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Gov. Justice Pushes In-Person Classes, Eases COVID-19 Restrictions on Businesses


Gov. Jim Justice has made another plea to send K-8 students back to school, by way of executive order.

A month ago, Justice issued an order suggesting grade schools begin holding in-person classes. Schools have taken a blended approach, using virtual teaching as well. Wednesday the governor went a step further, saying younger students should be in class full-time.

“Without any question we ought to be back in school,” Justice said.

Whether that happens or not is ultimately up to the state’s Board of Education.

Justice said all teachers 50 and older should receive their second COVID-19 vaccination dose this month.

The governor has also allowed bars and restaurants to expand capacity to 75 percent, rather than the current 50 percent. Grocery stores and retailers can double the number of people they let through their doors, based on their floor space. No business can resume operations at full capacity, but Justice expects to allow that soon.

State residents can gather socially with up to 75 people, versus 25. That doesn’t apply to church services and other public events the state deems essential.

These measures take effect Saturday.

The indoor mask mandate is still on the books. State officials say masks are essential to safe reopenings.

While COVID-19 infection numbers have been getting better for a while, the state gave no indication of an ease in restrictions until this week. Justice said if cases do rise, he will reinstate restrictions.

“It’s not a time to panic, it’s a time to be cautious,” he said.

COVID-19 deaths in the state have dropped 70 percent since the start of the year. Daily active cases have dropped every day for more than a month. And hospitalizations are lower than they were before Thanksgiving.

Justice highlighted that there is not a single county with a red designation. That’s when new cases are more than 25 for 100,000 people in a county, or when the positivity rate is greater than 8 percent.

“Our map is getting prettier and prettier and prettier,” Justice said.

The state is slowly getting more vaccine shipments from the federal government. That allotment hovered around 25,000 doses earlier this year. Now, the state expects about 41,000 doses on a weekly basis.

Part of that bump comes from West Virginia’s enrollment into a federal program that allocates doses directly to big name pharmacies. The state opted out of a similar program last year, citing the prevalence of small independent pharmacies that serve rural communities. The state entered the latest program with an understanding that some smaller pharmacies would be included, too.

Retired Maj. General James Hoyer said today that Shenandoah Community Health and Valley Health pharmacies (which together serve Wayne, Martinsburg and Hunington) will eventually get some of those doses.

County-specific data regarding vaccine distribution is now available on the state’s COVID-19 tracker. The data suggests broadly that more populous counties are vaccinating a larger share of their residents than smaller counties. For example, 65 to 74-year-olds in Kanawha County are 10 times more likely to have been vaccinated than those in Nicholas County, and 20 times more likely than Lewis County residents.

Hoyer cited a concentration of nursing homes and assisted living facilities in Kanawha County, as well as large hospitals that needed to vaccinate staff. The state also didn’t roll out vaccine clinics to all 55 counties until early February.

Appalachia Health News Reporter, jleffler@wvpublic.org, 502-377-0438, @june_leffler

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