CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Gov. Jim Justice on Monday declared a state of emergency in response to the new coronavirus, even as West Virginia remains the last state in the U.S. without a confirmed case.
The Republican governor said he issued the declaration so certain rules on personnel and purchasing could be waived. He said he wants to be on the “safe side.”
“In the state of West Virginia, I do not want us to be asleep at the switch because just happened to not have a positive test,” Justice said.
State health officials said 84 people have been tested, with 80 negatives and 4 tests pending as of Monday afternoon. Though Justice has repeatedly said the virus is likely here but is undetected because of a national lack of testing.
U.S. Sen Joe Manchin, a Democrat, echoed concerns about the small amount of available testing.
“It’s no excuse when you know how vulnerable our state is. If it gets ahold of our state, we don’t have the health care in order to defend ourselves. It could be devastating.”” he said in a call with news media.
Both Justice and Manchin noted the virus could be especially damaging in West Virginia because of the state’s high elderly population and high percentage of people with existing health problems.
“I’m afraid it could be lethal because of our fragile population,” Manchin said.
Justice last week closed schools statewide until at least March 27. County public school districts throughout West Virginia are providing free meals to students who are on the extended break, with some using school buses to deliver meals along regular routes.
The governor has previously asked West Virginians to reconsider non-essential out-of-state travel, warned against gathering in large crowds and requested that nursing homes limit visitors, echoing similar precautions taken throughout the country. Though on Monday he stopped short of closing bars and restaurants as some other states have done, saying “Not yet. I don’t think any of our people yet think that’s necessary to do.”
“Know this is serious stuff,” Justice said, but “try as best you can to live your life.”
Also on Monday, justices on The Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia directed courts in the state to suspend all but emergency hearings until April 10. Exceptions could be made where a criminal defendant’s speedy trial rights may preclude the postponement, according to a news release.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, and the vast majority recover in several weeks. But for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause severe illness, including pneumonia.