West Virginia officials update public on prison outbreak, clarify social distancing rules

Brian Abraham, general counsel for the governor, explains Gov. Jim Justice’s safer-at-home guidelines. (Photo courtesy of the WV Governor’s Office)

CHARLESTON — During Wednesday’s state coronavirus briefing, state officials gave additional information on a virus outbreak at a state prison, how the safer-at-home guidance should be applied and the next round of COVID-19 testing sites opening this weekend.

According to Betsy Jividen, commissioner of the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation, an additional inmate and staff member at the Huttonsville Correctional Center in Randolph County have tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the number of cases at the facility to four.

The Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety announced Monday that a part-time correctional officer had tested positive for the coronavirus. On Tuesday, Gov. Jim Justice announced that a 62-year-old inmate also tested positive.

“Both inmates have been isolated and quarantined on Monday due to low-grade fevers and were caught through our process of medical screening that we’ve been using up to and continuing now in compliance with (U.S. Centers for Disease Control) guidelines and consultation with the Bureau of Public Health and the local health department,” Jividen said.

Jividen said enhanced testing of all inmates on the cell block and all correctional officers and staff at Huttonsville started Wednesday with help from the Bureau of Public Health and the West Virginia National Guard

“I think we had over 200 employees that were tested today,” Jividen said. “The National Guard is returning tomorrow between shifts so that we can get the rest. Also, the 43 inmates that live in the unit with the two inmates that have tested positive have also been tested. All of those test results are currently on their way to Charleston. We will wait and look at these test results and then get the expert guidance…and then proceed as they feel it is best with respect to any more targeted or enhanced testing.”

Turning to the safer-at-home executive order signed by Justice on April 30, state officials clarified what the order means. According to Brian Abraham, general counsel for the Gov. Jim Justice, they have received questions from businesses owners about whether the limit on gatherings of no more than 25 people applies to their businesses.

“As we’ve built these guidelines, people have called with multiple questions whether this applied to them or not,” Abraham said. “As we’ve begun to offer relief from these guidelines, many businesses have called in to ask how the 25 public gathering guidelines might apply to them.”

Justice had limited public gatherings to no more than 10 people in his March 23 executive order mandating the public stay at home except for essential activities. In counties considered coronavirus hotspots, public gatherings were further limited to no more than five people. The 10-person limit was lifted in Justice’s safer-at-home executive order to no more than 25. But even during the tighter executive order, Abraham said the per-person limit only applied to outdoor gatherings.

“The 25-public-gathering does not apply to our essential businesses,” Abraham said. “We left many of our manufacturing businesses open and we made very clear that the 25 guidelines did not apply to them and they kept their employees in place as needed.”

Abraham said the public-gathering limit does not apply to businesses that are reopening. Currently, retailers are required to limit the number of people inside their stores to no more than two people per 1,000 square feet except for grocery stores where the limit is three people per 1,000 square feet. Indoor dining at restaurants is allowed as of today, but only at 50 percent capacity.

“Obviously, a restaurant that had a capacity of 100 would not be limited to 25, but rather to 50,” Abraham said. “We’ve had wedding chapels that have been calling rather regularly now asking about the 25 limit. The same thing with churches, when we put out the 25 guideline for the churches — even though we never closed them — we had many ask about the 25.”

Abraham said any business or organization concerned about what rules apply to them should check governor.wv.gov and read the specific guidelines for their businesses.

“What we’ve suggested is that any of those essential businesses that we’ve offered guidelines for, then that is the guidelines that should be followed and to not worry about this 25,” Abraham said. “That’s why we felt like there was enough confusion out there we wanted to clear up.”

Also Wednesday, the next round of testing sites for minority and at-risk populations was announced.

The state Department of Health and Human Resources, the Herbert Henderson Office for Minority Affairs, and the West Virginia National Guard are hosting free COVID-19 testing in Cabell, Kanawha, Marion and Monongalia counties this weekend starting between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

The testing is available to all individuals, including people who are showing no COVID-19 symptoms, such as cough, shortness of breath, fever, chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat, or loss of taste and smell. Proof of insurance is not required, but proof of identification — such as a photo ID or proof of address — will be required. Children under 18 must be accompanied by an adult.

Locations include the 16th St. Baptist Church in Huntington, the Schoenbaum Family Enrichment Center in Charleston, and Windmill Park in Fairmont. In Morgantown, the Big Lots in Fairmont Road will offer testing on Friday, and the West Virginia University Coliseum and Mountainview Elementary School will offer testing on Saturday.

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


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