On Monday, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice issued an executive order allowing hospitals to resume elective procedures that are currently halted as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The order calls on hospitals to be reviewed by state officials before these procedures could resume.
The announcement is the first step Justice has made to reopening the state’s economy since non-essential businesses were closed on March 24 and a stay-at-home order was issued the following day.
At the daily virtual news conference, Justice made note of recent deaths attributed to COVID-19, which then stood at a total of 24. By the time the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources’ issued its evening update, the death toll had hit 26 and 908 cases of the disease had been confirmed.
The latest projections from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation indicate West Virginia could begin to relax social distancing practices on May 4. But Justice said reopening some aspects of life are needed sooner rather than later.
“If we continue down this path for very much longer, there is a real, real possibility that the engine won't start back,” Justice said. “Or, the engine won't start back in a way that will assure us to not drift into not a recession — but the possibilities of a depression.”
Justice said he isn’t taking into consideration those projections as he plans a reopening of the state.
“For someone, you know, in Washington state to look at a map and say, ‘West Virginia doesn't have hardly anything going on there compared to New York or Connecticut or whatever so really, truly, I think it’d probably be fine for them just go back to normal tomorrow,’” Justice said. “You know, well, we're not gonna take that advice.”
Hospitals Soon Able To Apply To Resume Elective Procedures
But Justice’s plans to reopen are likely to begin even sooner than the recommendations based on the University of Washington projections.
He said hospitals will be allowed, beginning April 27, to apply to resume elective surgeries. He said state health officials will review the hospitals to ensure they have enough protective gear and meet other criteria.
Elective medical procedures have been temporarily banned as of March 31 through an earlier executive order.
“We've got to restart our hospitals,” Justice said “We've got to restart from the elective surgeries and from the general care that maybe you've been laying to the side that you need to do.”
In many communities, hospitals are the largest employer. The lack of a surge of coronavirus cases — and the halting of elective procedures — has caused some to furlough or cut staff.
Monday’s announcement is the first step in what’s expected to be a slow process of restarting the state’s economy. Public health experts around the world have encouraged governments to expand testing and contact tracing capabilities before relaxing social distancing and other mitigation efforts that were instated to curb the spread of COVID-19.
A study from Harvard University recommends that states would need to test 152 people out of every 100,000 to safely begin to ease social distancing measures. An analysis by the New York Times shows West Virginia was testing around 41 residents per 100,000 last week.
Justice himself acknowledged that there will be some risk as the state begins to open up.
"I will assure you that we will start back as safely as we possibly, possibly can,” Justice said. “But there's no possibility that we can avoid 100 percent of the risk."
As part of the effort to resume elective procedures, state coronavirus czar Dr. Clay Marsh said West Virginia has acquired 30,000 swabs and 15,000 kits to enhance testing capabilities. He said incoming patients and health care workers in “high risk areas” will be tested for COVID-19.
“We will stand ready to work with each one of our hospitals and hospital system[s] — and healthcare system — to define how they want to approach this,” Marsh said. “Certainly, as we look at people who are getting procedures, surgeries — who may need to have a breathing tube put in during the surgery — many people will feel more secure that they know that that person is tested negative for COVID.”
Justice said reopening the state will occur in “baby steps” as testing will be ramped up. So far, the DHHR reports 22,357 tests for COVID-19 have been conducted.
While Justice is moving forward with allowing hospitals to resume elective procedures, other reopenings are not yet finalized. When asked whether schools — which are currently closed until April 30 — will be reopened before the end of the academic year, the governor said he continues to have conversations with state superintendent of schools Clayton Burch.
“I've surely been hopeful that we could go back to school. I want us to be able to do that if that's at all possible,” Justice said. “But at the same time, I've said repeatedly — over and over and over — I will not in any way, in any way, put kids back in a situation that could cause a potential problem for the kids, you know, parents or grandparents or whomever it may be.”