West Virginia forges ahead with reopening as testing unclear

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice says his coronavirus reopening plan is based on two things: science and math.

But for a second consecutive day Tuesday, the Republican governor didn’t show his work on the reason behind loosening testing benchmarks as the state barrels toward lifting its virus restrictions — even as he made the case for openness.

“I really truly believe that if you’re completely transparent and you see what needs to be done you’ll fix it greatly yourself,” Justice said.

The Justice administration plan to reopen hinges on having the state’s positive testing rate below 3% for three days, reversing a previous goal to have cases decline for two straight weeks.

Clay Marsh, a high-ranking West Virginia University health official leading the state’s virus response, has previously endorsed a two-week plan, as has the White House, which included the metric in a reopening road map distributed to governors. He later sought to clarify the switch at the governor’s daily news conference and on social media, saying the state has enough downward trend lines to adjust its criteria.

“These sort of instructions are not rigid, linear sort of requirements, they are advisements and guidelines for us to decide to open,” he said.

West Virginia has seen no significant decline in the number of daily positive cases, according to state health data. Thirty-eight people have died in the state, with 12 fatalities recorded in the last week. Officials have also not given specific benchmarks on testing capacity or protective equipment they want to meet as part of the reopening plan.

The lifting of restrictions is already underway, with hospitals moving to perform elective surgeries and testing of day care staff. If the state remains under the positive case rate threshold, state boards could allow dentists, physical therapists and other outpatient services to resume later this week.

The governor on Tuesday also moved to clear up some confusion on when exactly each component of his six week plan would go into effect, though his message left room for confusion.

“We tracked a day on Monday — yay, yay — we’re tracking a day today and we’re tracking a day tomorrow. If that be the case then on Thursday, well on Wednesday evening at 5 o’clock, we’ll have our three days. And at that point in time then week two will commence on Monday. It will not commence a week from Thursday. It will commence next Monday, a week from yesterday, provided we have three days in this week, which are Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, that get us under three percent.”

Small businesses, barbers, outdoor dining at restaurants and church and funeral services could open next Monday under the governor’s plan. Offices, hotels, casinos, restaurants and other remaining businesses could open in the following weeks if the case rate criteria continues to be met.

Further instructions on social distancing and rules for the businesses will be set in the coming weeks and Justice said the plan could be slowed or stopped if there’s a jump in cases.

About 1,100 people have the virus after roughly 41,000 tests, according to the state health department.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up within weeks. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can bring about more severe illness and even death.

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