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Politics, growing COVID case numbers dominate Justice Friday briefing

MORGANTOWN — Gov. Jim Justice began Friday’s briefing on a somber note, announcing five new deaths since his last press conference.
The deaths bring the state to 116.

West Virginia saw a spike in new positive cases Thursday, with 182 — up from 99 Wednesday and 143 Tuesday. That was a record one-day high. Total active cases Friday morning were 1,712, also an all-time high.

The virus is spreading from the south, Justice said again. Kentucky used to be a barrier, but no longer.

“Kentucky is absolutely shutting down their whole universe over there. … You can’t ease off. … I am absolutely pleading with you, wear your mask, wash your hands,” Justice said.

Many are not, he said, insisting on their rights and freedoms over the public good.

“Be afraid, West Virginia, be concerned. Don’t be fearful, but for crying out loud, you’ve got have at least enough afraid in you of the consequences for what could happen here that we’ve got stay on our game,” he said.

COVID-19 Czar Clay Marsh said the state’s Rt value, which measures the potential spread of the virus from person to person, has fallen to .97; so it’s below 1 and has moved from red to green on the assessment web tool.

That’s a reflection of the measures we’ve taken, he said.

“We cannot become lax in wearing our masks, but also maintaining that physical distancing.”

Help for small business

The Dominion Post posed a question from some local small businesses having trouble registering as vendors on the WV OASIS website, which means they can’t apply for their $5,000 small business COVID relief grants. The businesses requested a hotline to the governor’s office and extra OASIS staffing.

Justice said there are already two hotlines, one at his office and one at the state auditor’s office. And OASIS already has some extra staff.

People should call those lines, he said. “If we’ve got to have 14 hotlines to be able process the people that are out there … I don’t care if we’ve got to have two or 14 or 25, whatever we’ve got to have.”

The OASIS help desk numbers are 304-558-6708 or 855-666-8823. The governor’s office numbers are 304-558-2000 or 888-438-2731.

Explanations and defenses

The word “politics” came up frequently as the Department of Health and Human Resources explained and defended its handling of the Princeton nursing home COVID-19 outbreak, and as Gov. Jim Justice received praise for and defended his handling of state CARES Act money.

“It seems everyone’s pastime is to be an armchair epidemiologist,” DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch said to open his discussion of the Princeton Health Care Center outbreak. As of Wednesday, the home had 23 positives among staff and 19 among residents, with two deaths.

The nursing home had complained in a Thursday statement, “After an employee tested positive for COVID-19 earlier in July, our team requested assistance and mass testing from health officials on and before July 7th, 2020. We were denied the testing and were told, ‘At this time our outbreak guideline does not recommend to do the repeat testing of staff and residents and the state lab would not be able to handle those specimens.’ ”

Crouch used slides to outline the DHHR response. On June 30, an employee tested positive but was not judged high risk because they hadn’t been at the home since June 21. Facility testing began the next day, A second employee tested positive July 4 and was sent home.

On July 7, the test results came in: 187 of the 18 staff and all 102 patients (the current patient count is 91) were negative, but the administrator wanted more testing which the regional epidemiologist and DHHR judged unnecessary. On July 15, an employee had symptoms, was sent home, tested negative. On July 17, a patient who had been transferred to a hospital tested positive. This case was tied to travel to Myrtle Beach. This case and the previous two were unrelated.

Discussion that something was missed is inaccurate, Crouch said. “As the governor says ‘Run to the fire,’ we did run to the fire.”

DHHR works hard to be open and transparent, he said. They make mistakes. “What I’m not OK with is to bring politics into the middle of a pandemic. It’s wrong. It’s unconscionable. I will not allow DHHR to be used as a political tool. … In this case everything was done right.”

Justice’s political comments sprang from a recent report from the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Inspector General that shows West Virginia has spent 48.6% 0f its Coronavirus Relief Fund (CARES) money, $607.5 million, to rank third after California, Colorado and New York (Justice set aside $687 million of the state’s $1.25 billion CARES money for past and future unemployment claims).

He said the report is significant because all states have to be measured in the same way, by the guidelines. “I know that we can’t be fast enough, no matter what we do, in getting dollars out, but being criticized for it is completely unfair, it’s unfounded.”

State Chamber of Commerce President Steve Roberts and Parkersburg Mayor Tom Joyce both praised Justice for what he’s done, as did Fairmont State University President Mirta Martin, for Justice’s Friday pledge to give $2.5 million to the state’s small colleges and universities for COVID testing.

But Justice grew a bit peeved when a reported asked him to comment on statements by his gubernatorial opponent Ben Salango and Sen. Joe Manchin that he’s failed to send out 45% of the CARES money to cities and counties, which they say is required by CARES.

Justice said the 45% is a guideline and the statements are political moves to get attention for Salango’s campaign. “There are rules out there. … We know all this.”

He can’t send Kanawha County $182 million just for fun, he said.

“It’s absolutely nauseating because it’s political. … West Virginia is being managed and being managed properly. I just wish to God above we would stop these crazy politics. … They need to do their job in Washington.”

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