West Virginia’s first COVID-19 cluster has been reported in the Eastern Panhandle, state officials said Friday during the governor’s daily briefing on the coronavirus pandemic.
Later Friday, Gov. Jim Justice issued a new executive order that applies only to Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan counties. The new order limits groups to a maximum of five people and directs all businesses to require employees to work from home “to the maximum extent possible,” according to a news release from the Governor’s Office.
The order also directs county health departments to set and enforce maximum occupancy and proper social distancing methods within essential businesses, directs the West Virginia National Guard to provide services and logistical support to help local governments and directs the West Virginia State Police to help enforce local county orders.
The outbreak cluster consists of more than 60 positive cases in Berkeley and Jefferson counties. The cases were believed to be community spread, meaning the source of infection is unknown.
West Virginia Public Health Officer Dr. Cathy Slemp said the cluster was not tied to a particular facility or location. Justice twice referred to Hobby Lobby as the potential focal point of the cluster. Management at the national arts and crafts chain has captured headlines by defying stay-at-home and nonessential-business closure orders in numerous localities. The chain operates a store in Martinsburg.
But Slemp said: “We don’t think it’s one particular outbreak, in terms of one facility or one entity.”
Pressed to identify a location for the outbreak, Slemp responded, “It’s not specific to one particular community.”
Officials provided few details during the governor’s noon briefing, saying they had just been notified.
“We just got the news, probably at 11:30, about the situation that is happening in the Eastern Panhandle,” Justice said.
“We have enough to know that it is transmitting across the community in a fairly large geographic area,” Slemp said.
Clusters were inevitable, despite efforts to promote social distancing and good hygiene to prevent the spread of the virus, said Dr. Clay Marsh, the state’s COVID-19 czar and the vice president for health sciences at West Virginia University.
He said the outbreak is the result of an exchange of the virus for “a period of time.”
The cluster signals the need to consider tightening current gubernatorial orders intended to reduce potential spread of the virus, Marsh said.
“As we start seeing more cases in West Virginia ... one of the tools in our tool belt is really starting to tighten down somewhat between businesses that really do serve an essential public need and business that may be important but doesn’t serve that urgent need.”
In directing non-essential businesses to close, Justice’s executive order designated 67 broad categories of businesses as essential, allowing them to remain open.
- Based on University of Washington projections, hospitals in West Virginia should have buffers of 771 acute care beds and 69 ventilators when cases in the state are expected to peak in early May, Marsh said.
“Ultimately, we are well positioned to take care of the folks in the state who will get sick over this,” he said.
- Slemp said the long-awaited coronavirus dashboard is up at www.coronavirus.wv.gov. The site features daily 10 a.m. updates.
She also said the Department of Health and Human Resources has issued new coronavirus prevention directives for the homeless and for businesses providing lodging or take-out food or deliveries.