to say that the community did not request or support the governor’s executive order shutting down the county’s bars through July 24.

Amjad said she had reservations about how enforcement of the mask mandate could be implemented.

Morgantown Mayor Ron Dulaney explained the measure put in place by the city as of Wednesday, which makes refusal to wear a mask indoors in public a misdemeanor punishable by fine.

“We’re not sending police into private businesses. What this does is give business owners the opportunity to ask folks who come in to mask up and it kind of removes a little bit of their burden because they can blame it on the law,” Dulaney said, explaining that the city supports the county’s request for enforcement.

Nobody spoke in favor of shutting down WVU for the fall semester during the meeting — nor did anyone speak in favor of additional business closures.

“I don’t believe in another stay at home order, if possible. I don’t think anything gets done with that. People don’t change behavior. If anything, it just makes people upset,” Amjad said.

The commission asked Amjad and Marsh to suggest Monongalia County be the test subject for a new policy stating any county that turns red under Harvard’s heat map will fall under a new set of protocols.

“Thereby, we’re not being treated any differently. We’d just be on the next step. That way it’s equal and it stays in line with what the governor wants. We, unfortunately, just got to that level first,” Commissioner Tom Bloom said.

While Amjad said she was open to the suggestion, both she and Marsh warned that the ultimate decision lies with Justice.

“I don’t want to leave the false illusion that somehow we are making the decision, because we are not,” Marsh said.

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