A1 A1

BOTH PHOTOS: The 21st annual Sunday dinner with Rocco is held on Sunday, Oct. 31, at the Ceredo VFD station.

top story
Inmates say WV jails failing to protect them against COVID-19

Some regional jail inmates are turning again to a judge for protection against the pandemic, claiming they’ve been kept in the same quarters with cellmates who’ve contracted COVID-19, and they are not regularly tested for the virus.

The inmates are seeking a federal injunction to require Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation Commissioner Betsey Jividen and regional jail wardens to “immediately engage in adequate prevention and management of COVID-19.”

U.S. District Judge Robert “Chuck” Chambers will hear arguments from officials and inmates Wednesday. He denied a similar injunction request in April 2020.

Since then, jails neither have tested regularly nor isolated inmates from others infected with the virus, attorneys Jennifer Wagner and Lydia Milnes of Mountain State Justice wrote in an Oct. 12 motion.

“Defendant’s failure to consistently abide by basic requirements for the prevention and treatment of COVID-19 has dramatic, real-world impact: People in Defendant’s custody are sick and dying as the result of these failures,” Wagner wrote.

The inmates want Chambers to order corrections officials to update COVID-19 policies to reflect the latest treatments and practices regarding and to better implement and practice them in the state’s jails.

The inmates’ motion is part of an ongoing lawsuit filed in December 2018 in which they claim Corrections and Rehabilitation failed to provide them adequate health care.

None of the inmates who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit is seeking release based on their claims.

Corrections officials noted that Chambers in April 2020 said officials had demonstrated they had taken into consideration guidance from the Centers for Disease Control early in the pandemic.

Chambers then said while there was a substantial threat to inmates and jail and prison employees, the state Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials had the discretion to implement policies and manage inmates without a court mandate.

Officials maintain that discretion should remain intact. It has allowed corrections officials to adapt and modify policies throughout the pandemic to meet “available resources, security and administrative concerns as well as address quickly changing situations,” lawyer Webster Arceneaux III wrote in the state’s response to the motion.

Others representing the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation include Richard Gottlieb, Valery Raupp and Anna Casto, all of the Lewis Glasser law firm in Charleston.

“Defendant has done what is reasonable and used her best efforts and resources to mitigate outbreaks and to contain outbreaks as they occur, including through quarantine,” Arceneaux said. “Based on this, Defendant’s COVID-19 response plan and implementation is adequate, reasonable and that she is mitigating the risks to jail inmates reasonably in accordance with her resources with regard to quarantine.”

Both parties rely on data compiled by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources on COVID-19 cases and outcomes in jails and prisons as well as Dr. Homer Venters’ September inspections of Western, Tygart Valley and Northern regional jails.

Venters wrote in a report about his inspection that he is a physician and epidemiologist expert in correctional health. Mountain State Justice tapped Venters for the inspections.

Inmates’ attorneys said it’s impossible to know the true number of COVID-19 cases and outcomes because officials don’t routinely test in the jails, even when people are found to have been directly exposed.

Corrections officials said one inmate has died of COVID-19 and three more died “while COVID-19 positive,” pending a report from the state Medical Examiner’s Office on cause of death.

On the day corrections’ attorneys filed their brief in the case, 39 inmates were positive for COVID-19 among almost 5,500 incarcerated that day.

West Virginia’s jails are equipped to house 4,265 people.

In his report, Venters wrote he was “deeply concerned “ about jail practices that “actively and needlessly expose people to COVID-19 infection, morbidity, and morality.”

“The lack of basic medical isolation, combined with a lack of adequate testing, has created an extremely dangerous situation in which departmental practices are causing more cases than would be occurring with adherence to CDC guidelines, and the lack of testing is masking the true extent of these outbreaks,” he said. “This is the most dangerous approach to medical isolation I have encountered since the outset of the pandemic, when the mixing of people with and without COVID-19 occurred in the early weeks of response.”

Annual Kirkin' of the Tartans ceremony celebrates heritage

HUNTINGTON — Enslow Park Presbyterian Church celebrate its 18th annual “Kirkin’ of the Tartans” service Sunday at the church at 1338 Enslow Blvd.

The worship service began with a processional of acolytes, beadle, ministers, choir, bagpiper, drummer and the tartans as they enter through the front doors of the church into the sanctuary for worship.

The service celebrates Presbyterians’ rich Scottish heritage and highlights both diversity and unity within the church and community.

Pastor John Yeager and Rev. David Richards led the service that included Scottish prayers, liturgy and hymns.

Cabell County Schools lifts mask requirement

HUNTINGTON — Cabell County Schools officials are tentatively planning to relax the district’s masking requirement for all students, staff and visitors beginning Monday, Nov. 1, according to a news release.

West Virginia Department of Health & Human Resources (WVDHHR) COVID-19 map lists Cabell County in the “gold” category.

“To ensure we are consistently out of the orange or red categories, we are pausing until Monday to tentatively lift the masking requirement,” says Cabell County Schools superintendent, Dr. Ryan Saxe. “While we are pleased to see significant improvement, our community is not quite out of the woods when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic. The county’s infection and percent positivity rates continue to keep us teetering on re-entering the more dangerous ‘orange’ category.”

Saxe said he and other district administrators are carefully monitoring the situation daily in partnership with local public health and medical officials.

“While we are announcing the tentative lifting of the masking requirement beginning next week, we are also strongly encouraging all members of our school community to continue protecting themselves and others by wearing a mask whenever possible,” he said.

Superintendent Saxe says the district’s masking requirement, originally approved by the Cabell County Board of Education Sept. 2, will be reinstated immediately should the county re-enter either the orange or red categories on WVDHHR’s COVID-19 reporting map.

Fairland Local Schools Board of Education in Lawrence County, Ohio, also voted in a Friday meeting to make masks optional, with the understanding that the requirements are subject to change.

More than 600 new cases of COVID-19 were reported in West Virginia on Sunday as the pandemic continues.

The state Department of Health and Human Resources reported 661 new cases of the virus, bringing the state’s total number of cases to 272,532.

There were no new virus-related deaths reported Sunday, but there have been 4,426 overall.

There were 7,364 active cases across the state Sunday.

Health officials continued to urge people to get vaccinated against the virus, with 916,555 people (51.1%) in West Virginia fully vaccinated.

In Ohio’s Cases per 100,000 Residents Over 2 Weeks report released Oct. 28, Lawrence County ranked 64th among all counties. Only 36.12% of Lawrence County residents have received at least one vaccine. The statewide average is 55.42%.

No updates were available Sunday for Kentucky. The Ashland-Boyd County Health Department reported 64 cases of COVID-19 from Oct. 26-29.

Cases were reported in patients ranging in age from 7 months to 87 years old.

Nationwide, more than 86,000 new cases of COVID-19 were reported Sunday, for a total of 45,846,153, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There have been 743,410 deaths related to the virus.


West Virginia: From first to worst in COVID-19 vaccine efforts

KENOVA — When COVID-19 vaccines first became available, Ric Griffith’s family-owned drugstore was among 250 mom-and-pop pharmacies that helped West Virginia get off to the fastest start of any state in vaccinating its residents.

Republican Gov. Jim Justice went on national news shows to declare West Virginia — a place that regularly ranks near the bottom in many health indicators — “the diamond in the rough.”

Nine months later, those days are a distant memory. Demand for the vaccine has almost dried up, the question of whether to get a shot has become a political hot button, and West Virginia’s vaccination rate has plummeted to the lowest among the states, by the federal government’s reckoning.

The governor, who spent months preaching the virtues of the vaccine to reluctant West Virginians, is still doing that but is also promoting a new law that would allow some exemptions to employer-imposed vaccination requirements.

And those shots? They’re mostly sitting on shelves.

“I’m afraid that while taking a victory lap, we discovered that there were more laps to go in the race,” Griffith, who is also a Democratic member of the state House of Delegates, said last week of West Virginia’s descent from first to worst. The druggist had since turned his attention to preparing 3,000 pumpkins for a big Halloween event that was waylaid by the pandemic last year.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 41% of West Virginia’s 1.8 million residents are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, while 49% have had at least one dose. The CDC says the state’s rate of about 89,000 doses administered per 100,000 population is the nation’s worst.

Officials with West Virginia’s coronavirus task force claim that the state’s percentage is actually higher and that the CDC reports only part of the data.

Nationally, 57.5% of the population is fully vaccinated and 66.5% has gotten at least one dose.

In West Virginia, it wasn’t for lack of trying. For months, Justice offered an assortment of giveaways to encourage people to get vaccinated.

Toting his dour-faced pet bulldog around the state, he dispensed cash, cars, pickup trucks, ATVs, riding lawn mowers, tickets to college athletic events and college scholarships.

It made for good photo opportunities. But the state’s vaccination rate barely budged.

By the fall, a new wave of sickness and death arrived. Hospitals saw a crush of patients, and the number of active cases, which had dipped below 1,000 in early July, ballooned to nearly 30,000 by mid-September before falling sharply. The number of deaths from the outbreak has soared to about 4,400.

West Virginia has the nation’s third-oldest population, with nearly 20% of its residents over 65. Health officials said most of the virus deaths have involved people in that vulnerable age group.

The governor continues to encourage residents to wear masks and stay out of crowds and has scolded the unvaccinated. “We should be very respectful of others,” he said recently. “The more of us that are vaccinated, the less will die.”

Griffith said he was proud of Justice’s nonstop effort to push vaccines “and the obvious love he has for the people of West Virginia.”

But Justice also ended a statewide indoor mask mandate in June and has opposed vaccination and mask requirements since. And in October he pushed through the GOP-controlled Legislature a bill allowing workers to use medical or religious exemptions to get out of employer-required COVID-19 vaccine mandates. The law takes effect in January.

The bill was introduced after President Joe Biden announced plans to require that federal contractors and employees at all U.S. businesses with 100 or more workers be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

In part because of distrust of government and doubts about the safety of the vaccine, interest in COVID-19 vaccinations has waned in a state where President Donald Trump carried every county in the 2020 election.

Christopher Holmes, 44, of Sissonville, said he and his family were determined not to get vaccinated.

Then in June, Holmes contracted the virus, spent 80 days in a hospital and lost 110 pounds. He had to learn to walk again and remains in rehabilitation.When he went into the hospital, his daughter was the only vaccinated one in the family. By the time he got out, everyone had their shots.

“I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through,” Holmes said. “I hope everyone gets the shot because you don’t want to take it home to your family. If you save one life, it’s worth it.”

Last January, demand for the vaccine at Griffith & Feil Drug in Kenova along the Ohio and Kentucky line was so high that Griffith and his daughter, pharmacist Heidi Griffith Romero, had to limit the number of daily customers.

According to state data, at least 7.4% of West Virginia’s population received the first of two doses that month, and the per-capita vaccination rate was higher than that of any other state.

In the spring, reports surfaced of rare but potentially dangerous blood clots from the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. After a brief pause, the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration recommended that the single-dose vaccine be allowed to resume.

But “the public’s confidence never seemed to recover from that,” Romero said.

She now sees just five to 10 people per week coming in for their first doses. The pharmacy also administers shots in nursing homes to two to 10 people per week.

Romero said people are uncomfortable because claims about the shots’ safety have not been backed up by years of study.

Griffith planned to get the word out at the Pumpkin House display, asking the expected thousands of visitors to wear masks and get their initial shots or their boosters.

He called the state’s low vaccine rate frustrating and acknowledged the giddiness of the early days may have been premature.

Griffith was led to paraphrase his favorite quote from Mark Twain.

“I’ve studied the human race,” the druggist said, “and I find the results humiliating.”