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Recommendations to improve West Virginia child care presented to Legislature

CHARLESTON — The motto of the West Virginia Republican Party is to make West Virginia a better place to live, work and raise a family. Advocates say West Virginia can accomplish that now by taking advantage of the federal American Rescue Plan to make long-lasting changes to the state’s struggling early childhood education system.

Currently, 64% of West Virginians live in a child-care desert, said Dr. Jamie Jeffrey, pediatrician and associate clinical professor of pediatrics, WVU-Charleston, and early childhood education advocate. Jeffrey and other advocates testified to the Joint Committee on Health on Sunday, providing recommendations from the “Survive COVID and Thrive Tomorrow Child Care Policy Group.”

For those who do have access to child care, the average cost for one child for a year is more than the average cost of tuition at West Virginia University.

“During the pandemic, we really learned the need for child care,” Jeffrey said. “We learned it truly was an ‘essential’ service.”

The American Rescue Plan, signed into law March 11, appropriated funding for child care through three funding streams: two pools of one-time supplemental and stability funds, and a new permanent fund. West Virginia is set to receive more than $260 million.

“We need to use our funds to create lasting infrastructure,” Jeffrey said. “It’s a great scenario to be in because the money is coming in. We just have to have a plan.”

The coalition has five main recommendations.

First, support families by raising the income eligibility to receive child-care subsidies.

Helen Post-Brown, director of Sunbeam Early Learning Center in Fairmont, said both the entry level and exit level need to be raised.

In her experience, she has seen families be kicked off the subsidy because they got a raise at work, but the raise is not enough to cover the loss of the subsidy.

Second, the coalition suggests paying child-care providers based on children’s enrollment versus daily attendance.

Currently, most providers are paid only if a child attends. That means if a child is sick, the center gets no payment, but the teacher in the classroom still goes to work and needs to get paid, said Post-Brown.

She said when her facility changed to getting paid by enrollment, they were able to make changes to their playground, for example.

She said it was a game-changer to have that steady revenue.

This goes in line with providing more support for higher salaries for child-care workers. The average child-care worker is paid $10 an hour, which is a hard sell for most employees, but especially those with early childhood education bachelor’s degrees.

The coalition also wants to incentivize higher tiers of service provided and provide funds to expand existing facilities and build new ones.

Meghan Hullinger testified she lives in one of the child-care deserts in the state. A single mother of four, only one of her children is in a licensed child-care facility.

Two others are on waiting lists, one for six months from now.

For now, they are with a regular babysitter, which deprives them of the structure, the lessons, the outdoor play and the socialization day care provides.

“I’ve experienced job loss and loss of opportunities because of the lack of child care,” Hullinger said.

A former child-care worker herself, Hullinger said the state should invest in training for more child-care homes, which could particularly help fill the gaps in more rural areas of the state.

“We are counting on our elected officials to help our families,” Hullinger said. “We should not be last in helping our families and protecting our children.”

Sweet as honey: Beginners learn the basics in beekeeping class

HUNTINGTON — It didn’t take long to figure out what all the buzz was about.

People interested in beekeeping attended a beginner beekeeping class led by Sugar Bottom Farm on Sunday behind The Wild Ramp in Huntington.

The class, which was free and open to the public, was designed as an informative, introductory look at beekeeping, although seasoned beekeepers were also welcomed.

Located in Clay County, Sugar Bottom Farm is a veteran-owned business that specializes in “everything honey bees.” In addition to offering eight varieties of raw honey, the farm makes soap, lip balm and lotion.

According to the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, the state has an active beekeeping industry. The WVDA helps beekeepers keep their hives free of disease and also helps them if they need to move bees to other states for sale or crop pollination. It also works with the West Virginia Beekeepers Association to promote honey bees, hive products and initiatives to support beekeepers in the state.

Over 2,200 new COVID cases reported in West Virginia

HUNTINGTON — More than 2,200 new cases of COVID-19 were reported in West Virginia on Sunday as the pandemic continues to ravage the state.

The state Department of Health and Human Resources reported 2,244 new cases of the virus, bringing the state’s total number of cases to 210,289. There were no new virus-related deaths reported Sunday, but there were 83 deaths in the past week and 3,207 overall.

There were 27,137 active cases across the state Sunday.

The statewide total of 7,849 positive cases for the six days ending Saturday passed the seven-day total for the previous week, which was the second highest during the pandemic.

The highest for one week was nearly 8,200 cases in early January as virus vaccines were being offered only for people ages 65 and older.

The amount of weekly virus deaths statewide has gone up steadily since early August, when six deaths were reported for the week of Aug. 9.

Health officials continued to urge people to get vaccinated against the virus, with 925,696 people in West Virginia fully vaccinated.

Johnson Memorial United Methodist Church will host a COVID-19 vaccination clinic from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 16, at the church’s parking lot off 10th Street and 6th Avenue in Huntington. Drive-thru and walk-up vaccines will be offered, with no appointment necessary. Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines will be available.

Cases also continue to rise in Ohio.

The Lawrence County Health Department on Sunday reported that there have been 657 new cases of COVID-19 in the county since Sept. 1. For comparison, there were 75 cases reported from Sept. 1-11 in 2020.

The health department pointed out that hospitals in the area are overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases and intensive care units are filling up with patients who have tested positive for the virus. The majority of hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19 are among the unvaccinated, the health department said.

Health officials reminded the community that masks have been shown to reduce the spread of the virus.

“Regardless of your vaccine status, please consider wearing a mask indoors when in areas with a high risk of transmission,” the health department said in a Facebook post. “Wash your hands often. Stay home when you’re sick. Please do what you can to protect yourself and others.”

In Kentucky, the Ashland-Boyd County Health Department reported 232 cases of COVID-19 from Sept. 7-10. Cases were reported in patients ranging in age from 3 months old to 84 years old, with more than 60 cases in children under the age of 18.

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COVID-19 surge continues to rage in W.Va.

CHARLESTON — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice painted a bleak picture.

“The weather is going to get bad, and absolutely we’re going to be overrun in our hospitals, and there are going to be decisions that have to be made on who is going to live and who is going to die,” Justice said during his COVID-19 press briefing Friday, warning about the consequences of continued low vaccination rates. “It’ll be terrible beyond belief.”

Hospitalizations matched the prior pandemic peak, with 818 people hospitalized Friday compared to the previous high of 818 on Jan. 5. As of Friday, 252 patients were in intensive care and 152 were on a ventilator, shattering previous highs in both categories from the first week of January.

A report released last week by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention and other health agencies showed West Virginia leading the nation in the rate of COVID-19 spread. Fifty-six percent of West Virginians 12 and older have received a vaccine dose. Only half in that age group are fully vaccinated.

While 51 of the state’s 55 school boards have opted to enforce masking in county schools, 16% of cases in the past week have been in children younger than 12. They are too young to be vaccinated.

The current surge, fueled by the more contagious delta variant, is the worst seen since the pandemic began.

In West Virginia, there were nearly 25,000 active cases Friday. Justice lamented that “many … will die,” but he has yet to return to mandates like those he ordered last year to counter the pandemic.

Dr. Clay Marsh, the state coronavirus czar, said a peak for the current surge could be as far as two weeks away, leaving thousands of people in the meantime to get sick. He and other public health experts have estimated timelines for the surge based on data from other places further along in it than West Virginia.

Dr. Christopher Martin, a professor at West Virginia University’s School of Public Health and at WVU’s School of Medicine, said he’s not so sure it’s possible to predict when the virus will peak here and numerous variables could lead to it lasting longer.

“I hear a lot of people say they think the delta surge will last a certain amount of time, but that’s not how I see things,” Martin said. “I haven’t found a single state that is fully, completely through the delta surge. Everybody’s curves are different, and we have to be cautious about generalizing in different populations that are further along than West Virginia.”

West Virginia, Martin said, is in a different situation than many other states. Temperatures are cooler here than in places such as Florida. Congregant settings — like football games, concerts and festivals drawing thousands of people in often close quarters — can accelerate spread.

On Wednesday, Marsh compared the current surge to smaller brush fires that grew into a large, raging forest fire. Vaccinations are the best firewall, he said.

But applying that firewall is a challenge. Martin cited Kaiser Family Foundation surveys showing 14% of the population opposed to vaccines.

“That’s been a really stable finding. That number has been unaffected by surges, by the delta variant, all the information on hospital deaths and capacity being overwhelmed by the unvaccinated — none of that has changed their minds,” Martin said.

The pandemic, Martin said, has made him rethink much of what he thought he knew. Tiers in prevention include screenings to catch a disease early or lifestyle choices to stave off infections. The primordial level, the fifth in preventative medicine and by far the least discussed, he said, is composed of acting to reduce the harm of environmental, social and economic factors, among others.

“It’s dealing with other factors like systemic racism, widespread poverty that do have a public health effect,” Martin said. “We need to look at this — I like that word, intersectional — that’s how we need to look at this. What are the primordial factors here?”

Those factors can drive down vaccination rates and extend the virus surge. Those problems can’t be solved now or even in coming weeks, he said. But policy could be set to limit future harm to the same populations, which are often those that can least afford to be hard hit by illness.

“Vaccine hesitancy is not a data problem. We have lots of data. It’s not a messaging problem. Lots of people are speaking to the public in different ways. I don’t really believe it’s an education problem, as there are so many avenues today — no matter your background — to find information,” Martin said. “There is no quick fix to where we are right now, but if we don’t say this is unacceptable and that ultimately there are policies that need to be changed, nothing is going to get better. This is not something a physician fixes, but the physician can advocate for much needed policy improvements.”

Martin compared vaccination to wearing a seat belt. When that was first mandated, many people refrained from wearing belts in protest despite evidence showing the restraints saved lives. Today, wearing seat belts is second nature, he said.

“Most people don’t even think about it. It’s a habit, and you don’t hear people seriously shouting against it as they did then,” Martin said. “I draw this comparison because I need optimism. It won’t always be this way.”

But the immediate future is grim.

“Epidemics are like wildfires in that those that have explosive increases will also have explosive declines,” Martin said. “When it goes up quick, it comes down quick, with a trail of wreckage in its wake. Tragically, what we’re seeing is this virus ravaging a large unvaccinated population. On the other side, we’re going to see a lot of people either die or develop natural immunity, often with long-term side effects we don’t really understand yet. It’s going to be tragic.”