West Virginia health officials say they are noticing several small coronavirus outbreaks linked to churches and an increased potential for disease spread in the state’s southern counties, even as the governor’s office allows more businesses to reopen week by week.
The Department of Health and Human Resources on Thursday reported that 23 people were sick with COVID-19 among Boone, Hampshire, Jefferson and Marshall counties.
“We recognize the virus still is present and real, but manageable if we take precautions,” Dr. Cathy Slemp from the state Bureau for Public said during a meeting of the state’s Advisory Commission on African American Disparities for COVID-19.
The DHHR and local health departments did not disclose further information about the churches to prevent the possibility of identifying those who tested positive for the coronavirus.
“I just wish people would wear a mask,” said Julie Miller of the Boone County Health Department. “It’s not a normal, everyday life anymore. I mean, things have changed. We’ve got to be careful where we’re going.”
The Boone County outbreak had resulted in seven positive cases as of Thursday, roughly a week before the church outbreak came to Miller’s attention. She said the church – which is closed for the moment – did not enforce state guidelines for social distancing and wearing face masks.
“I just said [all of] that place has to be cleaned, and everybody has to wear a mask, and there has to be social distancing, and you really have to cut down the singing,” Miller said. “You can sing, but you can’t take your mask off to sing. When you sing, you spread things out. Whatever germs you have, even a cold will go further.”
Miller has counted eight new Boone County cases since June 1. The DHHR recorded 17 confirmed cases in Boone County as of Thursday evening.
In Marshall County, five individuals tested positive for the virus, all from the same church. None were residents of Marshall County, according to administrator Lee Thomas Cook for the county health department.
Cook said he is unsure whether the local church had complied with guidelines from the state, but he added that his department will continue to educate the public on ways to prevent spreading the disease.
The church has been sanitized and is now open.
Health departments in Hampshire and Jefferson counties did not respond to requests for comment.
As 19 other states are seeing an increase in coronavirus cases and nine are reporting an increase in hospitalizations for COVID-19, West Virginia is taking a harsher look at the reproduction rate of the coronavirus in individual counties, versus in the state as a whole.
On Thursday, coronavirus czar Dr. Clay Marsh, dean of the WVU School of Medicine who participates in the governor’s daily press briefings, said the state has noticed an increase in the reproduction rate of the coronavirus in West Virginia’s southern counties.
“So, we really want to increase our testing there, just to sample and understand what’s going on,” Marsh said.
DHHR cabinet secretary Bill Crouch cited the reopening last month of the Hatfield McCoy Trails and an influx in out-of-state riders entering the state as a possible reason for the increase in cases.
"The southern part of West Virginia, we've been watching and talking about every day for at least the past week," Crouch said. "I'm very concerned. We have the Hatfield McCoy trails and hundreds of people coming in, so we want everyone down there in the southern part of the state to do what they need to do to protect themselves, as well. People coming in from out of state makes this much more difficult to contain."
Of the 55,000 riding permits the Hatfield McCoy Regional Trails Authority planned on selling in 2019, roughly 85 percent were supposed to come from out-of-state riders. Tourists historically are a major part of the trail system’s income.
The state continues to reopen according to a week-by-week plan from the governor’s office. Gov. Jim Justice announced Wednesday that nursing homes can begin reopening for guests next week.
On Thursday, Justice reported that the West Virginia State Fair would go on as planned in August.
He encouraged those watching his briefing to attend. When later asked by a reporter how Justice squared this with news of outbreaks at fairs in other states, the governor said he would encourage attendees to wear face masks and practice social distancing.
There were more than 2,000 positive cases for COVID-19 as of Thursday evening, and 86 deaths since March.
Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.