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West Virginia churches a growing COVID-19 concern

Gov. Jim Justice urges church-goers to follow all social distance guidelines. (Photo courtesy of WV Governor’s Office)

CHARLESTON — The outbreak of COVID-19 at a state prison in Randolph County at the end of May has largely subsided and testing at all state prisons and jails has come up with few positive cases, but churches continue to raise red flags for small outbreaks.

Gov. Jim Justice announced Wednesday that the Department of Health and Human Resources is tracking coronavirus outbreaks at six churches across the state, including Ohio, Boone and Greenbrier counties. Three previous church outbreaks have already been resolved.

“While church is surely the most sacred ground, it is the spot where we are singing and projecting our voices and we’re closer together and there’s more elderly there — all the things that make it just ripe for an outbreak,” Justice said. “We have got to protect ourselves there.”

After weekend testing in Greenbrier County, 32 church members tested positive there. In Ohio County, there are four cases tied to an unidentified church with more cases expected over the next few days, though no further information was released. Free community drive-thru testing will be available Friday, June 19, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Exley Center at Hil-Dar, and Saturday, June 20, at the North Wheeling Dream Center.

Justice urged church-goers again to maintain social distance, avoid touching each other, to sit in every other pew, stay in family groups and wear cloth masks at church.

“The reality is very simple: if we don’t adhere to the guidelines as far as masks and social distancing, or every other pew or all those things that are our own choosing…we’re asking for it,” Justice said. “If we want to keep going to church…we’ve got to follow the guidelines.”

The focus on church outbreaks comes after the state completed COVID-19 testing in the state’s correctional system.

According to DHHR, the Huttonsville Correctional Facility in Randolph County is down to six positive coronavirus cases as of Tuesday afternoon. State health officials and the West Virginia National Guard tested all the inmates and staff at Huttonsville after a part-time correctional officer and an inmate tested positive last month. At its peak, Huttonsville had 125 inmates test positive for COVID-19.

As of Tuesday, only Huttonsville and the Salem Correctional Facility in Harrison County had positive cases out of the 11 state prisons, with Salem reporting one case. Out of the state’s regional jails, one case was reported at Central Regional Jail in Braxton County, Eastern Regional Jail in Berkeley County and the North Central Regional Jail in Doddridge County. The South Central Regional Jail in Kanawha County reported three cases. A case at the Potomac Highlands Regional Jail in Hampshire County has already recovered.

According to DHHR, there are no reported cases at the state’s three work-release sites or the state’s 10 juvenile services facilities. So far, six employees have tested positive for COVID-19, while another nine employees have recovered. Testing was completed at all the state prison and jail facilities Friday.

“This is a story of absolute wonderful success thus far,” Justice said. “We all want to continue to be concerned and know this thing could whip right around and hurt us in any way…now we’re down to 13 active cases at four jails and two prisons. Really and truly we’ve not lost a single person.”

Tuesday night, Justice announced that the state received $4.3 million from the U.S. Department of Justice for Coronavirus Emergency Supplemental Funding (CESF) grant funds. The West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation will use the funds for coronavirus prevention and preparations, as well as to respond to outbreaks in the prison and jail system.

As of Wednesday, the state has tested 138,256 residents and is closing in on testing 10 percent of the state’s $1.2 million people

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

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