West Virginia gov details plans for $1.25B aid package

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice unveiled his plans for a $1.25 billion coronavirus aid package on Friday after months of questions over how he would spend the money.

The Republican governor’s strategy for the federal CARES Act relief fund was disclosed after local, state and federal officials urged him to distribute the cash as widespread business shutdowns hammered the economy. He has dismissed the demands as politically driven.

Justice said he will use roughly half the $1.25 billion to pad the state’s unemployment fund to ensure that jobless claims would continue to be paid. Local governments would get $200 million and small businesses would receive $150 million. Another $100 million would go to “COVID-19 related highway projects.”

Justice had long said he wanted to use the package to fill holes in the state budget, though federal rules limited spending to costs incurred due to the pandemic. He said attorneys have determined that his plans for the federal aid are legal.

The governor’s announcement came after “really productive meetings” with state lawmakers. State Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, a Democrat, said he attended a meeting with the governor and other high-ranking legislators about the aid package but noted that the governor did most of the talking.

“There was no input. It was the governor’s plan, and we listened to it,” said Prezioso.

Also on Friday, Justice said virus outbreaks linked to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, have now spread to 18 counties with more than 100 cases. He has declined to strengthen virus restrictions in response to the spikes.

Justice this week forced out the commissioner of his public health bureau, Cathy Slemp, over what he described as overstated virus counts. On Friday, he did not offer new details on the decision but said “many, many, many different incidences” led to Slemp’s removal.

“To just tell it straight up like it is, numerous things have led me all along the way to believe that my confidence level just evaporated,” Justice said.

Slemp has decades of public health experience. She previously served as the acting state health officer and was the founding director of the state’s public health emergency preparedness and response programs. Slemp is also on the board of scientific counselors at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In a resignation letter, Slemp asked state health officials to listen to science.

“I encourage all to stay true to the science, to further work to engage and empower communities to address such an unprecedented situation collectively, to meet people where they are and to move forward together,” she wrote.

Her removal has also drawn cricitism from high-ranking officials at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, where Slemp graduated, who said they were “stunned and troubled” by the move.

“We need more than ever the work of dedicated public health officials speaking honestly about what is happening — and what all of us can do together to save lives,” they wrote.

At least 92 people have died from the virus in West Virginia and around 2,700 have tested positive, according to state health data.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up within weeks. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the virus can cause severe symptoms and be fatal. The vast majority of people recover.

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