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Harvard researcher criticizes West Virginia COVID map while CDC copies it

MORGANOTWN — A Harvard University professor has criticized West Virginia’s color-coded COVID map while the U.S. CDC has copied it. The two bits of news on Friday, tied in with a question from The Dominion Post, prompted jubilation and ire from Gov. Jim Justice.

But the question also led COVID-19 Czar Clay Marsh to coin a new phrase: the West Virginia model.

Justice was pleased to announce that the CDC this week released a table of “indicators for dynamic school decision-making” based on West Virginia’s chart.

Its color scheme is different – green, light green, yellow, orange and red – and its parameters are more liberal. Green is less than 5 cases per 100,000 (West Virginia is 3 or less); light green is 5 to less than 20 (West Virginia yellow is 3.1 to 9.9); yellow is 25 to less than 50 (West Virginia gold is 10 to 14.9); orange is 50 to 200 (West Virginia orange is 15 to 24.9); red is more than 200 (West Virginia red is 25 or more).

And CDC uses a 14-day rolling average West Virginia applies only to its smallest counties.

Justice noted that Dr. Deborah Birx, a lead advisor on Vice President Mike Pence’s COVID task force, praised West Virginia’s map during a visit here. He recalled her saying, “West Virginia was leading the practice in regard to this and so many people should try to mirror it.” He added, “We think we’re onto something really good.”

West Virginia’s narrower metrics reflect the caution that has kept the state comparatively healthy he said. “We’re continuing to do the right thing in being more strenuant than what the new CDC’s color code system is and I think we should stay that course.”

The Dominion Post’s question focused on concerns that the public has raised about the state maps and how they cause confusion and undermine confidence.

One area of concern was highlighted in a new online investigative journal called the Mountain State Spotlight. An article about the map featured comments form Harvard University health researcher Dr. Thomas Tsai, who criticized West Virginia’s adaptations – a broader green zone and the addition of gold – of the Harvard map.

Tsai and the article suggested that West Virginia’s map manipulates the data to achieve political or social ends, such as getting kids back in school.

Justice responded to that part of the question politically, saying the Spotlight and one of its editors is an arm of the Democrat party throwing mud at him.

But he turned it over to COVID-19 Czar Clay Marsh who said he’s aware of the Harvard group’s concerns. But the Harvard Global Health Institute’s map just served as a baseline for West Virginia’s.

“We really have now, I think, reached the West Virginia model.” This model draws from many public health models and combines them in a way to serve the state with its rural counties of varying populations. “We’ve really done something with a lot of thought and a lot of effort and a lot of conversation” that the CDC has reproduced less stringently and Kentucky has also copied.

“There’s no way you can take one single thing and make it work for everybody so we are trying to adapt and use the best of the best” to make the state as safe as possible while opening the state sustainably and draws other people. “We’ve demonstrated n ability not to fight the virus, not to shut everything down, but to really effectively come up with ways to live with the virus.”

The second part of The Dominion Post’s questions dealt with discrepancies in the states two maps – the County Alert System and the School Alert System – that use the same data and parameters but don’t match. As they were both updated Friday, the county map had four red, two orange and eight gold. The school map was both more stringent and more liberal, with five red, one orange and two gold.

This part of the question was never addressed. But Justice returned to the Harvard issue.

“If the Harvard model was perfect why isn’t everyone doing it,” he asked. “Doesn’t it have an incredibly good ring to it to say we now have the West Virginia model? … What I want to see is the West Virginia model on everything. … Isn’t it amazing that with all these great experts we do have, we’re not just sitting back on our butts?”

Other COVID news

The COVID death toll reached 297 Friday, just three shy of 300.

The cumulative positive rate that served as the benchmark for The Comeback – a 3% level allowing the state to open back up – continues to steadily tick upward, hitting 2.72% Friday.

Justice fielded a question about what happens when it hits 3% again. “We’re having lots and lots of discussions about what that means,” he said. They hope it doesn’t reach that point. “We’re prepared to take significantly more aggressive action if we do get there.”

He hopes more testing and more information will help stop the spread, he said.

Tweet David Beard@dbeardtdp Email