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Absentee ballot votes will be protected, W.Va. Secretary of State says

HUNTINGTON — The West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office said voters should have confidence in voting by mail amid the COVID-19 outbreak, reassuring there are safeguards in place to stamp out fraud in the 2020 primary election.

Since April, eligible voters in the state began receiving pink-colored slips notifying them they are eligible to vote by absentee ballot in the June 9 election, which was originally set for this month and was moved because of the state of emergency. The slips instruct voters on how to apply for absentee ballots at their county clerks’ offices.

Requests for absentee ballots are pouring in. In Cabell County, workers have mailed out approximately 8,500 absentee ballot applications to the county’s more than 56,000 registered voters, and in Wayne County, which has more than 28,000 registered voters, workers have mailed out about 1,500 absentee ballot applications — far beyond average election years.

But because of duplicate or outdated voter registration records, some people received notifications in the mail meant for other people, said Jennifer Gardner, deputy press secretary for the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office.

“Basically, when voters move and do not update their voter registration or notify their county clerk, they remain registered at their previous address until the voter list-maintenance processes are complete,” Gardner said in an email. “Under the law, this process can take several years, especially if a voter does not re-register to vote at the new address.”

Mark Stallings, of Huntington, said he called the Secretary of State’s Office and the Cabell County Clerk’s Office after he found a stranger’s notification slip among his family’s mail. Stallings believes it was meant for the home’s former owner before he and his wife relocated to the area.

Stallings said he served 15 years in the armed services and is no stranger to voting by mail. However, he is worried because his experience with it has been less than perfect while deployed in Afghanistan.

“By the time the mail and the military realize you are overseas, you get the ballot and fill it out, you send it back and a lot of times it didn’t quite make it,” Stallings said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, shocker, it never made it.’”

Stallings said he returned the stranger’s slip in hopes of notifying the proper person. He said he is still concerned that other registered voters might have their votes stolen by people submitting fraudulent absentee ballot requests. It might not sway a federal election, but it could impact local races, he said.

“Voting should be protected, because without that faith in your government, people tend to seek other solutions to their beliefs,” he said. “I don’t want my kids to do that. I don’t what them to have to go off to war and do all that stuff. I did all that. I want them to use their heads.”

Because of the increase of absentee ballots this election, county clerks’ offices are working to properly check the identification of those requesting absentee ballots, Gardner said. West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner has also launched a campaign aimed at increasing voter accessibility and election protection.

“Voters should rest assured that there is a significant verification process that occurs at the county clerks’ offices once absentee applications and ballots are received. The voters’ personal information and signature is verified against the private registration records on file in the clerks’ offices, and any information that appears awry or signatures that do not match result in ‘challenged’ ballots, which are not counted on election night,” he said. “Rather, the County Commission, sitting as the ex officio Board of Canvassers, reviews each challenged ballot for validity at canvass prior to either counting or rejecting any ballot.”

Gardner said if someone receives a notice at their house with another voter’s name on it, drop it back in the mailbox with a note returning to sender.

“When the county clerk receives returned mailings, he or she will know to send ‘confirmation notices’ to those voters, which is the first step required by state and federal law to remove an outdated voter registration,” she said. “Voters who do not respond to the notice, update their registration or cast a ballot in following two subsequent federal elections may be removed from the voter rolls under state law.”

To vote absentee in West Virginia, registered voters must contact their county clerk’s office to request an absentee ballot application. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, people are urged to call the offices beforehand to learn how they can receive and send an application. These applications must be returned to the county clerks’ offices on or before June 3.

Once approved, the county clerk will mail an absentee ballot with prepaid postage and instructions. Ballots must be postmarked on or before June 9 to be counted.

Early voting in West Virginia is from May 27 to June 6.

All child-care, assisted-living staff to be tested for COVID-19 in W.Va.

CHARLESTON — All staff at West Virginia assisted-living facilities and child-care facilities will be tested for COVID-19 per Gov. Jim Justice’s order.

Justice signed an executive order Wednesday after four child-care workers in Kanawha County tested positive but had no symptoms.

“Our hope is in every way we can get our day-care centers up and running,” Justice said. “We need them. But we cannot risk anything with our children or them getting anything they could bring home.”

One of the child-care providers who tested positive works at the West Virginia National Guard Child Development Center, said Gen. James Hoyer. Hoyer said all staff have been wearing proper personal protective equipment, so risk of transmission is low. The center will be sanitized.

Testing of child-care workers will be done on a rolling basis, said state health officer Dr. Cathy Slemp. The more than 600 child-care centers that have continued to provide care to children of essential workers will receive first priority.

Dr. Clay Marsh, state coronavirus czar, said the asymptomatic positives highlight the importance of everyone wearing face coverings or masks. He said 45% of people will be asymptomatic.

Marsh also said the transmission rate, or “R naught,” of the novel coronavirus has increased over the past week, reaching 0.90 Wednesday. He said it will continue to be a data point they watch as reopening businesses continues.

“With the governor’s focus on health and well-being, there may be times we need to stop, go backward or leave the dance floor for a little bit,” Marsh said.

The doctor said he didn’t think reopening was the cause, but more a public perception that things are getting better. But the virus is still out there, the state’s population is still highly vulnerable and a large portion of the population has not yet been exposed to the virus, so precautions must still be taken, he said, including physical distancing.

After several days of no new reported deaths in West Virginia related to COVID-19, the 51st was reported Wednesday evening — an 83-year-old woman from Berkeley County.

As of 5 p.m. Wednesday, there were 56,085 laboratory results received for COVID-19, with 1,276 positive and 54,809 negative. Thirty-four new positive cases were reported Wednesday, including four new cases in Cabell County.

Total confirmed cases by county are: Barbour (six), Berkeley (171), Boone (six), Braxton (two), Brooke (three), Cabell (47), Clay (one), Fayette (27), Gilmer (three), Grant (three), Greenbrier (eight), Hampshire (eight), Hancock (11), Hardy (11), Harrison (32), Jackson (136), Jefferson (84), Kanawha (172), Lewis (four), Lincoln (three), Logan (15), Marion (46), Marshall (20), Mason (12), McDowell (six), Mercer (11), Mineral (20), Mingo (two), Monongalia (111), Monroe (six), Morgan (14), Nicholas (eight), Ohio (33), Pendleton (five), Pleasants (two), Pocahontas (two), Preston (14), Putnam (27), Raleigh (nine), Randolph (five), Ritchie (one), Roane (seven), Summers (one), Taylor (eight), Tucker (four), Tyler (three), Upshur (five), Wayne (92), Wetzel (three), Wirt (three), Wood (42) and Wyoming (one).

In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine did not have a press briefing Wednesday, but he released a statement after the Ohio House of Representatives passed a bill that would let a group of lawmakers approve or reject health orders by the director of health.

“Creating more uncertainty regarding public health and employee safety is the last thing we need as we work to restore consumer confidence in Ohio’s economy,” the statement read.

There were 607 new cases of COVID-19 reported in Ohio on Wednesday, for a total of 21,576, and 90 new deaths, for a total of 1,225.

In Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear said guidance will be coming next week on how to reopen retail, as well as state, county and local governments.

He also announced his controversial travel ban had been tweaked after a ruling by a judge. It mirrors Ohio’s, which requires those who enter the state with the intent to stay to self-quarantine for 14 days.

There were 159 new positive cases of COVID-19 in Kentucky announced Wednesday, for a total of 5,934, and 283 deaths.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported more than 22,000 new cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. on Wednesday, bringing the national total to 1,193,813. There have been 70,802 deaths related to the virus.

The Associated Press reports that for most people, the novel coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus.

W.Va. created counterfeit monitoring task force the same weekend respirators were questioned

CHARLESTON — West Virginia’s public safety office created a task force to monitor counterfeit equipment the same weekend the governor was told the 50,000 respirators the state bought were potentially knockoffs.

The task force was formed to monitor possible counterfeit goods coming into the state for COVID-19 response. Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety Secretary Jeff Sandy told Gov. Jim Justice over Easter weekend the state had reached out to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention testing lab inquiring about the respirators, a department spokesman wrote in an email.

The CDC lab wrote back the following Monday, advising officials the respirators with the ear design were likely counterfeit and not approved by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.

Made up of state and federal law enforcement officials, the task force is monitoring four areas of concern, according to a release from the department, but three of those deal with other threats to public safety, and not personal protection equipment:

  • International threats to potentially exploit COVID-19 to weaken U.S. shale oil.
  • Terrorist and extremist groups seeking to exploit COVID-19 in attempt to incite violence within weakened health care systems, faith-based and minority communities.
  • False information on social media to create heightened concern and panic toward government operations.
  • An “exploded” market for counterfeit personal protection equipment.

As part of the governor’s directive, the public safety department formed a special investigative partnership with the Food and Drug Administration, CDC, U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the department spokesman wrote.

West Virginia’s members on the task force currently include two representatives each from the state Homeland Security office, the State Fire Marshal’s Office and the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Four State Police troopers — two in northern West Virginia and two in southern West Virginia — will also sit on the task force.

Sandy was not available Wednesday to answer additional questions about the task force, the spokesman said.

At the direction of Justice, through Sandy, the task force will “(i)nvestigate counterfeit or fraud of personal protection equipment and materials solicited for purchase and use against COVID-19,” according to the release.

“Current federal strategic stockpiles are depleted … (t)his supply/demand shortfall has increased the use of PPE products from manufacturing suppliers outside the United States. The counterfeit market for these items has exploded,” the release says.

The federal and state agencies comprising the task force have had existing relationships prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the release says.

State officials defended the purchase of the 50,000 respirators, included in a $567,000 purchase, during the governor’s press briefings Tuesday and Wednesday.

The respirators aren’t NIOSH-approved, officials said, but they were approved by the FDA for emergency use when supplies are short.

Questions surrounding the authenticity of the respirators follow a report from the Charleston Gazette-Mail that the CDC advised top state public safety officials the respirators were counterfeit.

Jim’s Steak & Spaghetti House has postponed Strawberry Pie Week this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Marshall to celebrate spring 2020 commencement Aug. 8

HUNTINGTON — Marshall University has announced it has tentatively rescheduled its spring commencement ceremony for Saturday, Aug. 8, in Huntington.

University officials said the exact time and location will be announced early this summer, but the most likely venue is the Mountain Health Arena. If health guidelines and social distancing requirements prevent using the arena, an outdoor location may be used.

Originally scheduled for May 2, the ceremony was canceled to help reduce the spread of COVID-19, as directed by public health guidelines for large gatherings. Seniors graduated on time because their degrees were conferred in May — only the official ceremonies were postponed. During the last week of April, Marshall celebrated its graduating students during a weeklong social media campaign complete with video messages from their college deans and other top officials at the university.

“We are very hopeful the pandemic situation in late summer will allow the university to move forward with the Aug. 8 commencement,” said Sonja Cantrell-Johnson, Marshall’s registrar. “The Class of 2020 is one of the most resilient classes in the history of our university, and we want to honor them with a traditional commencement event.”

If the Aug. 8 date is not possible because of continuing public health concerns, the university will honor the Class of 2020 at a later date in the fall or at the winter commencement in December.

Spring 2020 graduates should continue to monitor their official Marshall email accounts or www.marshall.edu/commencement for details.