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West Virginia’s new COVID-19 cases are low, but growing

Gov. Jim Justice updates the press during his coronavirus briefing Monday. (Photo courtesy of the WV Governor’s Office)

CHARLESTON — While West Virginia is testing more for COVID-19, health officials said Monday that testing alone is not the sole reason for the state’s modest growth in coronavirus cases.

According to the New York Times, COVID-19 cases in the U.S. have increased by 20 percent over the last 14 days, with cases on the rise in 22 states. According to the “Opening Up America Again” criteria released by the White House, states should have a downward trajectory of cases during a 14-day period.

Using data from the Department of Health and Human Resources, West Virginia’s increase in cases over the last 14 days, from June 8-21, was 15.7 percent. West Virginia’s number of tests over the same period increased by 50 percent. As of Sunday, West Virginia has tested 8.5 percent of residents — better than all surrounding states and the U.S. average of 8.1 percent.

Over the weekend, President Donald Trump suggested at a campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla., that the U.S. should slow down testing, a statement that White House officials have walked back as “tongue-in-cheek.” Justice said he believed Trump was joking, but that he was all for constantly increasing testing.

“I really believe there, in West Virginia, that we need to test as much as we possibly, possibly can,” Justice said. “We’re the most vulnerable of all the states. We have the oldest and we have the most chronic illnesses, and we sit right at a sweet spot right within a rock’s throw of two-thirds of the population of the country. The numbers are unbelievable. The more we test, the more we’ll learn. Sure, the amount of positives will go up the more we test. So what?”

West Virginia also saw a 58 percent decrease in the number of COVID-related deaths during the 14-day period, while the U.S. has seen a 43-percent decrease in deaths. West Virginia went 10 days without a death until Sunday, when DHHR reported the death of a 74-year-old woman from Berkeley County, which has 157 active cases — the most of any county in the state.

As of Sunday, active COVID cases in the state — cases where a person is either hospitalized or in self-quarantine — sat at 770, with 19 counties seeing increases in active cases over a seven-day period, 16 counties seeing decreases, and 10 counties seeing no changes. As of the end of the day Sunday, 12 counties report no active cases, with Doddridge and Webster counties having never reported a single positive coronavirus case among residents since the state started tracking cases.

The state’s Rt value — the reproduction rate of the virus — has creeped up to 1.05, meaning that a single infected person could infect one other person. Dr. Clay Marsh, the state coronavirus czar, said increased testing allows health officials to get to people before they start spreading the virus to others.

“Not only do we find more people who are positive when we test … but we really want to find the people who can spread the most readily — the super-spreaders,” Marsh said. “Every time we find somebody who is positive for COVID, it gives us an opportunity to try to reduce that rate of spread of that person turns out to have a lot of virus and we happen to catch them at the right time before they can spread the virus readily.”

The state has been keeping track of small clusters of community coronavirus spread, including outbreaks in churches that aren’t following social distancing guidelines and people coming back from Myrtle Beach, S.C. According to the Associated Press, there are now 41 cases linked to Graystone Baptist Church in Greenbrier County. Another nine cases are linked to First Baptist Church in Wheeling. And 16 cases in Preston County have been linked to trips to Myrtle Beach.

Dr. Cathy Slemp, the state health officer and commissioner of the Bureau of Public Health, said testing can account for some of the increases in cases, but Slemp pointed to those instances of community spread as a sign that something more is going on. She said the state has seen a 28 percent increase in active cases in the last two weeks.

“It’s not just a reflection of the increased testing … but what we’re seeing is actual increases in cases of the disease,” Slemp said. “That’s a shift in what we were seeing before. Our Rt values had been trending down but the last two weeks they’re trending up…I think we are seeing community outbreaks as we’ve seen in churches and family gatherings and other kinds of things. The disease is starting to pick up a little bit, so we want to make sure that does not continue and go steeply up.”

The state has done a number of free COVID-19 testings around the state for minority and at-risk populations, though the testing is opening for anyone as long as they have valid identification. Locations this week include Boone, Lincoln, McDowell, Raleigh, Wyoming, and Mingo counties. There will also be testing in Hancock County at Mountaineer Casino Friday, June 26, and Saturday, June 27, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

“I welcome the fact that we’re continuing to test,” Justice said. “Naturally, if we slowed down and didn’t do the free testing or whatever like that, your numbers might look a little better, but these numbers look great anyway.”

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

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