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Morrisey talks recovery funds, litigation at Huntington roundtable

HUNTINGTON — West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said during a roundtable discussion near Huntington on Friday that he has filed an injunction in the $7 billion Purdue Pharma bankruptcy settlement that seeks more money to fight the opioid epidemic.

Morrisey announced Friday that the state, along with several cities and counties — including Ceredo, Kenova, Hurricane, Charleston and Milton — made the filing after determining the amount is not fair because it divides money by population, not how hard a state has been hit.

While the number West Virginia would receive in the settlement as it stands has not been disclosed, Morrisey said the state accounts for about .55% of the country’s population.

“I’m not going to let West Virginia get run over by other states,” he said.

The announcement came during a roundtable discussion at the Prestera Center, which he said was organized to help him reconnect after the pandemic slowed down his public interactions. During discussion, Morrisey focused on recent moves made in litigation, possible settlements of lawsuits and the creation of a program to distribute funds. He also heard from the recovery community on how to use the money in the future.

As Huntington and Cabell County inch toward trial against three drug distributors, Morrisey said he is pushing toward a unified universal settlement between opioid companies and the state, cities and counties.

When asked if he thought that would happen before the trial starts May 3, Morrisey said, “It’s hard to say,” but added he was supportive of the litigation nonetheless.

“We’ve been trying to be in a supportive role because we know we want to weigh in with cities and counties as a whole to get more resources for West Virginia,” he said.

Morrisey said he also hopes to start a fund in which all opioid monies would be deposited. The fund could take in money from several sources — donations, settlements and more — and be distributed via grants to target the worst-hit areas. The state’s Legislature would have to be involved to make sure that happens.

The fund would start with $10 million from the McKinsey & Co. consulting firm settlement made by Morrisey’s office, and more would be added. The Purdue Pharma settlement, for example, is expected to be reached in three to six months.

The money would be spent on education, prevention, hospital beds, residential treatment, detox, job training and law enforcement, he said.

“My message to everyone is let’s spend every penny we can on treatment and recovery,” he said.

While grateful for the opportunity to meet with Morrisey, Kim Miller, development director for Prestera Center, said she was wary of another grant-based program, which often calls for a program to expand its services and compete with others, rather than fueling what it currently has.

“Grants are great. They will get us through … whatever the term of the grant is, but when the grant is done, you have to find something else to sustain the services,” she said. “It would be better if we could have operating capital.”

While one of the largest recovery centers in the area, she said Prestera’s phone system is nearly 25 years old and its computers are outdated, something grants don’t typically cover.

“Those things have to be updated, but at Prestera we are living on shoe strings and are not able to upgrade those things,” she said. “It really interferes with our ability to see all the people that we could see or need it.”

Miller said when she hears big numbers like what is promised with settlements, she thinks of what it would solve, like transportation problems or increasing telehealth programs, which have proved resourceful during the pandemic.

Brian Holly, a recovery specialist working in Putnam County, said the biggest hurdle he has faced isn’t the epidemic, but the stigma behind it.

John Smith, of the Lincoln County Prevention Coalition, said lack of transportation and meetings, worsened by the pandemic, hindered their effort.

“People think sobriety is the opposite of addiction, but it’s not. The opposite of addiction is connection,” he said. “The pandemic has crippled our ability to connect with people in meetings. In addition, it has crippled our coalitions.”

Some asked for economic development to have jobs available to communities, while others wanted better access to mental health. Youth program coordinators said children want to be able to talk to people about how they feel without being judged.

Grace Christian School gives back with annual Serve-A-Thon

HUNTINGTON — Students at Grace Christian School in Huntington started the weekend by giving back to the community, hosting their 28th annual Serve-A-Thon, which mobilizes the student body to help in and around their community.

The event sends students on a variety of service projects including some projects around the school, at Beech Fork State Park, Ronald McDonald House, Facing Hunger Foodbank, Spring Hill Cemetery, Lily’s Place, the Huntington Museum of Art and local churches.

“Our students joyfully use their talents, energy and spirit of service to complete their tasks in only one day. However, the impact they will have in those few short hours will be felt for a lifetime, both in the community and in the lives of our students,” Becky Brokke, Serve-A-Thon coordinator, said.

Due to COVID-19, the service projects were modified for 2020, which allowed several students to participate in home-based projects like helping a family member or in their immediate community.

Brokke said students seemed eager to get back out in their communities in 2021.

“This is not a mandatory thing for them to participate in, but I would say we have between 80% and 90% of our student body that is taking part in it. They’ll all get a special T-shirt to wear, and we ordered — for our students, parent volunteers and some of our sponsors — about 350 of those,” Brokke said.

Officials say West Virginia has ‘hit that wall’ on COVID-19 vaccines

HUNTINGTON — Now months into the effort to vaccinate West Virginians against COVID-19, state leaders said Friday the state has “hit a wall” in the process and the time has come for more creative thinking to overcome the challenge.

Roughly 40% of eligible West Virginians have yet to receive a vaccine, totaling 588,000 people, according to state data. Gov. Jim Justice said this was the inspiration for the state’s newest vaccine initiative: “Beat 588 Bad.”

Justice said he gave “his people” 24 hours from Friday’s COVID-19 briefing to propose a “wish list” of “creative” ideas to help expand vaccinations across the state.

According to an Axios-Ipsos poll based on surveys taken between January and April, 23% of people in West Virginia and the surrounding U.S. census division are estimated to be hesitant about taking the vaccine.

No similar study or survey has been released by the state government.

As of Friday afternoon, there were 150,693 confirmed COVID-19 cases in West Virginia, 7,330 of which are active, and 2,813 COVID-19-related deaths. The state has administered 81% of the vaccine doses it has received from the federal government, totaling more than 1.2 million doses.

Average weekly vaccine distribution rates are lower this week in West Virginia than at any time since vaccinations became available, according to state data. James Hoyer, who heads West Virginia’s COVID-19 response taskforce, said Friday that is the cost that came with the state being ahead of most other places when it came to early distribution — especially to vulnerable populations.

“We were ahead in delivery (of vaccines), so we’re first to hit that wall, but others are coming,” Hoyer said.

This is another opportunity for the state to set the precedent for the country, Hoyer said. If West Virginia is successful in increasing vaccination rates among those who might be hesitant, he said he hopes whatever model is used can be replicated elsewhere.

Justice was light on specifics for this new effort, but said plans were being developed and would be implemented as soon as possible.

Hoyer said he recently met with Ric Cavender, executive director of Charleston Main Streets, to discuss bringing vaccines to customers and employees of downtown businesses. Justice hypothesized holding vaccine events in Walmart parking lots or setting up vaccination tents at fairs, festivals and sports events.

The state also is requesting that the federal government send vaccines in smaller vials, if possible, to reduce waste. Hoyer said the amount of vaccines the state is receiving is fine, but because so many doses are in one vial and they have to be used within a certain time frame, some doses are going to waste.

The push for more vaccinations comes as variant COVID-19 strains are becoming more common. Hoyer said West Virginia is typically two to three weeks behind other areas for detecting variants.

Dr. Clay Marsh, the state’s coronavirus czar, said Friday the strains are especially concerning because they can be more contagious and are making people sicker.

Recently, West Virginia has seen an uptick in the United Kingdom variant, and at least two new cases of the Brazilian variant have been detected, Marsh said. The variants also are more dangerous to children, as pediatric hospitalizations related to those cases are on the rise worldwide, Marsh said.

“I want the parents to listen carefully,” he said. “This is a disease that has really changed. This variant can make children very sick.”

Only children 16 years and older are eligible for COVID-19 vaccines.

Statewide, 405 new cases of COVID-19 were reported Friday, with five new deaths.

Total cases per county are: Barbour (1,362), Berkeley (11,802), Boone (1,908), Braxton (884), Brooke (2,134), Cabell (8,668), Calhoun (276), Clay (467), Doddridge (556), Fayette (3,311), Gilmer (741), Grant (1,243), Greenbrier (2,673), Hampshire (1,735), Hancock (2,725), Hardy (1,455), Harrison (5,481), Jackson (1,944), Jefferson (4,409), Kanawha (14,305), Lewis (1,144), Lincoln (1,407), Logan (3,016), Marion (4,215), Marshall (3,307), Mason (1,944), McDowell (1,513), Mercer (4,604), Mineral (2,785), Mingo (2,446), Monongalia (8,999), Monroe (1,084), Morgan (1,098), Nicholas (1,538), Ohio (4,075), Pendleton (693), Pleasants (841), Pocahontas (656), Preston (2,825), Putnam (4,866), Raleigh (6,331), Randolph (2,504), Ritchie (669), Roane (589), Summers (774), Taylor (1,204), Tucker (524), Tyler (674), Upshur (1,828), Wayne (2,831), Webster (457), Wetzel (1,238), Wirt (384), Wood (7,608) and Wyoming (1,943).

In Kentucky, community COVID-19 vaccination centers will open in Laurel and Henderson counties in a joint effort by the state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Gov. Andy Beshear said Friday.

The Laurel County location will open Wednesday in London, while the site in Henderson will open the next day, the governor’s office said. Those sites, along with mobile vaccine services provided by the state, will be capable of delivering up to 7,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine per week, it said.

The centers are opening as the state tries to increase its vaccination rate. About 85,000 Kentuckians were vaccinated in the prior week, less than half the number during a peak week in March. Beshear said Thursday that more than 550,000 doses of vaccine were on hand statewide.

“Now is the time for us all to step up to end this battle with the coronavirus once and for all,” Beshear said Friday. “Talk to people you trust to get the information you need about the vaccines, find a location near you and get vaccinated.”

More than 1.7 million Kentuckians have received at least their first vaccine dose, he said.

Anyone 16 or older is eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in Kentucky.

The state reported 607 new coronavirus cases Friday and 22 new deaths, including 17 deaths discovered through the state’s audit of deaths from prior months.

In Boyd County, 17 new cases were reported since Monday, for a total of 4,744. There have been 74 virus-related deaths in the county.

In Ohio, a total of 1,061,907 cases were reported, with 19,118 deaths.

Graduation rates for Cabell students continue to climb

HUNTINGTON — Graduation rates for Cabell County students are continuing to rise despite numerous challenges over the past year.

Data from the West Virginia Department of Education — reflecting numbers from the 2019-20 school year — highlighted numerous accomplishments for the local school district including a 90% graduation rate for both four- and five-year students.

Four-year graduation rates increased by 1.5% from last year, while five-year graduation rates rose by nearly 5% as compared to the 2018-19 year. Additionally, the graduation rate for Black students improved by 14%, to 93%, which tops the state average by seven percentage points.

Rates for special education graduation jumped by 9% for the second consecutive year, and rates for students of low economic status increased by 12%, the data showed.

“We know the last year has posed many challenges for students and staff,” said Superintendent Ryan Saxe. “However, even during the pandemic, our dedicated employees made concerted efforts to provide extensive supports for students while they were working from home. I am especially proud of the tenacity and resilience our students have shown during this last year. By achieving the goal of graduation, they are establishing one of the most important building blocks of a successful life.”

The WVDE reported that graduation rates had increased statewide and were on track to reach an 85% clip in 2020, the highest overall success rate in the state’s recorded history.

Cabell County is the third-largest school district in the Mountain State, with a total enrollment of 11,860 students in 2020-21, down 251 from the previous school year.

Kanawha County (24,698) and Berkeley County (19,254) are the state’s largest counties in terms of enrollment. According to the most recent data, five counties fall between 10,000 and 12,000 students: Cabell, Wood, Raleigh, Monongalia and Harrison.

“We are so pleased to see this crucial measure of student success continue to rise,” Saxe said. “Prior to and continuing through the pandemic, our employees have been making concerted efforts to reach struggling students and to find ways to help them get back on track toward graduation.”