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West Virginia governor marks unreported coronavirus deaths

CHARLESTON — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice’s near-daily ritual of reading the ages and hometowns of people who died from the coronavirus stretched to nearly 19 minutes Friday.

Justice takes the first minute or two of his thrice-a-week coronavirus briefings to honor the dead. This time, the Republican governor had to make up for 165 deaths that went unreported, news he first revealed Wednesday.

State officials said a list of more than 60 health centers and nursing homes did not report the deaths — revised down from 168 on Friday — to state health authorities, which Justice apologized for and again called “totally unacceptable.”

Dr. Ayne Amjad, the state health officer, said a further vetting of the data found three fewer coronavirus deaths than reported earlier this week.

“Being transparent is what we strive to be,” Amjad said.

Justice said 84% of the previously unreported deaths occurred in December 2020 and January. Officials blamed the issue on facilities not filling out death reports online to the state’s health department in a timely matter.

Despite the unreported deaths, Justice said other coronavirus metrics still looked positive. The daily positivity rate — the percentage of people who took a coronavirus test and received a positive result — continued to decline to 2.79%, down from a peak of 17.45% in late December.

There were 208 confirmed coronavirus cases and eight deaths reported Friday.

On the vaccination front, state data show 20.8% of West Virginia residents are partially vaccinated against the coronavirus, while 13% are fully vaccinated. The rural state has a population of 1.78 million people.

Justice said the state “will absolutely step up” to meet President Joe Biden’s goal that all adults be eligible for vaccinations by May 1.

He said the federal government just needs to deliver enough vaccine supply. “And we’ll get it done on our end. We’ve shown that we can do that,” he said. West Virginia boasts one of the highest vaccination rates in the country.

Dr. Clay Marsh, a top West Virginia University health official and the state’s coronavirus czar, said the state may be able to open eligibility to all residents even earlier than May.

“But we want to maintain our commitment to discipline and to make sure that we’re immunizing the people most likely to be hospitalized or to die first,” he said.

Officials said their priority is currently inoculating all residents age 50 and over. About 55% of residents age 65 and over have received at least one vaccine dose, said James Hoyer, who leads the coronavirus task force.

“Our commitment is to get as many vaccines to as many people as possible: Start with the most vulnerable and continue to evolve our priority list,” Marsh added.

Justice urges all residents to pre-register for a vaccine appointment on vaccine.wv.gov.

The recent decline in cases and hospitalizations led Justice to lift capacity restrictions on businesses and allow larger social gatherings last week. But social distancing and mask mandates remain in effect.

Milton woman on trial after telling police man attempted to kidnap her child

HUNTINGTON — The argument of whether a mother’s 2019 actions of accusing an Egyptian man of attempted kidnapping were a “cultural misinterpretation” or a criminal act will be settled by a Cabell County jury Monday.

Santana Renee Adams, 26, of Milton, is on trial in Cabell County Magistrate Court on a charge of misdemeanor falsely reporting an emergency.

She was charged in April 2019 after Barboursville Police determined she had lied when she told police a man of Middle Eastern descent had attempted to grab her then-5-year-old daughter by the hair and abducted her from a store at the Huntington Mall.

Police said Adams told them she had pulled a handgun from her pocket and pointed it at him before he ran away, according to criminal complaints filed in Cabell Magistrate Court. Her tale led police to arrest Mohamed Fathy Hussein Zayan, 56, of Alexandria, Egypt, and charge him with attempted abduction by a person.

Nearly two years after the alleged incident occurred, Adams’ trial started Thursday before Cabell Magistrate Danne Vance. If found guilty, Adams faces up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $500.

Zayan testified via videoconference from Egypt on Friday that he was at the mall that day in 2019 shopping for his family, particularly his daughter. Nothing was out of the ordinary, he testified, until police approached him.

“Everything was normal. Nothing happened,” he said. “I don’t see this woman. I hadn’t seen her at all. The first time I saw her was when … I saw a picture in the newspaper.”

Greg Lucas, investigator for the Barboursville Police Department, testified that Zayan was shocked to hear why he was arrested and said he didn’t fit the demeanor of a child abductor. Zayan was housed at Western Regional Jail as Lucas worked to investigate the story and verify the defendant’s and Zayan’s stories.

Lucas said as he investigated, he found inconsistencies in Adams’ story, but Zayan’s remained solid.

“My main goal was to liberate Mr. Zayan, who I felt was unjustly charged,” he said. “That was based on his story, that he did not fit the characteristic of the crime he was charged with because of his work and why he was there. It also had to do with the inconsistency between the 911 call and when we got there.”

First, one statement was much more dramatic, stating Zayan had tried to drag Adams’ daughter out of the store by her hair. At one point Adams told police she had yelled “let her go” and pointed her gun at Zayan before he fled, but employees and patrons did not hear anything, Lucas said.

During a second interview with Barboursville Police to clear up the inconsistencies, Adams told Lucas she might have misjudged Zayan’s actions and overreacted to a touching of her daughter’s head. Lucas said Adams started crying and apologizing when she found out there was surveillance video outside the store.

Mall security video also shows Zayan entered the store three minutes before Adams, Lucas said, showing he had not followed her into the store. The video showed he also did not follow her out.

Defense attorney Courtenay Craig questioned a store employee who testified about how many people were spread throughout the store at the time the alleged incident occurred. He said the store’s surveillance had several blind spots and several employees were in the stockroom at the time.

Adams also told police, “I know he touched her,” and said she thought maybe it was a cultural difference. She also told police she ran to the food court, but video showed otherwise.

By the time the charges against Zayan were dismissed, he had already served a day in jail. He returned to his home country following his release.

Adams, who donned a white mask bearing the words “Faith over Fear” on Friday, testified on her own behalf that she decided to go to the mall with her children that day just to get out of the house because she was an overwhelmed stay-at-home mom.

She was shopping when she “felt uncomfortable” and saw Zayan, who has a dark complexion. She said she smiled at him and he smiled back while making eye contact before he looked at her daughter and grabbed her hair, which was in a side ponytail.

Adams said her child was terrified on the ground as Zayan grabbed her hair, so Adams pulled out her weapon and said “let her go,” she testified. He did, and Adams said they both left the store.

Adams agreed with assistant prosecutor Ken Bannon, assisted by Tyler Shoub, that if she had yelled “let her go” as she told police she did, people in the store would have heard. When Bannon asked if her daughter was treated for any injury due to her hair being pulled so hard, Adams said Zayan grabbed her by the head, not hair.

She said she called her husband first and he told her to calm down because he could not understand her. She said they could see Zayan behind her on the video call, following her family, but one officer testified Friday that he had seen Zayan at a store in the opposite direction of Adams.

Adams testified that it wasn’t until her interview with Lucas that she realized maybe she had misunderstood the situation.

“He made me feel as if the man was an innocent, good man, and I just felt horrible at that fact I maybe misinterpreted his intentions,” she said.

Lucas said it was Adams who made the initial call to 911 to report the alleged incident. He said child abduction would be one of the highest crimes an officer could respond to and uses a lot of first responder resources. Statute says if Adams knowingly made that call to report a false crime, she would be guilty of a misdemeanor.

Craig said Adams was upfront that she was unsure if her issue was an emergency or not. She gave someone else the opportunity to make that determination when she started the 911 call by saying, “I don’t know whether you’d call this an emergency or not.”

Lucas said Adams calling 911 was essentially her acknowledging it was an emergency.

The trial will continue at 1 p.m. Monday, March 15. The defense is expected to present one witness before resting its case.

Target date set for reopening of Davis Creek Elementary

BARBOURSVILLE — Repairs to Davis Creek Elementary School classrooms are in the final stages and the school building is on track to reopen to students by the end of the month, the district announced Friday.

“It’s been all hands on deck for our maintenance department at Davis Creek Elementary,” said Kim Cooper, assistant superintendent over operations for Cabell County Schools.

The school has been closed to students since March 1 after classrooms on the lower level of the building collected between 3 and 4 feet of water following a weekend of heavy rain on ground that had already been saturated by previous snow and ice storms in February.

Cooper said Davis Creek students will continue learning remotely next week and during spring break week as well. However, after spring break, he anticipates students will be able to return full time to in-person learning at the school on Monday, March 29.

“These dedicated employees have truly risen to the challenge, and we’re rapidly entering the final stage of repairs,” Copper said. “It’s going to take a little more time to get everything wrapped up, but there is definitely light at the end of the tunnel.”

In addition to six classrooms, the building’s heating and cooling systems were heavily damaged by the flood. Once the water receded, district maintenance employees and school staff emptied out affected spaces, sorting and cleaning those items that could be saved and disposing of what was permanently damaged.

The maintenance team then began removing and replacing construction elements such as walls, drywall and flooring and started repairs on the building’s environmental systems.

“There could always be a delay, but our goal is to have all projects and environmental testing complete so that students may return Monday, March 29,” Cooper said. “We know that students learn best when they are in person at their schools with the caring adults who are working to ensure their academic success and personal well-being.”

Cooper said the district will continue to provide daily Grab-N-Go meals for Davis Creek students at noon each day next week at the Guyan Estates community pool and at the school. Prior to spring break, Davis Creek students will be provided multiday meal boxes at the same sites.

Huntington's Nick Serrano, from bottom to top, takes on St. Albans' Colton Spradling during the WSAZ Invitational wrestling tournament on Friday, March 12, 2021, in Huntington.

Manchin: W.Va. cities, counties in control of destiny as billions soon to pour in

CHARLESTON — With President Joe Biden signing the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan into law Thursday morning, an unprecedented wave of local-level funding will soon come crashing into the Mountain State.

On Friday, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and local leaders gathered at the old Kanawha County Courthouse to discuss the rollout of these funds, which will total more than $4 billion for West Virginia.

About $34.5 million will be dropping directly into Kanawha County’s bank account and more than $37.8 million will be deposited into the city of Charleston’s account when the U.S. Treasury Department finalizes a release date for these funds. Manchin said the department will work on mobilizing these funds in the coming months, so there is no set date yet for this money to arrive.

Until then, West Virginia’s cities and counties will be plotting how and where to spend the funds. The money is headed even to some of the state’s smallest towns, like Coalton in Randolph County, which will receive $100,000; Paw Paw in Morgan County will bank $200,000; and Kermit in Mingo County is getting $150,000.

Manchin said Friday it is incredibly important this COVID-19 relief bill provide money directly to cities and counties. After pandemic expenses are paid for with these funds, leftover money may go toward certain infrastructure and development projects — the three most important being investments in water, sewer and broadband.

“This has never happened in the history of our country, to where any community’s ever gotten money directly to control your own destiny,” Manchin said.

Manchin has criticized Gov. Jim Justice for continuing to sit on more than $600 million in federal CARES Act funding, which the governor received almost a year ago. He said the CARES bill was rushed through because of the emergency at hand, leaving off some spending guardrails. This time, that won’t be the case.

Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango said now that funding is going directly to local governments, instead of being intercepted by the state, the path forward is much clearer.

“That’s a game-changer for us. When the first round of funding came in, we would have to spend the money and ask (the state) for reimbursement,” Salango said. “You wouldn’t know if you would be reimbursed or not, and if it was reimbursed, you didn’t know when.”

Salango said to look for significant economic and infrastructure development in all corners of Kanawha County in the future. He said it will be vital for the county to supplement towns on their various projects to ensure, once they are started, that they are completed. He also called for complete transparency from the County Commission.

“Every dime that we’ll spend will be done in a public hearing with public input,” he said.

While it’s unclear when funding will arrive, Dunbar Mayor Scott Elliott said the work now is in deciding what the massive pot will go toward. Elliott said he’s excited at the thought of completing city projects that, until this week, were almost a pipe dream.

“You think about the projects you can do now that you never had the money for — $2.95 million is a lot of money for the little city of Dunbar,” Elliott said.

Because the date for disbursement is unknown, so are the guidelines on what exactly the funds can be used for. Elliott said when those are better known, the Dunbar City Council and the public will have an opportunity for more pointed input.

One idea Elliott had Friday was for the funding to be used to fill the federally mandated emergency savings account for the city’s sewage treatment plant. He said this would avoid raising rates on customers.

John Alderson, a member of Glasgow Town Council, also mentioned the small municipality’s need for sewer upgrades. The town will receive $350,000 from the bill.

But the story of Glasgow is one that mirrors much of West Virginia — after the town’s main job and revenue creator left town in 2014, local leaders have only been able to scratch and claw back a fraction of those old funds.

“Whenever the power plant left us, we lost a great amount of our revenue as far as our (Business & Occupation) taxes go. We’ve just been skating by ever since then,” he said. “This is going to be tremendous for our little town.”

The somewhat limitless opportunities for infrastructure building will be happening in Clendenin, too, where Mayor Kay Summers said the small town is ready to come roaring back. Still trying to recover from the June 2016 flood, Summers said funds could be put toward new floodgates and a new elementary school.

She said with the $460,000 that’s coming into Clendenin’s bank account, the city can finally fully heal while also working toward a prosperous future — a thought not all that possible just a few weeks ago.

Correcting the sins of the past also is on Handley Mayor Essie Ford’s mind. While he’s looking at what can be done in his community with the $130,000 coming to it, he said the unincorporated areas of West Virginia also being eligible for American Rescue Plan funding will have a massive effect on the region.

Ford said just downstream in Rand, the small unincorporated town has been trying to fix the same water and sewer system problems for decades. But they’ve never had the kind of outlet for help like they do today, he said.

“Those who were not able to get help before, they are now able to apply for help,” Ford said. “When I look at that and I think about how long they have been trying to work on this, since the ’80s, it’s time for something to be done, and this is an opportunity for it to be done.”

Like Glasgow, Rand and Handley, the small communities that line the Kanawha River have been struggling with infrastructure for most of their time on Earth. Ford says this bill has the opportunity to bring connectivity and prosperity to these often forgotten regions.

“Since this bill was passed, it has given even the state an avenue, and the people an avenue, to come together and be able to handle the (problems happening) long before the pandemic,” Ford said.

And for the state’s most populous city, Charleston Mayor Amy Shuler Goodwin said the millions in funding allows for investments that have been unable to happen in the past year. Where exactly those investments will go will be determined once guidelines are more clear. For now, Goodwin said, the money initially must be put toward first responders.

“Keep in mind, this is a response to a pandemic, and our first and foremost action should be making sure that we are making our cities and communities whole,” Goodwin said. “Making sure that police, fire, refuse — the boots-on-the-ground work that we do so well in municipal government — continues. So that’s first.”

Goodwin noted that the American Rescue Plan sets aside money for combating substance abuse disorder and homelessness that is not tied to direct funding, which will help Charleston.

Some other funding that will be coming into West Virginia as part of the American Rescue Plan include:

  • $138 million for broadband
  • $2 million for hotspots
  • $11 million for vaccines
  • $800 million for Pre-K through 12th-grade education
  • $190 million for colleges and universities
  • $260 million for child care
  • $152 million for emergency rental assistance

For Ford, the conversation Friday was simply the beginning. The hard work is yet to come.

“This is an avenue where we can actually be able to sit down at the table and do something with what we have,” he said. “We have a good starting point, and that’s exactly what it is. It’s not a remedy; it is a starting point.”