Reporter’s Notebook: Coronavirus in the Mountain State
CHARLESTON — In this time of increased anxiety, worry, and in some cases panic over the coronavirus, Gov. Jim Justice has mostly done a good job trying to encourage people to social distance from others and not panic. What he did Saturday night and last Thursday might have undone a lot of the good he has done.
Let’s start with Saturday night’s address to the state. Justice didn’t plan on having a coronavirus briefing this weekend, so his surprise announcement of an evening primetime address on a Saturday made everyone perk up. I was inundated with texts and messages asking if I knew what it was about. I did not and I would only speculate to a couple close friends and family.
Most assumed Justice was about to announce some additional business closures. Maybe even do what Pennsylvania did and close all “non-life-sustaining” businesses. That sent people pouring into their nearest grocery store to pick over what chicken or beef was left. Even I went out to grab some additional long-term foodstuffs, such as rice and potatoes.
When West Virginia gathered around the TVs or computers Saturday night, what did we hear? Pretty much a 25-minute rambling mess telling the state to keep staying at home, avoiding crowds, washing hands, covering coughs, not touching our faces, or otherwise we’d become New York and then Justice would have to get strict.
It was the equivalent of your dad saying he’ll pull the car over if you don’t behave in the backseat. I’m not saying this isn’t a valid message, but this could have been done through a press release or even a quick briefing with press that could ask questions. But when you think of a Saturday night public address, you think it’s going to be a major announcement.
It wasn’t. And it will go down in history with the infamous “Jay’s Blizzard” address in the late 1970s, when former governor Jay Rockefeller nervously told the entire state to prepare for a catastrophic snowstorm and sent the state into panic. The snowstorm never came.
During Thursday’s coronavirus briefing — conducted via video conference — we found out Gov. Jim Justice had to be tested for coronavirus. It turns out that the first positive case in West Virginia, James Vigil of Jefferson County, met Justice in mid-February at a grant award event in the Eastern Panhandle. Justice told the press Thursday his test came back negative.
I asked a follow-up question about this to try to pinpoint when Justice realized he had been in contact with Vigil. My concerns were two-fold: first, the Vigil case was announced Tuesday night and Justice said he was just tested Thursday, so I wanted to try to establish a timeline when Justice knew and when he was tested; and two, it appears Justice was tested Thursday and got his results back in three hours.
My first concerns were valid, as Wednesday we had the normal in-person briefing in the Governor’s Reception Room. Despite the Governor’s Office putting limits on who was allowed to be in the briefing to keep the room from surpassing 10 people, you still had more TV news staff there than needed, and you still had a room full of gawkers from state agencies and legislative leadership. Justice gave remarks at the beginning but left for the Governor’s Mansion right afterward.
If Justice knew he had met Vigil by Wednesday and still had an in-person briefing with media and state officials, then he could have potentially infected the bulk of state agency leaders, lawmakers, and the statehouse press. Luckily, he tested negative, but that brings me to my next point.
Justice was tested Thursday only after he told Bill Crouch, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Resources, and Dr. Clay Marsh with West Virginia University, who both insisted he be tested. It just so happened that a batch of test results were en route for the DHHR lab in South Charleston, so Justice was tested at the Governor’s Mansion and self-quarantined there. Three hours later, he got his negative results back.
No doubt it’s good to be the Governor, and naturally it makes sense to test Justice if he thinks he came into contact with someone with the coronavirus. But a three-hour turnaround time on results?
It’s apparent from the numbers that testing is increasing. Commercial labs, such as LabCorp, can test now. Hospitals across the state are offering drive-thru or off-site testing. But not just anyone can be tested. You must meet criteria set by the Centers for Disease Control and DHHR, which includes having some of the symptoms – fever, cough, and shortness of breath – and also based on whether you recently traveled to areas where the coronavirus is.
Even if someone has met some of that criteria, there are people claiming to be turned away. U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said Thursday more than 90 calls came into his office from people claiming to be turned away for testing.
Now, I’m not a big believer that anyone who wants tested should be tested. After all, unless you’re so ill you need to be hospitalized, the only recourse for someone with COVID-19 is to go home and treat it like they would a flu or cold. But when there are concerns out there about not having enough test kits, a state that might as well be a powder keg for COVID due to our senior and chronic health issues, and people with symptoms unable to get tested, knowing your Governor got tested and his results back in the time it takes to “The Irishman” on Netflix, that just looks bad.
I don’t believe that this incident was handled in bad faith, but with everyone looking to the state for leadership and guidance, it’s little things like this — as well as Saturday night’s nothingburger of an address; or the handling of the test case for Mr. Vigil, which sounds like it was a fiasco — that can undo a lot of good that has been done.
Mistakes happen in the fog of war, and we are at war with this virus. Let’s try to keep the mistakes and missteps to a minimum.
Steven Allen Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.