The Voice of West Virginia
West Virginia is entering a new phase of the COVID-19 pandemic—community cluster outbreaks. These clusters occur when the rate of positive cases begins to speed up.
The first reports of these community clusters came late last week in the eastern panhandle, which prompted Governor Jim Justice to issue an executive order Friday night tightening down on group gatherings, travel and maximum occupancy at essential businesses in Jefferson, Berkeley and Morgan counties.
(Read more of the latest on the pandemic in West Virginia here and here.)
The next report of increased community spread came Saturday and late Saturday night when Justice expanded that executive order to Kanawha, Monongalia and Harrison Counties.
“I had been monitoring this situation all day (Saturday),” Justice said, and decided to take action tonight after my medical experts advised me that these counties are the next areas where community clusters may soon develop.”
These existing and potential community cluster spreads occur because the virus is highly contagious and the threat is exacerbated when people continue to carry on with life as before, ignoring the repeated warnings by government and health officials.
“We had reports of crowds at stores with the nice spring weather,” Justice said. “But to stop the spread of COVID-19 we MUST stay at home as much as possible and we MUST remember to socially distance ourselves when we go out for necessities.
West Virginia COVID-19 Czar Dr. Clay Marsh says the emergence of virus “hot spots” is not surprising. The modeling suggests the peak here is still a month away, which means a steady rise in infections and deaths.
However, Marsh still believes strongly that West Virginia can manage the spread. “Everything we do on the good side will have dramatic ramifications when the surge comes,” he told me yesterday. “You are not only responsible for your own health, but also your community’s health and the health of healthcare workers.”
That was reinforced by Dr. Kylie Parrish during an interview Saturday on a special edition of MetroNews Talkline. She works on the COVID-19 floor at WVU Medicine Ruby Memorial Hospital. I asked what her message is to West Virginians and her answer was simple—stay home.
We have heard over and over that most West Virginians have made good decisions about keeping their distance from each other. That behavior has slowed the spread and increased the possibility that our state can get through this without an unmanageable surge.
However, one of our biggest obstacles now is complacency. Thinking by too many West Virginians that the warnings are overblown or somehow not intended for them raises the probability that the pandemic will eventually get the upper hand here, further damaging the economy and putting an even greater strain on our health delivery system and those workers.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Patients and workers at a Charleston-based nursing home will be tested for coronavirus Monday after a patient contracted the virus.
The positive case was reported at Esstbrook Center, which is owned by Stonerise Healthcare. Stonerise released information about the case Sunday night.
“While this news was not what we hoped for, it is most definitely what we have prepared for,” Stonerise Healthcare CEO Larry Pack said. “We remain focused on protecting all other residents and employees and will work tirelessly to maintain a safe and loving environment for those we serve.”
The patient was transferred to an area hospital after testing positive.
CAMC will begin testing Eastbrook’s other patients and staff Monday.
“During this difficult time, know that our hearts are with the patients and staff at Eastbrook,” Pack said. “Please know that our team is working tirelessly to provide the best care for each and every Eastbrook patient.”
Stonerise, which operates 17 skilled nursing facilities in West Virginia, was one of the first companies to announce visitor restrictions in connection with the coronavirus. Its policy went into effect March 13.
Eastbrook said it’s working with local, state and federal health officials. It said it’s also been following CDC guidelines.
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. — At some point Gov. Jim Justice is going to make a decision about whether the hundreds of school buildings across West Virginia will open again this school year or remain closed until next fall because of the coronavirus.
On several occasions last week, despite urgings from leading lawmakers and others to close the buildings for the duration of the term, Justice said he doesn’t have to make the decision yet—and for now his current closure order stands. It goes through April 30.
Justice has an advocate in state School Superintendent Clayton Burch who says it’s a good thing to give students hope that some normalcy may return to their lives in these days of stay-at-home orders.
Burch said that hope is being appreciated by students, teachers and staff including a high school senior in his own family.
“I didn’t think my son was listening to these briefings,” Burch said Friday during Gov. Jim Justice’s coronavirus briefing at the state capitol. “But he is. And to be able to walk into your home and him say, ‘Dad, I really thank you that you’re still thinking about us. That you’re still thinking that there’s still going to be time and hope for me and my friends to walk across that stage (at commencement),’” Burch said.
State Senate President Mitch Carmichael said the hope is nothing more than a false hope.
“To somehow to suggest that we should hold out the possibility of cramming kids back in a school shortly after the surge period in West Virginia is beyond comprehension,” Carmichael said. “Really? Do we really want to do that for a few weeks to chance a second wave and reoccurring of this virus? It makes no sense to me.”
— MetroNews (@WVMetroNews) April 3, 2020
West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee said the state has to be “very cautious” about reopening the schools but he said it’s important to continue to engage the students and having them doing activities like many teachers are doing now through remote learning efforts.
Lee said, depending on the spread of the virus, a decision to close schools for the rest of the year may have to come but not yet.
“I don’t think that point is right now. I think we need to continue to keep them engaged and active in some things,” Lee said.
— MetroNews (@WVMetroNews) April 3, 2020
Emily Sable teaches 4th grade at Holz Elementary in Kanawha County. She took part in a car parade with other teachers Friday as students stood outside their homes and waved. Sable said she would like to be able to have school again if possible.
“I doubt that we will go back the way things are going but I would think as a whole teachers would want to go back if it was possible and if it was safe, just as a way to close up the year with kids,” Sable said.
Sable said she doesn’t assume if they do go back for one or two weeks there would be a lot of learning taking place.
“It would be more bonding and being happy to be back together,” she said.
Lee said a return for a few weeks could fill a sense of closure for some including graduating seniors but admits things remain uncertain.
“It’s a crap-shoot. I’m not sure what we are going to do but for now I want to keep students engaged,” Lee said.
But Carmichael said the uncertainty isn’t a good thing. He said announcing the end of the school year sooner than later would actually help families that are already dealing with a lot of uncertainty.
“There’s no way that a parent is going to send their children back into a school system under these circumstances,” Carmichael said. “We just need to say that and say it out loud and then begin the process of finding new and innovative ways to provide learning and instruction in a distance setting.”
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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — A Morgantown business has been making neon signs since 1963, but employees are changing course to assist in addressing the coronavirus.
City Neon is creating face shields; third-generation Chris Atkins said while not typical, the materials to make signs can be repurposed.
“We enough materials to make about 7,000,” he said. “It’s face shield, a clear face shield with a band around the head, it’s a pretty simple design.”
Atkins mentioned a shortage of personal protective equipment, and the signs will be sold in bulk to local businesses.
“Bags of 10, 50 or 100. Large quantities,” he noted. “We want to sell to businesses so they do things safely and keep their employees safe.”
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West Virginia counties under heightened social distancing guidelines have started working through how to communicate and enforce them.
“If people didn’t get the message before, this is not a vacation. This is a national health crisis,” Charleston Mayor Amy Goodwin said in a Sunday afternoon press conference to roll out the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department’s new rules.
Gov. Jim Justice issued executive orders this weekend for stricter social distancing in “hotspots,” including Kanawha, Monongalia, Harrison, Jefferson, Berkeley and Morgan counties.
The rest of the state remains under a stay-home order, but coronavirus is spreading more rapidly in those areas, requiring greater precautions, officials said.
Justice’s executive order is meant to limit groups to a maximum of five people and directs all businesses to require employees to work from home “to the maximum extent possible.”
It authorizes the county health departments to limit occupancy of any businesses that remain open to the public and designates support from the State Police and the West Virginia National Guard.
“One of the problems that we’ve had over the weekend is that we’ve seen people pouring into stores and large areas,” said Kanawha-Charleston Health Director Sherri Young.
Kanawha County had 63 positive coronavirus cases as of this afternoon, according to the local health department.
Of those, Young said, 85 percent of those were outpatient and the remaining 15 percent required hospitalization.
The heightened rules are meant for people with the virus who still feel like they can function, Young said.
“If people are outpatient and they are feeling well, it is hard to convey the message that just because they feel well they should not go out in public,” she said Sunday afternoon.
“This is our best step at moving forward. The numbers could be much worse if we had not put earlier recommendations into place. So we are tightening those recommendations.”
The Kanawha order limits access to businesses to two individuals for every 1,000 square feet of public space. Businesses are also to control access with a strict one-in, one-out policy when the maximum number of patrons is reached.
Eastern Panhandle counties quickly passed their own rules this weekend to reflect limitations on gatherings and the number of people who can be at businesses considered essential.
Members of the Jefferson County Health Department gathered in a Zoom teleconferencing meeting on Sunday afternoon to discuss and pass tighter measures.
“All those in favor, raise your hand and wave,” said John Bresland, chairman of the health department board.
The rules reflect what the Berkeley-Morgan health department had passed the prior day.
They include a 14-day minimum stays at hotels, motels, Airbnbs, although there is an exception for health care workers. And the business occupancy guidelines are 2.5 people per 1,000 square feet in grocery stores or 2 people per 1,000 square feet in other stores.
“I think our orders across the Panhandle need to be uniform,” said Nathan Cochran, a lawyer for the Jefferson health board. “It just makes it easier for the citizens everywhere.”
He agreed the moves are necessary.
“A lot of folks were not sheltering in place,” Cochran said.
“The health officials are very concerned there is going to be a significant increase in the number of cases in the Panhandle because it appears as though folks are still interacting without a lot of regard to the original order from the governor.”
The teleconference meeting drew more than 50 viewers, several of whom wanted to know how the new rules would work in practice.
Harpers Ferry Mayor Wayne Bishop wanted more guidance on people coming in from elsewhere to seek refuge at short-term rentals in West Virginia. He said the town council was already planning to make people who arrive from elsewhere quarantine for 14 days.
“We still do have an influx of visitors coming here,” Bishop said. “We have noticed there are still postings inviting people to come to the Panhandle to wait this thing out or hunker down here.”
Terrence Reidy, the county’s health director, agreed: “With I-81, we have tens of thousands of people coming through. We’re really just trying to stop the spread of this virus everywhere.”
The owner of Andy’s Pizza in Ranson came on to ask about the math of 2.5 people per 1,000 square feet. He wants to comply with health guidelines, he said, but also hopes his business can function.
“My building is 2,000 feet, so that would be five people,” he said. “So if you are a thousand square feet does that limit you to two people or three people? The five people I would have, does that limit you to employees?”
He concluded, “Five employees in my business is pretty difficult. I will decrease it and try to figure it out.”
Reidy said the five people allowed in the 2,000 square-foot Andy’s Pizza building would include employees, but he seemed to suggest common sense should apply rather than a strict reading.
“The purpose is to eliminate what sometimes is a tremendous congregating of people,” Reidy said. He later added, “The details, of course, is where the difficulties arise.”
Bridget Lambert of the West Virginia Retailers Association urged consistent oversight of standards.
“It would ve very hard for our retail stores to have different sanitarians telling them different things,” Lambert said.
Jefferson Sheriff Pete Dougherty puzzled over the problem of people going golfing at courses that are still open and considered essential in orders up to now.
“Since my office is going to be the one tasked with enforcing this, what do we do about golf courses?” Dougherty asked.
“Not only are there golfers here, but yesterday the cart girl was driving around with food and beverages to get to people.”
In the end, the guideline was that people at golf courses should maintain six feet distance and not share a cart.
Dougherty said deputies would largely be in charge of enforcing all the new rules, with backup from other local law enforcement agencies.
He said state troopers could help but their numbers are limited in the area, and the National Guard is just supposed to help disseminate information.
“We’re obviously looking for people to voluntarily comply,” he said. “If there are issues we will be helping them.”
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. — While the coronavirus pandemic prevented many from attending, a remembrance ceremony for the victims of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster took place Sunday in downtown Beckley.
With West Virginia Delegate Mick Bates, D-Raleigh, reading the names of the victims, a ringing bell marked each of the 29 coal miners who died 10 years ago.
“Let them find rest from their labors, for their good works accompany them,” Bates said.
The Beckley-Raleigh County Chamber of Commerce livestreamed the ceremony on its Facebook page.
A wreath was also placed at the memorial marker honoring the victims.
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Restocking was happening steadily at grocery stores, convenience stores and other sites across West Virginia as Governor Jim Justice’s stay-home order limiting travel to essential trips continued because of COVID-19.
“Our food supply has been overwhelmed, but we’re not going to run out food,” said Traci Nelson, president of the West Virginia Oil Marketers and Grocers Association.
This week, she said there were some signs panic buying was subsiding.
Many stores have now expanded curbside services, added special senior shopping hours, reduced operational hours to allow time for additional cleaning and stocking and implemented additional safety steps for customers and employees.
On Saturday, both Walmart and Target started limiting numbers of shoppers allowed in stores at one time to comply with recommendations for social distancing from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In some stores, workers were having their temperatures checked at shift starts, sanitizing high-touch surfaces each hour, wearing gloves or masks and, in some cases, running registers behind newly-installed plexiglass shields.
Customers were encouraged to keep their distance at stores of all sizes.
“We’re taking this very seriously,” said Nelson.
In-person training sessions from the West Virginia National Guard on safety and cleaning measures have involved those with Little General Stores, Par Mar Stores and DeFazio Oil, which Nelson represents.
On Friday, experts with the Guard’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Response Enterprise Task Force conducted 20 trainings overall for retailers, food establishments, convenience stores and location first responders in cargo box handling and personal protective equipment.
The team had 50 mobile training sessions planned in the coming week with healthcare providers and first responders for some parts of West Virginia with higher numbers of positive cases, including Monongalia County.
Additionally, training videos were in the works for more widespread distribution.
As for supplies at stores, “They’re more able to keep up with the demand. At the end of the day, they still have meat in their meat cases and they still have milk and all those things,” Nelson reported this week.
“We’re not going to run out of essentials so there’s no reason for you to buy two and three months worth of supplies.”
Initially, waves of shoppers cleared some stores completely of certain items.
“A couple things that they’re still having a hard time getting in are hand sanitizers, hand soap, toilet paper — they’re getting those items in, but they’re not getting as many as they ordered at times,” Nelson explained.
That was because, she said, those items were in high demand nationwide during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re competing with every other store across the United States. Their suppliers — they supply a lot of different grocery stores,” Nelson said.
“It’s just harder for the little guys, because I represent Piggly Wigglys and the little independents, so they’re not going to have the buying power, say, of Walmart or one of those stores.”
Going forward, she advised shoppers to use common sense when picking up essentials.
“If you’re not feeling well, don’t go out and don’t go in the stores and, I would also say, when you’re out, be cognizant of the other shoppers around you,” Nelson said.
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MONTCOAL, W.Va. — Motorists who drive through Whitesville, West Virginia cannot miss a long, granite memorial. The engraving on the front is the silhouette of 29 figures. It’s a roadside memorial which is an attention-grabber. Today, it is the most conspicuous reminder of a tragedy which occurred ten years ago today.
UBB Memorial Facebook
During an afternoon shift change on April 5, 2010 at the Upper Big Branch Mine in the community of Montcoal, W.Va. an explosion rocked the mountain. Fire rocketed for miles underground through entry ways of the sprawling Massey Energy underground operation and killed everything and everyone in its path.
“It had to be a horrific explosion,” said then West Virginia Third District Congressman Nick Rahall.in a media interview at the time. “There are stories of rail lines being twisted like pretzels. I talked to one individual who worked in a different part of the mountain and heard the explosion from a great distance away and it knocked him to the ground.”
Steve Smith was a miner who worked on the other side of the mountain. He was actually headed into the mine when the blast occurred.
“Since we weren’t’ that far underground, we high tailed it back to the outside,” he told MetroNews on the evening of April 5th.
“We thought it was a roof fall or something that caused all that air. But the more we got to talking about it and thinking about it we knew it had to be some kind of explosion. There was dust lingering in the air, but the air wasn’t going anywhere. The further we got down the track, the more the wind picked up and before you knew it your ears stopped up and you couldn’t hear and it was like being in the middle of a tornado.” Smith said.
U.S. Senator Joe Manchin at the time was Governor Joe Manchin. He was immediately on his way to the scene to begin sitting vigil with another set of family members who would await terrible news. He had more experience with such work than he wanted.
“I couldn’t believe it was happening again. We’d been through Sago and Aracoma and then Upper Big Branch and I couldn’t believe the numbers I was hearing,” Manchin said last week.
The numbers were staggering. Authorities confirmed 25 men were killed almost instantly and four remained unaccounted for. The search for the four would take another five days as the world waited and hoped. There was hope they had made it to the rescue chamber–a requirement which had been added to mine safety regulations after the Sago Mine disaster only a few years earlier.
“It was a horrible situation. Families were there, not knowing and hanging on ever word. We had to get there, get organized and get them information,” Manchin remembered.
The updates during those agonizing days as the search continued for the remaining four miners were heart wrenching. Families who knew their loved ones were lost prayed alongside those who were unsure. The world waited, and hoped. On April 10th, Governor Manchin and MSHA officials, in the wee hours of the morning, delivered the bad news that none of the miners had survived.
“We had a horrible situation and 29 miners lost their lives and it was all preventable,” Manchin today recalls.
The investigation in the years following the explosion revealed a poor culture of safety at the operation. Investigators found corners were cut and coal production was demanded at all costs. Surviving family members testified their deceased love ones had warned of problems at U-B-B and some even wrote down those concerns and asked love ones to give their notes to investigators if something happened. Those letters from the grave revealed a pattern of complacency and general apathy toward safety, not only by the company, but also by MSHA.
During the years which followed, new federal regulations were put into place over what was learned from the Upper Big Branch disaster. MSHA leadership changed and enforcement regulations were tightened. Manchin was among those who led the charge for the changes, and now bristles at the notion of rolling them back.
“We did everything we could to make mines safe. To have legislators thinking now we have to roll that back because of the cost is unconscionable. You can put a price on every single piece of equipment in that mine, but the life of a miner is priceless,” Manchin said.
Massey Energy never recovered from the disaster. The company was sold and its name dissolved forever. The company’s President and CEO Don Blankenship was convicted of violating federal mine safety laws and served the maximum sentence of a year in prison.
The site where the UBB operation was located was dismantled, the mine sealed, and if you drive by the location on Route 3 today you would never know it was once a massive coal mining operation. However, those whose love ones perished on the afternoon of April 5, 2010 will forever be haunted by the memory of what happened there.
FAIRMONT, W.Va. — Fairmont State University will temporarily adjust admission requirements for incoming and prospective students as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Changes include allowing students more time to meet enrollment deadlines and suspending the standardized test requirement for those enrolling in the fall. Students will also have until Aug. 1 to submit their transcripts.
University president Mirta Martin said it is important for the institution to make sure education continues being accessible.
“Fairmont State is committed to providing a world-class education to all who seek it,” she said.
“This pandemic is an unprecedented event in all of our lives, but Fairmont State is rising to the challenge. We’re doing all we can to assist our students, our community, and our state during this crisis, because we’re all in this together. We must, and will, continue to educate the work-force for the next generation.”
Institution officials will offer virtual advising sessions for first-year and transfer students to discuss scheduling. Staff will also work with students on FAFSA as financial circumstances change.
Fairmont State is also extending the application deadline for the fall semester to Aug. 1.
(Citynet Statewide Sportsline interview)
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — While the West Virginia high school basketball postseason remains suspended, Poca sophomore guard Isaac McKneely received his first ‘Power 5’ scholarship offer Wednesday afternoon. Already holding offers from Davidson, Liberty, Marshall, Robert Morris, Stetson and Xavier, McKneely added West Virginia to that list.
“It was definitely a nice, pleasant surprise,” McKneely said. “Coach (Ron) Everhart texted my coach (Allen Osborne) and told him to call. He called me and told me to call Coach Huggins. So I called Coach Huggins and he pretty much just told me the news. I was really ecstatic about it.”
McKneely burst on to the scene as a freshman, leading a young group of Dots to the state tournament in 2019. His profile was raised after a strong summer season on the AAU circuit and Division I offers soon followed.
“I got some attention my freshman high school season. But last year in AAU is when I really caught the eye of a lot of coaches.”
When the postseason was suspended, Poca had claimed a sectional championship and they were scheduled to host Logan in the Class AA regionals. McKneely led the Dots to a 21-3 record, scoring 22 points per game. He has the versatility to play both guard positions.
“I am a point guard/shooting guard, either one. I can dribble up the floor. I can facilitate a lot. I can shoot the three pretty well. I can dribble it. I can shoot off the bounce. I play pretty good defense. My cons right now is I am working on my defense a lot. Coach Osborne is trying to work with me to get better on the defensive end because I am going to have to guard really good guards in college. So I am going to get better on defense and get stronger.”
Like every other basketball player in the state right now, McKneely is left to work out on his own as practices and games are suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Obviously we were a little upset when the season ended early. We wanted to win a state championship but it got cut a little short. We are just trying to pass the time at home. I have been playing a lot of video games, working out on my own in my backyard on my hoop. I have been working out on the Bowflex, just trying to stay in shape in case something happens.”
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