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Free COVID-19 testing at 16th Street Baptist Church this weekend

CHARLESTON — Free COVID-19 testing from the state will be offered for Cabell County residents at 16th Street Baptist Church in Huntington on Friday and Saturday as part of West Virginia’s effort to provide testing for vulnerable communities.

The Department of Health and Human Resources and county health officials, along with support from the West Virginia National Guard, will conduct the testing from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday and Saturday, May 22-23. An ID or proof of residency is required, and those under the age of 18 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian. Symptoms of COVID-19 are not required for testing.

This is the second round of free testing being offered in counties with higher transmission rates of the virus. It targets residents who have struggled to be seen by a physician or do not have insurance to pay for testing.

The free testing is part of the plan to address disparities among the black and minority populations in the state. Though only making up 3.6% of the population, 7.4% of all cases in the state are black West Virginians and 30.4% of those patients have been hospitalized, compared to just 15% of white COVID-19 patients. In Cabell County, 16.36% of all cases are black or other than white, despite making up only about 5% of the population.

Testing will also take place this weekend in Kanawha, Marion and Monongalia counties.

On the eve of the biggest round of business reopenings in the state, including dine-in restaurants, Gov. Jim Justice continued to stress the importance of West Virginians taking precautions such as wearing a mask and social distancing. He said it is up to individuals to reduce their exposure to the virus.

Dr. Clay Marsh, state coronavirus czar, said a new study found if 80% to 90% of the population wears face masks, infection rates drop significantly. Marsh said he is worried what will happen if West Virginians forgo masks or face coverings and physical distancing.

Justice said he doesn’t want to mandate that masks be worn or other precautions be taken, but that he will if he has to. He also said reopenings could slow down, stop or a stay-at-home order reinstated if cases begin to significantly rise again.

“What in the world does it hurt to wear a mask?” Justice said.

One new death related to COVID-19 was reported Wednesday, a 75-year-old man from Kanawha County. The total number of fatalities in the state is now 69.

There were 53 new positive cases reported statewide out of 2,732 test results received, for a total of 1,567. The percentage of cumulative positives was 1.93% as of 5 p.m. Wednesday.

Confirmed cases by county are: Barbour (seven), Berkeley (245), Boone (nine), Braxton (two), Brooke (three), Cabell (55), Calhoun (two), Clay (two), Fayette (39), Gilmer (nine), Grant (six), Greenbrier (nine), Hampshire (12), Hancock (12), Hardy (33), Harrison (37), Jackson (135), Jefferson (115), Kanawha (205), Lewis (five), Lincoln (five), Logan (15), Marion (48), Marshall (25), Mason (15), McDowell (six), Mercer (13), Mineral (34), Mingo (three), Monongalia (118), Monroe (six), Morgan (17), Nicholas (nine), Ohio (37), Pendleton (five), Pleasants (two), Pocahontas (10), Preston (15), Putnam (30), Raleigh (14), Randolph (nine), Ritchie (one), Roane (eight), Summers (one), Taylor (eight), Tucker (four), Tyler (three), Upshur (six), Wayne (96), Wetzel (seven), Wirt (four), Wood (48) and Wyoming (three).

In Ohio, there were 434 new positive cases reported, for a total of 29,436, and 61 new deaths, for a total of 1,781. There was no press briefing Wednesday by Gov. Mike DeWine.

In Kentucky, 166 new positive cases were reported, for a total of 8,167, and 10 new deaths, for a total of 376.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported more than 23,000 new cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. on Wednesday, for a total of 1,528,235. There have been 91,664 deaths related to the virus.

Coronavirus puts brakes on Memorial Day travel

HUNTINGTON — Travel this Memorial Day weekend is expected to set a new record low.

“Coming off the second-highest travel volume on record one year ago is a good indicator that travel will rebound eventually,” said Bevi Powell, senior vice president, AAA East Central, in a written statement. “This holiday weekend travel will likely be low.”

At this time last year, the travel organization reported record-breaking travel for the Memorial Day holiday weekend. This year, AAA put the brakes on its Memorial Day holiday travel forecast and predictions.

For the first time in two decades, AAA will not issue a Memorial Day travel forecast. They say the accuracy of the economic data used to create the forecast has been undermined by COVID-19.

“Anecdotal reports suggest fewer people will hit the road compared to years past for what is considered the unofficial start of the summer travel season,” Powell said.

AAA said its Memorial Day weekend forecast will return next year, and it expects to make travel predictions for the late summer and fall.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends people stay at home and says travel increases your chances of getting and spreading COVID-19.

“Stay home as much as possible, especially if your trip is not essential, and practice social distancing, especially if you are at higher risk of severe illness,” the CDC’s travel recommendations say on its website. “Don’t travel if you are sick or travel with someone who is sick.”

Most states, including West Virginia and those near it, have either lifted stay-at-home orders or have started a phased reopening, except for Virginia, which has its order in place until June 10.

Locally, hotel room occupancy in Cabell County has decreased significantly, according the Huntington Area Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB).

“We know that since the beginning of March to current, hotel room occupancy in Cabell County has gone down approximately 70% on a monthly average from this time last year,” said Tyson Compton, president of the Huntington Area CVB.

Desiree Besemer, the sales director for DoubleTree by Hilton in downtown Huntington, says occupancy is slightly up currently because of the holiday weekend.

“We noticed a little more travel for business people right now, as well as some local folks that are taking a break from being at home and doing a little holiday ‘staycation,’” she said.

Both Besemer and Compton are optimistic of a slight uptick from the current hotel room occupancy numbers going into the summer months.

“We’ve been monitoring the situation closely and working with the West Virginia Tourism Office. We know from their studies that people want to travel, are looking forward to it and even making some plans. But they want to be safe and they are moving slowly into travel,” Compton said. “Many of our attractions have not yet opened, but plan to open later this summer, possibly in July. And restaurants are just now reopening at 50% capacity. So I think we’ll see a quieter Memorial Day, with activity picking up as we move into the summer.”

Compton says many of the local festivals and sports tournaments, including the Rails & Ales craft beer festival and the regional youth soccer event, have been canceled.

“Many of our festivals and fairs have been postponed or even canceled,” he said. “While these are difficult decisions, I think it is wise. It takes a lot of time, effort and financial support to make these events successful. They could potentially suffer more by taking place now rather than later. As people do begin to travel, I feel that Huntington and Cabell and Wayne counties will be desirable destinations as people look for outdoor activities and less populated areas.”

AAA.com/Travel online bookings have been rising, though modestly, since mid-April, suggesting travelers’ confidence is slowly improving.

Four Democrats vie for chance to face Miller in congressional race

HUNTINGTON — With businesses slowly reopening, attention is being drawn back toward the ballot box with West Virginia’s upcoming primary election.

The 2020 elections have posed a unique set of challenges for candidates, as COVID-19 quarantine policies have made it difficult to participate in traditional campaigning. Likewise, the virus itself and the government response to it weighs heavily on the average voter, drawing attention away from other issues.

The 3rd Congressional District of West Virginia is no different in this regard. Covering Boone, Cabell, Fayette, Greenbrier, Lincoln, Logan, Mason, McDowell, Mercer, Mingo, Monroe, Nicholas, Pocahontas, Raleigh, Summers, Wayne, Webster and Wyoming counties, the 3rd District represents a huge chunk of West Virginians.

First-term U.S. Rep. Carol Miller, the incumbent, is unopposed in the primary. Though Russell Siegel was also running as a Republican candidate, he has ended his campaign.

Since her election in 2018, Miller said she has focused heavily on attempting to create new jobs and diversifying West Virginia’s economy, while attempting to support the state’s coal, oil and natural gas industries. Recently, much of Miller’s focus has been drawn to congressional votes on issues such as the HEROES Act, which she voted against.

One of the four Democrats running for a chance to unseat Miller is Jeff Lewis, who has spent 20 years working with Verizon and representing their workers in local bureaus. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2010, Lewis has used his health as motivation to continue campaigning and attempt to help others.

“Just because you have a disability doesn’t mean you yourself are incapable of doing what you want,” said Lewis. “You can’t control it, but it doesn’t control you either. Achieve what you desire.”

Lewis lists his lifetime of working alongside blue-collar workers as both a qualification for office and an inspiration for his top priorities. Health care for the average worker and a diversified job pool rank among his goals going forward.

Another Democratic candidate in the race for the 3rd District is Hilary Turner, who has been politically active since high school. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in international studies, Turner spent several years teaching English in Central and South America. Since returning to her home in Greenbrier County, Turner has been active in the fights for social justice and environmental protection.

“I’ve had a broad range of life experiences that can let me relate to the average person,” said Turner. “Even being a mother has helped me learn. I feel like I can really relate to and connect with the working families of West Virginia.”

Turner intends on attempting to establish universal health care, should she be voted into office, believing that everyone has a right to aid without fear of medical debt. She also wants to establish measures to protect West Virginia’s wildlife and natural resources.

“I want to bring West Virginia into the future,” said Turner. “I want to raise us up and diversify us, while still fighting back against climate change to save what we already have for future generations.”

Democratic candidate Lacy Watson also believes he can understand the average worker, but for a different reason. Watson instead trusts in his various levels of education to guide him, having earned several degrees, including an undergraduate biology degree, a master’s in psychology and an upcoming Ph.D. in globalization.

“My education has been structured and planned in a way that gives me a perfect overview of how and why a person thinks,” said Watson. “I believe that is something which is lacking in the other candidates.”

Watson wants to inspire hope and change in the people of West Virginia, and believes that the first way to do this is to pursue legislation for affordable health care. Watson also wants to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies to lower the prices of drugs, and import medication from Canadian institutions.

“There are people who need these medications in our state, in our country, and can’t afford them,” said Watson. “They end up having to choose between the pills they need or dinner for a week.”

In comparison, Democratic candidate Paul E. Davis wants to tackle drug addiction across the state. The general manager and CEO of the Tri-State Transit Authority in Huntington, Davis has spent the past 60 years of his life working to improve his city.

“I could just spend the next few years here until I ride out into retirement, but I don’t want to do that,” said Davis. “I want to give back to the community that has supported and grown me throughout my life.”

Davis’ platform is centered around the message of fighting for the underdog, believing that the greatest priority is giving the person the power to make a difference in their own lives. The primary example of this comes in the form of addiction rehabilitation, which Davis seeks to completely reform through legislation.

“A 30-day program just doesn’t work,” said Davis. “These people need actual help, a year-long program or even more. We can’t just let these people get thrown through a quick cycle and then tossed back out into the streets.”

The West Virginia primary will take place June 9. More information on the candidates for other positions can be found online at www.herald-dispatch.com/elections/.