Government, Latest News, Monongalia County

Smith: Blanket testing not working as county undergoes a third dramatic spike

MORGANTOWN — Work smarter, not harder.

That, to paraphrase, is what Monongalia County Health Officer Lee Smith suggested on Friday, noting that despite conducting 76,000 tests in a county of 106,000 people, Monongalia County has once again spiked into the red according to the Harvard metric — a seven-day rolling average of daily positive COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population.

A red designation means an average of more than 25 new positive cases daily. Monongalia County is currently above that threshold for the third time, following similar dramatic spikes in July and September.

Smith explained that not only is the testing stretching the Monongalia County Health Department to the breaking point, it’s clearly not working.

“Just setting up testing and not having a focus to it, I don’t think is the correct mechanism. We’ve done 76,000 tests and we haven’t controlled it yet. You can’t control the behavior of the populace,” Smith said, explaining that he would like to see testing more focused on individuals identified as contacts.

When adjusted for population, Monongalia County leads the state in testing. And the MCHD is the largest health department in West Virginia based on number of employees.

According to Gov. Jim Justice’s recommendations, a county that advances beyond yellow designation (10 or fewer daily positives) should set up three, three-lane testing sites to run seven days a week.

Simply not possible, Lee said, explaining that given the state’s current situation, it’s not even reasonable to believe it can be pulled off with the assistance of the National Guard.

“Of the 55 counties, there are 48 that have health departments. Of the 48 health departments, 75% are in orange or red,” he said, later adding  “So if we can’t do it, I know Gilmer County and Mingo County and the smaller counties where they have three people have got to be stressed.”

Smith also addressed hospital capacity, explaining, “I am unaware that this is an issue.”

As an example, Smith said he’s briefed by West Virginia University Hospitals daily. He said that Friday morning’s report showed there were 13 people in intensive care at J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital.

That information was later refuted by Anthony Condia, WVU Healthcare VP of marketing and communications, who explained that as of the creation of Friday morning’s report, all 86 staffed adult ICU beds at Ruby Memorial were full. 

Condia said that a  small but growing percentage of those beds were occupied by COVID-19 patients.

In other county news, the Monongalia County Commission — meeting on Friday due to Veteran’s Day — approved the first two contracts for the removal of the Catherine’s Knob communication tower — a 480-foot tower in the Daybrook area that is failing structurally.

The tower is used by first responders in the western end of Monongalia County as well as portions of Marion County. It is also used by U.S. Cellular to serve the Daybrook and Fairview areas.

The commission approved a $24,000 proposal from Controlled Demolition Inc to bring the tower down and an $18,300 proposal from Premiere Construction Group LLC to remove the debris and manage the project.

Mike Fortney of MECCA 911 said the tower is the tallest in West Virginia and could come down as early as next week.

It was previously explained that, in total, the removal and replacement of the tower could cost north of $1 million.