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Justice takes offense at claims state is manipulating COVID-19 risk maps

CHARLESTON — With the latest West Virginia version of the COVID-19 risk map looking markedly different than the original Harvard Global Health Institute map, Gov. Jim Justice took umbrage Monday to suggestions the state is manipulating the map in order to reopen public schools more quickly.

“I really probably would take terrible offense to someone who would say we are manipulating the numbers,” Justice said during Monday’s state COVID-19 briefing.

On Monday, West Virginia’s version of the map had no counties in red — denoting critically high spread of the virus — and only two counties in orange (Kanawha and Barbour), designating high spread.

Additionally, six counties were gold — a recent tweak by the state to break the orange risk category in two, with limited restrictions on counties falling into the new, lower designation — while 14 counties were yellow, and 33 counties were green, designating that spread of the virus is essentially contained.

By contrast, the Harvard Global map Monday had two counties in red (Kanawha, Gilmer), 15 counties in orange (including Cabell, Wayne, Putnam, Boone and Fayette counties), 34 counties in yellow, and only four counties in green.

Among the multiple tweaks to the Harvard Global map, a major change came last week when the state decided to count either the number of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population — the standard Harvard Global metric — or the county’s percentage of positive tests, whichever is lower, to determine each county’s color-coded risk level.

Justice said Monday that change was needed to encourage people to undergo COVID-19 testing, since in the short term, increased testing will result in increased numbers of positive cases in counties.

“It gives us the motivation to test,” Justice said, adding, “If you test 1,000 people instead of 10, the number of infected on the left goes up. Everyone knows that.”

He said that explains why Putnam County has moved from orange to green on the state’s risk assessment map, even as the number of active cases in the county increased to 190 on Sunday.

In interviews, the spokesman for Harvard Global — a consortium of leading scientists, epidemiologists, and public health experts from around the country — has been critical of West Virginia’s multiple “tweaks” to its map, which measures risk levels county by county across the U.S.

“We can’t have different risk-level dashboards for different purposes; that is, we can’t be shifting our metrics to fit our policies,” Dr. Thomas Tsai told HD Media. Tsai is an assistant professor of Health and Policy Management at the Harvard School of Public Health, and a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

“I can’t help it that the Harvard people want to criticize,” Justice said in response Monday, dismissing the Harvard Global metric as a “one-size-fits-all situation that maybe isn’t the best way to go.”

“I don’t know why in the world all of a sudden you think the Harvard map is a better map than what the experts right here in West Virginia are doing,” he added.

Speaking directly to state teachers and school service personnel, Justice said, “Have I not, since the get-go, done every single thing I can do to keep you safe, to keep our kids safe?”

He added, “There’s no way that somebody’s going to manipulate numbers. Not on my watch.”

Also Monday, Justice said he would look into claims that high school coaches are having players undergo testing multiple times in order to artificially lower positivity rates in their counties, but said he doubts that any coaches in the state would “stoop to that level.”

After delay, Highlawn students welcomed in new building

HUNTINGTON — Delayed by more than three weeks, the doors to a new school building in Cabell County officially opened Monday morning.

While most elementary, middle and high schools in the county had already resumed in-person instruction when the school year began Sept. 8, Highlawn Elementary students were forced to wait while finishing touches were put on the new $14 million building.

With work completed and because Cabell County remained in the green color-coded metric for COVID-19, the first cohort of blended in-person students reported Monday morning.

“Small elementary schools are the heart of the community,” said Superintendent Ryan Saxe. “Both the neighborhood and the people of that community are going to benefit from this school for generations to come. The teachers, staff and I were so proud to see youngsters be able to walk in those front doors today.”

The impact the school will have resonated with Saxe as he drove past the school while students were there and was able to see the looks on their faces as he passed, even if it was just a small glimpse.

“It gives you a great sense of accomplishment seeing this new school come to fruition. I have to say it was a wonderful moment when I drove by earlier today and looked into the play yard and saw kids swinging and having just a wonderful time,” said Saxe.

Putnam County Schools also returned to a blended learning model on Monday after spending the past few weeks fluctuating between orange and red on the color-coded map. Saturday, Putnam County moved to yellow, which allowed for in-person instruction to begin and extra curricular activities, including sports, to resume.

Testing events planned in Lawrence County, Ohio

IRONTON — Family Medical Centers in Lawrence County will host a series of COVID-19 drive-up testing sites over the next four weeks, starting Wednesday at the Lawrence County Fairgrounds on County Road 107.

The testing is being sponsored by the Ironton Lawrence County Community Action Organization, according to a news release. The Ohio National Guard will assist with the drive-thru testing.

While there are no out-of-pocket fees for the testing, insurance could be billed for those who are insured, according to the release.

The first testing is set for 1 to 6 p.m. Wednesday at the fairgrounds.

Other COVID-19 test availabilities are set on Wednesday, Oct. 7 and Oct. 21 at the Pick N Save parking lot off Ohio 93 in Ironton. The tests are scheduled to be open from 1 to 6 p.m. those days, according to the release.

Officials also are trying to set up one more testing availability from 1 to 6 p.m. on Oct. 14 at Ohio University-Southern in Ironton, but that is currently pending.

Test results normally take two days and will be accessible online, according to the release. Assistance will be provided for those unable to access the portal due to lack of devices or internet availability.

“We are very pleased to collaborate with the National Guard and area organizations to bring this much-needed testing to our community,” Gary Roberts, Family Medical Center’s director of operations, said in a prepared release.

“This kind of cooperative testing and tracing is a key factor in helping to battle this virus,” Roberts said.

Those seeking tests need to bring a photo ID, if available, and any pertinent insurance information.

Those participating don’t need to have symptoms of the virus to get the test, according to the release.

The Lawrence County Health Department reported 17 new positive COVID-19 cases Monday, patients being between the ages of 9-80 (five children). There are 124 active cases in the county out of a total 700. Eleven people are hospitalized, with two in the intensive care unit.

Statewide in Ohio, 993 new positive cases were reported, and five new deaths, for a total of 4,746.

In Kentucky, the Ashland-Boyd County Health Department reported 11 new positive cases: a 79-year-old man who is hospitalized and a 48-year-old woman, 52-year-old woman, 95-year-old woman, 91-year-old woman, 40-year-old woman, 72-year-old woman, 30-year-old man, 56-year-old woman, 45-year-old man and 62-year-old man — all isolating at home.

There are 123 active cases in the county out of a total 484.

Statewide in Kentucky, 456 new positive cases were reported, and five new deaths for a total of 1,162.

Staff writer Taylor Stuck contributed to this report.