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False report of COVID-19 death frustrates Justice

CHARLESTON — Gov. Jim Justice was not in a good mood Friday during his weekly coronavirus briefing after a COVID-19 death was falsely reported to the Department of Health and Human Resources on Friday morning

“This just makes me flat mad, that’s all there is to it,” Justice said from the Governor’s Reception Room at the State Capitol Building in Charleston during a shorter-than-normal briefing that last just over 30 minutes.

DHHR reported Friday morning that a 76-year-old man from the Sundale Long Term Care Home in Morgantown had died, becoming the state’s first coronavirus death. The nursing home in Monongalia County has been ground zero for the coronavirus spread in that county with 21 residents and eight staff members testing positive for the virus.

Just over an hour later, DHHR sent out a correction. The Sundale resident was still alive. According to a statement from Sundale, the resident has COVID-19 and was at Ruby Memorial Hospital still. Sundale officials apologized for the mistake. Justice said this was the second time he was told of a coronavirus death that turned out to be false information.

“I’ve been reported to on two different days by very senior people that we’ve had a death,” Justice said. “Two different places, two different counties, and in both situations — just to tell it like it is — we weren’t right.

“It’s tough enough on me from the standpoint that I’m trying every way within me to see that we protect everyone and every single life is a tragedy if we lose one,” he said.

While Justice said a coronavirus death in the state is not unexpected, he would initiate new reporting protocols to prevent false information from being released before being confirmed, though he did not give any specifics.

“I’m initiating additional safeguards to make sure … we can get it right that someone has either passed on or not,” Justice said. “There is plenty of chaos out there, but this is inexcusable by my book.”

State officials have been receiving multiple questions the last three days regarding how and when DHHR decides to update coronavirus positives and negatives cases. Many county health departments report new cases every day, but it often takes the state coronavirus website as long as 48 hours to update, giving a delayed and incomplete picture of statewide cases. Plans to start updating the coronavirus dashboard three times a day starting Friday did not occur.

Dr. Cathy Slemp, state health officer and commissioner of the Bureau of Public Health, said people need to focus less on the daily coronavirus numbers and focus on continuing to stay home, avoid non-essential travel, avoid large crowds, wash hands, cover coughs, and avoid touching the face.

“More than the speed of the data is the accuracy of the data and the completeness of the data,” Slemp said. “That’s why you start those local investigations immediately. As the information comes in, you have more accurate and more actionable data that can follow. I think you will see more mapping and analysis of that data on the website moving forward.”

The end-of-the-day official update of the DHHR coronavirus website also is unpredictable, sometimes updated as early as 7 p.m. or as late as 10 p.m. DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch said any update of the coronavirus website before the nightly official numbers would be considered unofficial.

“It’s never official until we get that data and we get that information and verify that information,” Crouch said. “We need to be accurate and we need to be careful about that. I’ve talked about coming up with another system … but I don’t think that’s going to be workable. We have one system in the state we utilize to confirm and verify cases and verify positive cases. That’s a process that takes time.”

Slemp said testing has increased, though more testing is needed. According to DHHR, there are now more than 150 testing sites in the state in nearly every county.

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com

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