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In the red zone

Workers install lettering in an end zone of St. Albans High School’s Crawford Field on Monday afternoon. St. Albans is one of four Kanawha County high schools to receive new artificial turf prior to the start of the 2020 football season, joining George Washington, Nitro and South Charleston. Preseason football practice around West Virginia is scheduled to begin Aug. 3.

Half of WV voters cast their ballots by mail in June. Election officials wonder if they'll have the legal authority and manpower to make it happen again.

A little more than half of the more than 436,000 ballots cast in West Virginia’s 2020 primary election earlier this month were mail-in absentee ballots, Secretary of State Mac Warner said Monday.

For comparison, historically in West Virginia, about 3% of votes in a presidential primary election are cast by absentee ballot, Warner said.

In total, 224,734 ballots were cast by mail, according to the secretary of state’s website, meaning more work and more paperwork for the state’s 55 county clerks, their staffs and often the staffs from other county courthouse offices that were off limits to in-person visits early during the coronavirus pandemic lockdown.

Now, with the election behind them, Warner said he and county clerks are working to figure out what their options are for the November general election, especially if there’s no state of emergency that gives them and, most importantly, Mountain State voters, flexibility to vote without potentially exposing themselves to the virus.

“If the state of emergency is lifted, then that capability goes away,” Warner said Monday. “We, of course, want to continue to provide as many options as possible to the voters of West Virginia. To do so, we have to abide by state law, and state law is that you have to apply for that absentee ballot, and it has to be in your own handwriting.”

When Gov. Jim Justice declared a state of emergency on March 16, that gave Warner the authority to delay the primary election by about a month and relax the absentee voting rules to allow more people to be eligible to use that method of voting, per guidance he received from state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey later that month.

Now that some of the governor’s previous restrictions on socializing and other activities are being relaxed, Warner said, he again will be looking to the attorney general to determine what his and, ultimately, voters’, options will be by November.

“The concern now is that these emergency situations are being lifted both nationally and here inside the state,” Warner said. “The courthouses are going to opened back up, and the two-fold thing that is going to come at [the county clerks] is continuing customer service and not having the availability of these other assets from other county offices.”

Warner spoke with county elections officials during a call on Thursday. He said they had an “open, honest discussion” about the election.

“As we anticipated, it was a lot of work on the clerks,” Warner said. “They rose to the occasion and were able to pull off this extremely unusual election during a most trying time.”

Earlier this month, Donnie Plotner, the chief deputy of elections in Berkeley County, said his office hired an additional six temporary employees to help process the nearly 13,000 absentee ballot requests his office received, but staff still had to work nights and weekends to make sure all of the absentee ballot applications and ballots were properly processed.

In Jackson County, the closed courthouses gave County Clerk Cheryl Bright the flexibility to work skeleton crews in her office to keep employees separated so, if one person was exposed to the virus, a second team could keep the office running leading up to the election.

In addition to seeking the attorney general’s advice, Warner said he will be relaying county clerks’ concerns to the Governor’s Office, which provided $800,000 from the governor’s contingency fund to mail out pink postcards that served as applications for absentee ballots for the June primary election.

The Secretary of State’s Office received about $3.797 million from the federal CARES Act. Warner’s office had to come up with a 20% match to receive the money, so his office had about $4.5 million to support the primary election.

With reimbursement requests still coming in from county clerks’ offices, Warner estimated that the special circumstances of the election would cost about half of that $4.5 million.

About $550,000 has been spent so far on labor, and another $500,000 was spent on personal protective equipment for employees, poll workers and voters, Warner said.

The Secretary of State’s Office had received reimbursement requests from 12 of West Virginia’s 55 counties, as of Monday.

During a Kanawha County Commission meeting on Wednesday, Commission President Kent Carper said the county’s election could end up costing more than $500,000. He said at that meeting that the county had paid $215,000 to poll workers and $250,000 in postage.

Beyond the costs, Warner said he also has been in touch with officials from the U.S. Postal Service to discuss some issues that occurred with mailed ballots. Warner said his office received reports during the election cycle from voters who said their ballots were delayed in the mail.

Warner’s office even has received a few reports of people who received their absentee ballots only this week, he said. It was his understanding that those people who hadn’t received their absentee ballots cast provisional ballots in-person on Election Day.

Warner said Postal Service officials had identified the issues that happened and taken corrective measures, saying, “any time you bring in that volume of mail, there’s going to be delays.”

“There was nothing widespread, nothing systemic that had to have a criminal-type investigation,” Warner said. “Those are the issues with voting using the mail. That’s why I want to keep it as an option but it shouldn’t become the sole source or sole method.”

Dems call for talks on relief bill; GOP holds off

WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., called on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Monday to immediately start negotiations on a new coronavirus relief bill.

Their demand comes with cases spiking dramatically in a number of states but little urgency from congressional Republicans and the White House to respond.

“The nation has seen a dramatic surge in both cases and deaths caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Adding to that pain, our economy is facing one of its greatest challenges since the Great Depression. Over one-fifth of the workforce has requested unemployment assistance,” Pelosi and Schumer wrote in a letter to McConnell. “Now is the time for action, not continued delays and political posturing.”

Senate Republicans and the White House have been eyeing late July as the time frame for putting together another coronavirus bill, after passing four bills in March and April pumping some $3 trillion into the economy. The Democrat-led House passed another massive relief bill 45 days ago, but Republicans declared it dead on arrival in the Senate and Trump threatened to veto it.

Congress is in session this week, but lawmakers then plan to leave Washington for a two-week recess for the Fourth of July. There are no plans to pass coronavirus legislation before the recess.

In response to the Pelosi-Schumer letter, a McConnell spokesman pointed to comments McConnell made Friday in Kentucky, when he said: “In July, we’ll take a snapshot of where the country stands, see how the jobs are coming back, see where we think we are. And if there’s a final rescue package, that’s when it will develop and it will start, once again, in my office ... the House efforts are simply not practical.

“So we will sit down in July what seems to fit the way forward based on the conditions a few weeks from now,” McConnell said. “One thing I can tell you will certainly be in the bill — it’s not-negotiable liability protection for hospitals, doctors, nurses, businesses, universities, K-12 related to the coronavirus.”

McConnell’s position has been essentially unchanged since April.

Meanwhile, some critical deadlines are approaching when relief measures will expire. Enhanced unemployment benefits passed as part of the $2 trillion CARES Act in March expire July 31. The small-business Paycheck Protection Program will stop accepting new loan applications on Tuesday, even though about $100 billion is left in the program.

“We are outraged that, instead of holding bipartisan, bicameral negotiations during the June work period, you chose to prioritize the confirmation of right-wing judges and several Republican-led committees devoted precious time to chasing President Trump’s wild conspiracy theories,” Pelosi and Schumer wrote. “The House has acted. It is unacceptable that the Senate would recess without addressing this urgent issue.”

On Sunday, Vice President Mike Pence held an event in Dallas where he urged Americans to wear face masks and practice social distancing as the United States surpassed 2.5 million confirmed cases. Texas, Arizona and Florida have emerged as the new hotspots.

Democrats have been calling for a national testing strategy and also want to send more money to state and local governments, some of which have been forced to lay off employees in droves. Senate Republicans are divided on what to do next, or whether another relief bill is even needed.

“You have 53 different opinions on what to do right now” — the number of Republicans in the Senate — Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., told reporters late last week. Braun also argued, “I think the economy is going to surprise us” by rebounding.

COVID-19 tops 10M cases, 500,000 deaths as momentum grows

Deaths from the coronavirus have topped 500,000 worldwide and infections have surged past 10 million, two reminders that the deadliest pandemic of the modern era is stronger than ever.

The infection milestone is a rebuff to health experts and global leaders — including President Donald Trump — who had hoped early in the pandemic that the virus would fade away with the summer heat. Instead, infections are multiplying faster than ever.

It took four months after the pathogen first surfaced in the Chinese city of Wuhan to reach 1 million infections. The spread of the coronavirus has steadily accelerated, compressing the time frame to a million additional cases every week now.

“It’s a startling number,” Richard Riggs, chief medical officer of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said of the 10 million milestone. “It seems like it’s going to continue for quite some time.”

The latest milestone for cases might serve only as a relative marker, as the true number is likely to be higher, given the difficulty of tracking infections. The death toll is equally sobering, and some health officials predict 1 million fatalities might not be far off.

The World Health Organization reported almost 190,000 new cases for the 24-hour period through early Sunday, after Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said this month that the pandemic has entered “a new and dangerous phase.”

The global epicenter of the coronavirus is continuing to shift. First it was China, then Europe, and now, developing countries with weaker health care systems, like Brazil and India, are reeling. Since late March, the United States has had the most cases globally and is still adding infections at a record daily pace. States such as Texas, Arizona and Florida are being forced to reverse plans to reopen their economies.

The United States and Brazil together represent 49% of all new infections, according to the WHO’s data for the latest 24 hours. Cases from the Americas account for 62% of the 189,077 new infections, followed by 13% from Southeast Asia and 8.8% from Europe.

Governments are increasingly accepting there might be no quick return to life as it was before the pandemic, as economies have been battered by prevention measures that restricted people’s movements and damped consumption. People are still trying to get on with lives that have been interrupted, but more lockdowns and social distancing measures might be looming.

“Going back into a lockdown is a terrible option, but we do need to be flexible,” said Caroline Buckee, associate director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “The question for policymakers is how much of a rise are they willing to tolerate.”

While efforts to contain the virus have been successful in some areas, it’s still not clear whether information gained during the past six months is significantly reducing complications and death rates, Riggs said. Recent breakthroughs, including treatment with Gilead Sciences Inc.’s remdesivir and the inexpensive steroid dexamethasone, might make a difference.

“I’m hopeful we have learned more about how to care for these folks,” he said.

A recent outbreak in Beijing is a reminder that even places that had shown success in controlling the virus can’t tame it indefinitely. Other regions, from Tokyo to Seoul and Australia’s Victoria state, also are seeing cases bubble back up. The best hope lies in the development of a vaccine, which is unlikely to be ready this year, despite a global race to come up with an effective shot.

In the early stages of the outbreak, officials in the Northern Hemisphere pointed to the potential that the virus would go away in the summer, with people outside and not in close quarters. Those hopes have been dashed.

“It doesn’t look like there’s any significant impact right now from the weather,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the United States, said earlier this month. He had noted that hot weather tends to slow lung infections.

The situation could worsen when autumn comes. The United States and other northern countries will need to prepare for a flu season that will be complicated by the coronavirus pandemic, adding more stress on already stretched health care systems.

“We haven’t seen the end of COVID-19, and we haven’t seen the full scope of it yet, either,” said Ali Mokdad, professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle. “This will be as dangerous as the Spanish flu in many ways,” he said, referring to the 1918 pandemic that infected an estimated 500 million people.

Justice remains on the defensive over forced resignation of Dr. Slemp

Gov. Jim Justice remained on the defensive Monday over the forced resignation last Wednesday of Dr. Cathy Slemp, the former state Public Health Officer, reiterating that he had lost confidence in her leadership after discovering that the state COVID-19 dashboard had over-reported current active cases of coronavirus.

“It is imperative to me that our numbers be right,” Justice said Monday during the state’s COVID-19 briefing.

Justice said DHHR had failed to remove nearly 300 people who had gotten well from the list of active COVID-19 cases.

As of Monday morning, the state had 2,849 total cases, and 627 active cases, according to the dashboard. On June 21, the number of active cases had been listed as 778.

“I am not going to tolerate people who are somewhat asleep at the switch,” he said of delays in DHHR detecting the clerical error.

Asked if she was forced to resign for calling for a slowing down of the state’s reopening, Justice said, “That’s not fair. That’s not fair to do.”

He added, “The bottom line to the whole thing is somebody’s got to be responsible. There’s a multitude of things that surely led to my lack of confidence.”

Asked if Slemp’s comment during the June 22 briefing — the last before her forced resignation — raising concerns over a 28% increase in COVID-19 cases in two weeks had led to her termination, Justice said, “Not to not answer your question, but I don’t see that there was truth to that.”

He also brushed aside a question as to why Slemp was terminated for clerical errors, while there has been no disciplinary action over a $567,000 no-bid contract awarded by the Department of Homeland Security for 100,000 N95 respirators, half of which turned out to be counterfeit.

“I think Secretary [Jeff] Sandy has addressed that over and over,” Justice said.

Sandy acknowledged that N95 masks with ear loops do not meet Centers for Disease Control and NIOSH standards, but has denied the masks are counterfeit.

Also during Monday’s briefing, Justice:

  • Confirmed West Virginia’s 93rd COVID-19 death, an 82-year-old Greenbrier County man who also is the first death linked to a coronavirus outbreak at the Graystone Baptist Church, outside Lewisburg.

Again expressed reluctance to mandate mask wearing in public places but said he would not rule it out if COVID-19 cases spike around the state.

“It’s surely still on the table,” he said. “It has not left the table.”