This is a developing story and may be updated.
West Virginia’s rates of new coronavirus cases are trending down, and as a result, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice has announced a plan to reopen the state’s economy. The plan, which is expected to roll out over the course of the next three to six weeks, calls for ramping up testing, contact tracing and increasing supplies of protective gear. The plan also includes some guidelines on how businesses will reopen and vague contingencies should an increase in cases be detected.
Justice’s reopening plans will come earlier than recommendations made by outside organizations, including the federal government.
Widely cited projections from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation show West Virginia could begin to relax social distancing practices on May 8 with proper testing, contact tracing and other public health measures.
Meanwhile, the Trump Administration’s Opening Up America Again Guidelines call for a three-phased approach with 14 days of a downward trajectory in cases during each phase.
But Justice said West Virginia’s numbers indicate the state has beaten the odds and limited the pandemic’s impact on the state’s population.
"If we were situated right in the area where we could be exposed to the biggest degree, we had to do something phenomenally right in order to be able to keep our numbers where we kept our numbers,” he said.
As part of the criteria for reopening, Justice said the state will need to maintain three consecutive days with statewide cumulative positive test results below three percent. He said Monday would serve as the first day in moving forward with the plan.
According to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources Monday morning update, 2.47 percent of tests have returned a positive result.
Justice said the state has been keeping a close eye on that particular metric, which health officials have noted has remained consistent throughout the state’s response.
“We have constantly watched that number — four percent, four percent, four percent. And then all of a sudden, we started expanding testing in the most vulnerable areas of all — the nursing homes — where we could have had the worst results to where the numbers would have gotten worse,” Justice said. “And as we expanded as testing and everything, we're starting to see a trend line where the numbers are getting better and better and better.”
However, in unveiling his plan to reopen, Justice noted that West Virginia has high rates of comorbidities such as diabetes, which he said puts the state as the highest risk of the coronavirus out of all 50 states. He also noted that West Virginia is also in the middle of a population cluster that makes up about two-thirds of the nation’s population.
“So we are the breeding ground. We are the spot where everything could blow,” Justice said.
The reopening plan would roll out over the course of three to six weeks, with some restrictions in place for certain types of businesses. The first set of reopenings allowed would be healthcare-related operations such as primary care, physical therapy and dentistry. That falls in line with Justice’s announcement last week that hospitals can begin Monday to apply to resume elective procedures. Testing of daycare staff would also be a part of the first set of reopenings.
“We're taking baby steps, baby steps way before we walk,” Justice said. “We are going to be very, very cautious in our steps and we're going to monitor and we're going to watch these numbers in every way.”
A second phase of the state’s reopening would allow small businesses with less than 10 employees to reopen. Churches and funerals will be allowed to have limited gatherings. Restaurants with outside seating would also be allowed, as would personal services such as hair and nail salons, barber shops and dog groomers.
“If we have the proper [personal protective equipment] that we can supply to our salons or to our barber shops or whatever — [what] we want to have happen is this: we want you to be able to call, make an appointment, stay in your car until you're called in as you go in. We want to take your temperature. We expect you to wear a mask.”
A third phase of reopening — which is expected to roll out over the course of three weeks — would allow offices, government buildings, hotels, casinos and other businesses to restore operations. Restaurants would then be allowed to resume dine-in services.
“This is only the 80,000 foot flyby and it's going to be a lot, a lot, a lot more — a lot more — roll out right behind all this,” Justice said.
Justice noted that additional guidelines for the third phase would be offered a week in advance.
As of now, the governor said he was not able to offer a timeline for allowing certain other venues to reopen, such as sports and music venues, as well as movie theaters. Visits to nursing homes will also remain fully restricted, as would gatherings of 25 people or more.
“Everybody should understand this disease is not going anywhere. I mean, this is a disease that we've got to figure a way to live with,” Justice said. “If we don't watch out, I mean, there's surely a bad outcome on the other side.”
Justice urged residents to continue to practice physical distancing, wear masks and use caution as the state begins to reopen. He said the stay-at-home order will remain in effect and urged people to continue to work from home if possible.
“You now we have a number to watch — a number we want to trend always less than three percent,” Justice said. “Please watch the number, West Virginians, and please continue to really try to help us. The lower the percentage on that number, the better. But we got to try to keep the number less than three.”
Justice said the plan to reopen could be stopped or slowed if hospitalizations spike, if community spread outbreaks are detected or if the cumulative positive test rate passes three percent.