Presser 2 (copy)

Dr. Clay Marsh, West Virginia University's chief health officer and vice president for health sciences, speaks during a March 17 evening press conference at the Capitol.

West Virginia has confirmed its first case of community-spread COVID-19, a key development in the coronavirus pandemic that West Virginia University’s top health official says warrants stricter precautions for people in the state.

Before Sunday, all of the state’s positive COVID-19 cases had come from West Virginians who had recently traveled out of the area. But now a West Virginian has contracted the disease via another resident, which is called community spread or community transmission.

Dr. Clay Marsh, vice president and executive dean of WVU’s Health Sciences, said during a phone interview Monday morning that community spread is one of two main indicators that current restrictions, like closing just some businesses, aren’t working.

The other, he said, is when the number of positive COVID-19 cases compared to total tests taken starts increasingly rapidly.

Marsh said both of these could lead to a patient surge on hospitals, which could infect a critical number of health care workers.

“Our single biggest challenge right now, and vulnerability, is our health care workers and our health care system,” he said, “If we get overrun there, then we’re in real, real trouble.”

During a panel address Monday afternoon, Gov. Jim Justice issued a stay-at-home order for non-essential workers in the state effective 8 p.m. Tuesday. Justice announced the first case of community spread COVID-19, describing the individual as only a “nursing home lady” and did not provide any further details other than this person was one of the 16 confirmed cases as of Sunday.

Marsh, who was on the panel with the governor, said now that West Virginians are being infected with the coronavirus by other West Virginians, more precautionary actions are needed.

“It means that now the coronavirus is inside the state. It’s not just people coming from outside the state, therefore we knew that the preventive measures that we were taking was not sufficient to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus,” he said. “If you don’t stop the rate of spread, then the rate can start to create a surge, or tsunami wave, that affects the health care workers.”

Countries that haven’t seen an overwhelming surge have an average COVID-19 mortality rate of about 1%, Marsh said. But for countries that have had a hospital surge, like Italy, mortality rates are closer to 8%.

Marsh said one of the biggest threats to health care workers right now is the lack of personal protective equipment needed to treat infected patients.

He said the U.S has traditionally been heavily reliant on China for things like masks and gowns. So when the coronavirus broke out in China, more of that equipment was kept inside the country.

Marsh said the same for the nasal swabs used to test people for the coronavirus. He said the U.S. typically receives those from Italy, the country with the highest number of deaths due to COVID-19.

As for COVID-19 testing in West Virginia, Marsh said the state is “light-years” ahead of where it was even a week ago.

“At this point, and if I didn’t feel this way I wouldn’t say it ... our testing is ramping up,” he said.

Marsh credited hospitals and community health centers for securing test kits from both the state and private corporations, which has vastly increased the number of tests taken over the last week.