CHARLESTON, W.Va. ― President Donald Trump praised West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) at a press conference on Tuesday for doing a “good job” on the grounds that his state was the last without a confirmed case of the coronavirus.
“I just see West Virginia is the only one without reported cases,” Trump said on Tuesday morning. “Big Jim, the governor there, he must be doing a good job.”
That changed later on Tuesday when Justice announced that a person living in the state’s eastern panhandle had been diagnosed with the virus.
Even “Big Jim” previously acknowledged there were certainly residents of his state who had the virus, but officials hadn’t “found it yet” because of a lack of testing in West Virginia.
“Where we are is just plain simply this: We’ve got a monster that’s looming,” Justice said during a press conference last week.
As of Monday, only 84 tests had been given in the state. By Tuesday, the state had tested 137 people, with 122 negative results, 14 pending and one confirmed case.
Failing to recognize the full risk facing West Virginians, particularly the elderly, could put lives at risk.
Still, Trump wrote off the state several times Tuesday, first in a tweet and then at the press conference with the White House coronavirus task force, when he said field hospitals wouldn’t be needed in West Virginia because there had been no confirmed cases there.
“We’re not going to need them in West Virginia where so far, I guess, they have none. Still none? Still none, West Virginia,” Trump said, noting that “obviously” the state should be treated differently than New York or California because no one in West Virginia had officially been diagnosed.
While it’s true that with 1.8 million people West Virginia has a much smaller population than New York or California, many who live there are among the most vulnerable when it comes to the coronavirus. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, almost 20% of the state’s population is age 65 and over. That’s the fastest-growing segment of West Virginia’s population, in part due to a flood of younger people moving elsewhere.
The number of West Virginia grandparents ― many of whom fall in that 65-and-older category ― responsible for raising their grandchildren has doubled since 2005, WV Public Broadcasting reported in 2018. Many are in that situation thanks to the opioid crisis, which has also strained the state’s health care system.
West Virginia often ranks in the top among states whose citizens are in poor health or suffer from chronic illnesses like diabetes, heart disease and lung disease, all of which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says put a person in the high-risk category for COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.
Dr. Cathy Slemp, West Virginia’s commissioner on public health, argues that states should be prioritized based on risk, not just on the number of cases.
“We have a high-risk population. If we don’t have a lot [of cases] right here now, that’s great. If you send them [tests and supplies] now, we act now, give a chance to really, really reduce it much more,” Slemp said during a press conference Monday. “If you’re going to just where it’s already happening, you’ll be too late.”
West Virginia’s Department of Health and Human Resources issued guidance Monday on conducting COVID-19 tests, noting that the state’s public lab has been the primary facility for testing as commercial labs “develop testing capacity.” A spokesperson from WVU Medicine told HuffPost they are working to develop their own in-house testing and hope to establish collection centers in five towns over the next few days.
Eriel Scott, marketing and public relations manager for Thomas Health, said that six tests had been performed at Thomas Memorial and St. Francis Hospitals in Charleston, West Virginia, as of Monday and that the hospitals have been receiving five test kits at a time.
That same day, Slemp said the state has enough “tests and supplies of everything else for maybe 500 people.”
And despite his recognition that the coronavirus is present in the state, Justice has doled out his own share of bad advice and information. On Monday, as Trump was encouraging people to avoid restaurants and gatherings of 10 or more people, Big Jim was encouraging his citizens to “keep on living, in some way living, and doing what we’re doing.”
“If you want to go to Bob Evans and eat,” Justice said during a press conference, “go to Bob Evans and eat.”
Just 24 hours later, the governor changed his tune, announcing that all bars, restaurants and casinos in the state would close, though restaurants would still be permitted to fill takeout and delivery orders.
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