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Ben Fields: The cure is not worse than the virus (Opinion)

Now is not a time for partisan divides. But this is America, and, even in the midst of a pandemic, even with key members of Congress coming down with the coronavirus, Washington, D.C., remains in its hermetically sealed bubble of squabbling and misinformation.

Something Americans should get used to hearing, generated by the isolated feedback loop of politics, is some variation of the phrase “the cure cannot be allowed to become worse than the disease.”

While there is no real “cure” for COVID-19 yet, the solution referred to in this line of thinking is what we’ve done so far — shuttering businesses, staying at home and limiting interactions to slow, and possibly stop, the virus. A vaccine is anywhere from a year to 18 months away, and drugs that might work are in the early clinical-trial phase.

An unavoidable side effect of patience and precaution is a slowing economy. We are spending money on what we need, if we can find it and afford it, and not much else. Even if we wanted to spend money on non-emergency items, there’s nowhere to do it. Even the online behemoths have been slowed by COVID-19. It takes people to pack those boxes and ship them out. The United States is, in essence, closed for business, beyond operations that provide essential goods and services. Businesses can’t flourish if they’re closed. Cruise lines can’t make any money with no one on the ship. The stock market can’t climb if there’s little economic activity.

Thus, the argument on the cure being worse than the disease goes, a recession or even a possible depression would be worse than sending everyone back out, letting the virus run its course and categorizing the resulting illnesses and deaths — on a scale that can’t be predicted — as acceptable losses.

Such cruelty and callousness could only come from the White House and some on Capitol Hill, the most dysfunctional and aloof locations in the country. Any reasoning along these lines must be soundly rejected before turning into a serious argument. It’s dangerous, and would only make this pandemic worse.

As frustrating as it might be to the economic elite, the country must continue to exercise caution until this virus is understood and dealt with in a responsible way. That means following public health guidelines and staying home. That means getting medical staff the equipment they need, and making sure all with symptoms have access to testing. That means making sure our poor, our unemployed and our incarcerated are protected. People of all political stripes have accurately stated that coronavirus has to be treated as a health issue first and an economic issue second.

That’s not to say the economic picture isn’t scary, or that it isn’t intertwined with the issue of the virus. But surely the United States can figure out a way to keep people afloat and keep them safe. This is, after all, an unprecedented national crisis, and it must be addressed nationally. The government has to have a plan to protect its people — and the economic packages that are being developed are a good start — while state and local governments do what they can, too.

Rushing back to have churches packed by Easter, as President Trump is suggesting, is a sure way to get Americans killed.

There is nothing more important to the country right now than the health of its people. Economies can recover. Lives lost to careless policy are gone forever.

Loree Stark: Criminal reform necessary during coronavirus (Opinion)

The novel coronavirus — COVID-19 — presents a severe danger to the health of incarcerated people and those who work in West Virginia’s criminal legal system, but a full-blown health crisis in our jails and prisons is not inevitable.

Other states and localities are taking swift, decisive action, and West Virginia must follow suit immediately. The longer we wait to act, the worse this will be. The stakes are life and death.

At least two county courts in Ohio are issuing orders and conducting special hearings to increase the number of people released from jails. In Denver, police officers are issuing summonses rather than arresting people suspected of low-level, nonviolent crimes. In Travis County, Texas, judges are releasing more people from local jails on personal bond to relieve overcrowding. A sheriff in Houston is seeking compassionate release for vulnerable people who pose a low public safety risk.

These actions and more will help protect public health while keeping public safety at the top of people’s minds.

West Virginia officials must work together immediately to avoid catastrophe. The following actions will reduce burden on the system and ensure people can adhere to recommended health practices:

  • Police must limit the number of people who are arrested and then detained in spaces where maintaining hygiene becomes difficult.
  • Police should cease arrests for low-level offenses and issue citations or desk tickets, in lieu of other arrests, so people may return home.
  • Prosecutors must use their immense discretion to limit the number of people held in correctional facilities. They should move for release of pretrial detainees who are incarcerated only because of inability to afford cash bail.
  • With a focus on vulnerable populations, prosecutors should institute a review-and-release protocol in which bail was sought and imposed over the past 30 days.
  • Prosecutors also should temporarily vacate fines and fees so that people are not required to come into court or wait in processing centers to remove those financial burdens.
  • Sheriffs must ensure facilities are as empty, safe and clean as possible. This means sanitizing facilities and ensuring there are adequate supplies of soap, hand sanitizer, tissues and other hygiene products. These products must be free and made available to all staff and incarcerated individuals.
  • Sheriffs should assess incarcerated populations and maximize the number of people who may be immediately released.
  • Sheriffs should suspend any practices of holding people in facilities for civil immigration purposes.
  • The Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation must implement procedures to care for those who become ill, and then make those plans public. Those procedures must include: screening and testing for COVID-19; removal of copays; access to necessary medication and equipment necessary to treat the virus; and the ability to transfer patients to hospitals when necessary. Any procedures for housing people who are exposed to the virus, who are at high risk of serious illness, or who screen or test positive for COVID-19 should not result in prolonged, widespread lockdowns.
  • Probation and parole agents should cease in-person check-ins and should allow check-ins to occur by voice or video call. The number of people being incarcerated should be further limited by suspending detainers and incarceration for technical rule violations.
  • Parole boards should expedite and expand release opportunities for incarcerated people. Boards should institute a presumption for release for people who have a hearing scheduled in the next two years. For people whose parole hearings fall outside that time, boards should seize opportunities to expedite that process to ensure that any vulnerable person eligible for parole has the opportunity to be screened for release immediately.

Gov. Jim Justice has the opportunity to play a powerful role in limiting the harm COVID-19 inflicts on incarcerated communities. He must consider issuing executive orders to achieve the goals and remedies outlined above. He should grant immediate commutations to anyone whose sentence would end in the next year, to anyone currently being held on a technical supervision violation and to anyone identified by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as particularly vulnerable whose sentence would end in the next two years.

The American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia is eager to work with anyone willing to take these steps, and we are willing to be a resource for you throughout this process. We want to ensure implementation of policies that limit the threats presented by this public health crisis.

The urgency of deliberate and thoughtful action cannot be overstated.

Gazette-Mail editorial: Helping the animals helps people

It’s truly amazing that the Kanawha-Charleston Humane Association was able to get foster parents for nearly 73 dogs and cats in a single day.

The “Foster a Friend” event that took place Tuesday accomplished just that, getting pets into foster homes so the shelter may cut back on staff and workers can stay home during the coronavirus outbreak.

It’s good for the shelter, but it’s also good for the animals. They can get more direct attention and affection in a single home rather than having to be kept in groups. Hopefully, some of the folks taking on the temporary responsibility of having an animal in their house will consider permanent adoption, which would be an even greater help to the shelter’s mission in the long run.

But the dogs, cats and shelter aren’t the only ones benefiting from this. No doubt, those who welcomed an animal into their house will benefit, too. After all, having an animal to care for and bond with is a plus in the midst of a pandemic that can only be contained for now through social isolation.

Even before the coronavirus, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported studies showing pet ownership is beneficial for the health of people. According to the CDC, having a pet can come with physical benefits, such as decreased blood pressure and lower cholesterol levels, along with general increased physical activity. The CDC also reports psychological benefits, such as decreased loneliness.

Everyone has to look for hope in these uncertain times, and pets certainly offer something to be happy about and another area of focus for overwhelmed minds. Perhaps Tuesday’s event did a little bit for a lot of people — or maybe a lot for a few. But it was something positive in a number of categories, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that at this point.

KENNY KEMP | Gazette-Mail/  

Dog Foster Kringle, a dog from the Kanawha/Charleston Humane Association, rides off after getting fostered out Tuesday morning by St. Albans resident James Kennedy.