Gov. Jim Justice says he has ordered coronavirus testing for all inmates and guards at state corrections facilities following an outbreak at Huttonsville Correctional Center. Justice and other state health officials say that spike in cases has had a significant impact on the state’s totals but won’t alter the state’s plans to continue reopening businesses and other aspects of everyday life.
During a virtual news conference Thursday, Justice said 105 inmates at Huttonsville Correctional Center have tested positive for the coronavirus.
“Now, all of a sudden we've had an outbreak in one of the prisons,” Justice said. “And so what do we do? We do exactly what we should do — and that is run to that fire.”
As of Thursday morning, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources reports 74 deaths related to COVID-19. The agency has also confirmed 1,906 positive tests of the virus that causes the potentially fatal disease.
Due to the number of cases found at Huttonsville Correctional Center, Justice called Wednesday for the testing of all state correctional facilities. But local health officials in Randolph County say they have identified more cases in the county in recent weeks that may not be related to the correctional center.
“I think concern is a mild word,” said Bonnie Woodrum, who serves as the county’s coordinator for threat preparedness and is also an infectious disease nurse.
She said, in the past week, the county has seen five more cases within the community. That’s in addition to the county holding steady “for weeks and weeks” at five initial cases, she said. Local officials were waiting on the results of more than 300 additional tests from the Huttonsville facility as of Thursday afternoon.
“We have had some community spread. We are tracking contacts,” Woodrum said. “We don’t know if it comes from the same source as the original Huttonsville Correctional Center or elsewhere.”
Woordrum said local health officials do not know exactly how the virus made its way into the state prison. She said many guards who work there live across the region and not necessarily in Randolph County. She noted the virus might have come in from someone who was asymptomatic or someone who had not been tested.
Randolph County health officials — in conjunction with the DHHR and National Guard — will conduct free drive-through testing at two locations on Saturday, May 30, at the Davis Medical Center in Elkins and Valley Health Care in Mill Creek from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
West Virginia has seen an 130 percent increase in positive tests compared to 14 days ago, according to an analysis of state health data. Over the course of the last two weeks, state officials have conducted targeted testing in some cities in hopes to reach vulnerable populations such as African Americans.
Justice also routed members of the National Guard last week to Berkeley and Jefferson counties in the Eastern Panhandle after a spike in cases in that region.
“I think the issue is not West Virginia,” Justice said Thursday when asked about the increase in cases over the past two weeks. “The issue today is Huttonsville, Huttonsville, Huttonsville.”
Asked by West Virginia Public Broadcasting whether the state should stop or slow down its reopening process because of the recent spike in cases, Justice did not offer a threshold for altering those plans.
“We're still less than 2 percent,” Justice said about the state’s cumulative positive test rate as of Thursday. “They were like 1.7 or something percent and everything. So from the standpoint of the community and everything, we’re still good to go. But from the standpoint of watching, that's what we all want to do.”
State coronavirus czar Dr. Clay Marsh differentiated the spread at Huttonsville from West Virginia as a whole. He said the state otherwise would appear to be trending in the right direction if not for positive tests from that facility and other localized outbreaks.
“As we look at these blips — and the governor is, I think, correct — that we see a congregate outbreak like in Huttonsville in the prison,” Marsh said.
Marsh said the situation at Huttonsville has skewed the state’s numbers higher, with the R-naught [rate of person to person spread] level going as high as one person infecting as many as three others in that area. But statewide, things are not nearly as dire.
Marsh also said health officials’ recommendations are based on community spread, rather than congregate transmission like has been seen in Huttonsville Correctional Center.
State health officer Dr. Cathy Slemp said the state is becoming more and more focused on particular counties and communities, in regards to decision-making as they move forward.