Reporter’s Notebook: Virus response ramps up

I fully expected to write something about the various statewide races, or some of the after-effects of the 2020 legislative session. I didn’t expect I’d be writing about a virus pandemic.

But the novel (new) coronavirus, or COVID-19 (short for Coronavirus Disease 2019) has swept the nation, literally. As of Friday, we are now in a national emergency and a public health emergency. West Virginia has been in a state of preparedness since the beginning of March.

Schools are closed today and indefinitely. After-school extracurricular activities are postponed until after April 10 and that could be extended further. The state girls and boys basketball tournaments are on hiatus. State employees can’t internationally travel or outside the state. Hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities are limiting visitors.

Large events are being canceled across the state. Toilet paper and Clorox wipes are in short supply (Why I don’t know. A bottle of bleach is cheaper and unless you have diarrhea you shouldn’t need more toilet paper than normal). Downtown Charleston, where I am based, might as well be a ghost town. At the Capitol, maintenance workers are wiping down entrances.

It’s amazing to me how quickly this all escalated. Tuesday, I was being asked to interview officials with the Department of Health and Human Resources about preparations for coronavirus. Apparently they were receiving multiple interview requests, so they held a briefing Wednesday. By Thursday, Gov. Jim Justice was part of the briefing, announcing the state employee travel ban, the request for senior facilities to limit visits and the postponement of the basketball tournaments. By Friday, Justice announced the closing of schools.

I’ll be honest, I’m unpanicked by all of this. It’s not that I don’t take the coronavirus seriously. I do. But I’ve also had the benefit in participating in our state’s response to pandemics. I’ve sat in a tabletop exercise about what would happen should a nasty bird flu or similar superbug shows up in West Virginia. That was 12 years ago, but I can only assume that plan hasn’t changed by that much.

Despite what you may have heard, the coronavirus is not the same as the flu, though yes, they do share some similarities and symptoms. What makes the coronavirus more deadly than the flu is simply how new it is. No one has seen this before, so no one has any kind of immunity built up. With the flu, you either build up immunity through a flu shot or having had the bug before.

The reason, I’m told by people in the medical field, that coronavirus is particularly nasty to older people and those with chronic illnesses is due to the amount of mucus it creates. If you are a smoker above the age of 60 or if you have any type of respiratory issue, the coronavirus will make for a bad week. One figure I’ve seen from the World Health Organization is that 16 percent who get COVID-19 will have a severe case. For most people, you’d be lucky to know if you even have it.

That’s why the demand for testing befuddles me. As I write this on Friday, West Virginia has tested 21 people with 17 tests coming back negative and four tests still pending. Obviously, they need to test more and more testing is coming online all the time. The state only has 300 test kits, but the DHHR lab can test. Commercial lab companies can test now. Some hospitals can test now. But even if we ramped up testing, would it change anything?

State officials acknowledge that even with no positive tests, the coronavirus is in West Virginia and that people should assume it’s here and act accordingly. That means wash your hands (of note: no one is saying use hand sanitizer), cough into your elbow, maintain about 6 feet of distance from others and stay away from large groups. If you’re in the high-risk pool of older people and those with chronic illness, avoid unnecessary travel and stock up on basics.

One thing I’ve been disappointed by is the politicizing of the state coronavirus response. I don’t know anyone who thinks Dr. Cathy Slemp, the state health officer and commissioner of the Bureau of Public Health, is doing a bad job. There are those saying we’re not testing enough, when we’re testing based on CDC protocols with a finite number of test kits.

During the session, there were complaints we were not providing any funding in the budget for coronavirus preparations. They got their wish, even though that $2 million set aside is for the next fiscal year, not now. I understand people want to score political points going into an election year, but is now really the time to do it? There is no evidence our leaders are being incompetent.

Everyone needs to remain calm. Everyone needs to watch their space and cleanliness. Everyone needs to watch out for their neighbors. As we flatten the curve by avoiding the mass spread of the virus to those most at risk, this will start to become less of a risk.

We can do it together.

For up-to-the-minute information, follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/stevenadamswv. If you type in #WVCOVID19 in Twitter, you’ll also find my updates.

I’m also putting the full briefing audio on the State of the State podcast feed, available on iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, iHeartRadio and Spotify.

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


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