Updated Thursday, May 21, 2020 at 5:40 p.m.
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice says the National Guard is en route to the state’s Eastern Panhandle following a spike in coronavirus cases in that region. In a virtual news conference Thursday, Justice said Berkeley and Jefferson counties each saw an increase in positive cases Wednesday.
Those increases — which amount to 35 new cases between the two counties, Justice said — come as West Virginia continues to roll out a phased reopening plan, with restaurants and many retailers allowed to resume business as of Thursday.
As of Thursday morning, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources reports 70 deaths as a result of COVID-19. State health officials say they have confirmed 1,593 positive tests in the state.
Justice said the state’s daily positive test growth rate jumped Wednesday to 3.1 percent, but that spike would not stop the next round of planned reopenings. Thursday marked the reopenings of restaurants and other businesses.
Berkeley and Jefferson sit next to high population centers in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. — which have all seen high numbers of cases of COVID-19.
“We're trying to get to absolutely the bottom of exactly what the issue is,” Justice said Thursday. “We know with the exposure to Virginia, with the exposure to D.C. — right there at these counties — we have a gigantic population of people that can absolutely infect those people in those counties and cause a big time problem there.”
The state’s coronavirus czar, Dr. Clay Marsh said the uptick in cases in the Eastern Panhandle is not surprising and that state officials have anticipated cases to increase as the state continues to roll out its reopening plans.
“This is what we have called the dance — and the dance means that we are watching carefully, that we're continuously trying to move forward, as the governor said. But, at some points, we may have to slow down or stop or even back up some,” Marsh said.
Given the rise in cases in the Eastern Panhandle, Justice said he would consider an executive order requiring people to wear masks in those counties.
“The mask may very well be the key to everything — and the level of inconvenience from the mask is minuscule compared to the benefit,” Justice said.
Marsh also weighed in on Thursday to urge residents to wear masks while out in public.
But Justice said he’s unsure how an order mandating the use of masks would be enforced.
Justice also pushed back on President Donald Trump’s plan to end the National Guard’s deployment after 89 days. At 90 days, members are eligible for retirement and education benefits.
“Our National Guard all across our country is phenomenal. But, our National Guard in West Virginia is miraculous. That's just all there is to it,” Justice said. "And so — from the standpoint of your governor, from the standpoint of the administration, from the standpoint of everyone here — we need to push Washington in every way to support these men and women that are doing unbelievable work.”