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Justice doing '100% better' after antibody treatment; Hanshaw leaves Capitol with COVID-19 symptoms

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice is doing “100% better today than yesterday” after being diagnosed with COVID-19 late Tuesday, according to his chief of staff, Brian Abraham.

The governor, who received monoclonal antibody treatments to stop progression of his illness on Wednesday, is still recuperating at his home in Greenbrier County. Abraham said he is “champing at the bit” to get back to the Capitol.

“You can still sense the tiredness in his voice, but he wants to be back in person. He’s wanting to come to work and is frustrated just sitting there. Of course, the medical folks said that wasn’t a good idea yet, and he’s listening to them, but we’re still talking about every half hour,” Abraham said. “The [monoclonal] antibody treatments really turned things around for him, and thank goodness for that.”

Monoclonal antibody treatments are administered to help people who are at risk of seeing their infections clinically progress to more severe ones, which could necessitate hospitalization and more care.

Some of the most common risk factors for clinical progression are age and body mass index. Justice, 70, is fully vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19. As he is older and of larger stature, Justice could have been at higher risk for more serious illness.

Abraham said Justice and the medical professionals overseeing his treatment believe being vaccinated saved his life.

“They [the doctors] and he personally believe that, without those vaccines and the booster, well, he would not be in the same situation that he is in today, which is getting better by the minute,” Abraham said.

Abraham said the doctors will consult with the governor to see when he can “come out of quarantine,” although Justice is hoping it will be by “early next week.”

According to guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people who test positive for COVID-19 and are symptomatic — no matter vaccination status — should isolate themselves in their homes for at least five days. If they’re around other people, they should wear a “well-fitted mask” to prevent transmission of the virus.

People can leave isolation five days following symptoms improving and a fever breaking for 24 consecutive hours without use of fever-reducing medication, the CDC said.

Even after the isolation ends, those who tested positive and who experienced symptoms should wear a tight-fighting mask anytime they’re around other people for at least 10 days, the CDC recommends.

The West Virginia Legislature’s 2022 session is carrying on as Justice recovers from his illness. There, House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, left the state Capitol Thursday morning after he began experiencing symptoms consistent with COVID-19, House communications director Ann Ali said.

House Majority Leader Amy Summers, R-Taylor, who is a nurse, urged Hanshaw to leave.

Hanshaw received a rapid COVID-19 test at the Capitol, which yielded a negative result. The most accurate tests for COVID-19 are PCR tests, which are lab analyzed but sometimes can take several days to get results. Experts say rapid tests are useful for immediately learning someone’s status if they are potentially going to expose other people to the virus.

Hanshaw had not been physically present with Justice in the days leading up to the governor’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Ali said.

Summers distributed rapid COVID-19 tests to all 100 delegates, including Hanshaw, on Thursday.

“The reason I’m putting those in your desk is I’d like you to take those home, and, if you’re ill, do it,” Summers said. “If it’s positive, don’t come in.”

The rapid COVID-19 tests also were available to House staff, Ali said.

There weren’t any immediate plans to make substantial changes in House function as of Thursday, Ali said.

Earlier this month, Hanshaw said it was the plan among House leaders to take the session day by day regarding COVID-19.

“We’re starting to process next week under the assumption that it will be business as usual, up and until circumstances warrant some kind of change,” Hanshaw said on Jan. 7. “Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying we would not make a change. I’m just saying we are not starting out [with changes].”

The Barge restaurant sold to Parkersburg businessmen

A former Charleston riverboat restaurant might get a new life in Wood County.

Parkersburg business owners R.C. “Heck” Heckert and his son, Scot, bought The Barge restaurant at auction Thursday for $122,500, plus a buyer’s fee of about $13,500.

The Heckerts said Thursday that they planned to reopen the restaurant at their marina and campground, Broadway Campground in South Parkersburg.

“Our intentions, as of right now, are to take it to Parkersburg and figure out whether we’re going to moor it in the water or move it up on land and open it up as a restaurant on the Little Kanawha River,” Scot Heckert said.

But before the two had even left the former restaurant’s auction, they received an inquiry about reselling the vessel. Heck Heckert said he would have to discuss the offer with his wife before making a decision.

“She’s interested in doing something there at Parkersburg, and there’s no way that I would do anything without consulting with her,” he said.

A two-story floating restaurant on a barge by Trojan Landing Marina, The Barge has been vacant since it closed in late 2019. Previous owner Adolfina Wolfe put it up for auction after a few previous attempts to sell it were unsuccessful.

KENNY KEMP | Gazette-Mail 

R.C. “Heck” Heckert (left) and his son, Scot, speak with auctioneer Todd Short (right), of Joe R. Pyle Complete Auction and Realty Service, after placing the winning bid on the former floating restaurant The Barge. The Heckerts, of Parkersburg, bought the boat for $122,500 plus a buyers fee.

Blake Shamblin, southern regional manager of Joe R. Pyle Auctions, which oversaw the auction, said 19 people were registered to bid online, plus another 20 in person. The vessel’s sale included the restaurant equipment.

A survey of the property in 2017 determined its market value to be between $900,000 and $1.2 million, Shamblin said.

The Heckerts bid once, and three other people also placed bids, Scot Heckert said.

“There were people there today from Huntington and other places that were very serious about buying that boat,” Heck Heckert said. “They had letters of credit and all that stuff, banks backing them.”

Heck Heckert said there were some people there he would not have bid against, and others that would not bid against him.

“It’s a courtesy of the business, so to speak,” he said. “It’s hard to explain, but there are courtesies involved.”

The Heckerts are in the commercial and non-emergency medical transportation business in Parkersburg, Scot Heckert said. They said they own the P.A. Denny sternwheeler, Yellow Taxi and the Broadway campground in Parkersburg.

Additionally, Scot Heckert is running for the West Virginia House of Delegates.

He said his family frequently visited Charleston during the Sternwheel Regatta and were friends with the event’s founder, Nelson Jones.

“Dad and Nelson were real good friends, and dad caught the river bug off Nelson. The rest of us kids kind of caught it between dad and Nelson,” Scot Heckert said.

KENNY KEMP | Gazette-Mail 

Auctioneer Todd Short announces the winning bid on the auction of The Barge Thursday.

Heck Heckert described the Charleston restaurant as a “very valuable piece of equipment” that was in the right place at the right time.

“With the depressed economy that we got all over, the cost of everything going up so bad, we’re looking at that as speculation,” he said. “I think now’s the time to buy, now’s the time to do the setup and gradually ease into it."

Under the terms of the sale Thursday, the new owners have until May to move the vessel from its current spot on the Kanawha River, near the Patrick Street Bridge.

If they decide the keep the riverboat, Heck Heckert said, they do not have a time frame for when they expect to reopen the restaurant in Parkersburg, but it will not be this year.

“I’ve got all the facilities, I just didn’t have this piece,” he said. “I’m looking forward to designing the rest of the project. I think it will be a real addition to Parkersburg.”

Dems list legislative priorities; call for strengthening child services, retaining nurses, EMS workers

West Virginia’s top two Democrat lawmakers laid out their party’s priorities Thursday morning, calling for increases in state workers’ pay, deterring the consolidation of public schools and mending food insecurity statewide, among other wishes for the 2022 legislative session.

Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, said he left a recent meeting with Child Protective Services workers as “depressed as I could be,” citing a 70% vacancy rate in his home county’s office.

“They’re in a no-win situation,” Baldwin said. “It’s impossible for them to do their job.”

Baldwin’s comments came one month after a legislative hearing where lawmakers learned that before a Greenbrier County mother shot and killed five boys, turned the gun on herself and set her home ablaze in December 2020, a local dental hygienist had contacted Child Protective Services four months earlier to report suspected parental abuse. The claim was never followed up.

For children still in the CPS system, Baldwin said, this must be the year lawmakers hone in on making holistic changes to the system. An audit released just before the pandemic began found that West Virginia Child Protective Services workers, who are mandated by law to investigate child abuse allegations, failed to look into half of the reports of child abuse in 2018 within the required time.

“Those children then are going to grow up and remember, ‘this is a state that didn’t value me,’” Baldwin said. “They’re not going to want to live here.”

It’s a problem that won’t be fixed with a 5% pay raise, Baldwin said, as the starting salary for child services workers is about $29,000. It’s going to take way more than that, he said.

Entering the second year in the Democrat superminority, Baldwin said he’s learned to be patient and always work on legislation with the long-term effect in mind. He cited the 18 bills passed nearly unanimously out of the Senate on Wednesday — all of which passed the Senate last year but died in the House — as an example of the Republican supermajority and Democrats coming together over good policy and without drama.

“So, if we don’t make progress on [strengthening child services],” Baldwin said, “disappointed doesn’t begin to describe it for me.”

House Minority Leader Doug Skaff Jr., D-Kanawha, said the Legislature must take a similar approach to retain the state’s nurses and emergency medical services workers who “are leaving the field at record pace” as the world enters year three of the pandemic. Skaff is the president of HD Media, parent company of the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

A legislative report released this week found that, of students who graduated from West Virginia medical schools from 2011 to 2016 and have finished their residencies since then, only 1 in 5 are practicing in the state. Skaff said the problem has only intensified since.

“All of our medical professionals in West Virginia are leaving because it’s a crisis. They’re in crisis mode right now,” Skaff said.

Baldwin and Skaff said their caucus will again support the Fairness Act, which adds protections for LGBTQ+ people into the state’s nondiscrimination ordinance. They also named food insecurity as a primary issue facing West Virginians. The House created a food-insecurity workgroup last year, which includes members from both parties.

As Republicans have spent the past half-decade supporting the expansion of charter schools, Baldwin predicted a sharp increase in public school consolidations, “on a level we have never imagined, over the next decade in West Virginia.” He said Democrats will work on policy that strengthens the public school system.

Democrats will join Republicans and the governor in supporting pay raises for state employees, Baldwin said, which they hope will turn into support for increasing benefits for state retirees, who are on a fixed income as inflationary prices continue to stick around. Democrats also want to ensure all homes and businesses in the state have access to affordable broadband, an issue Republicans similarly believe is of utmost importance this session.

Skaff said while Republicans have no obligation to work across the aisle because of their supermajority, the two parties found a good working relationship last year, and he believes it will continue into this session. But he said it will be frustrating during days like Thursday, where House Republicans spent hours debating a ban on abortions past 15 weeks, instead of continuing Wednesday’s bipartisan momentum.

House Health advances 15-week abortion ban, hearing to be held Monday

A bill banning abortions after 15 weeks and levying penalties for any physicians who perform them passed the West Virginia House Committee on Health and Human Resources on Thursday and is now on its way to the Judiciary Committee.

Lawmakers on the committee — which is composed of 19 Republicans and six Democrats — voted on party lines, with Republicans in favor of the bill.

They rejected amendments from the Democrat members of the committee that would have allowed exceptions for sexual assault and incest and changed language from “women” to “patients,” which would have been consistent with other sections of code and to strike the criminal penalties for physicians who perform abortions.

House Bill 4004 does allow exceptions for “medical emergencies” and “severe fetal abnormalities.” Medical emergencies do not include any exceptions for psychological or emotional conditions, not limited to self-harm or suicide. An amendment to allow for such exceptions also was struck down by Republican members.

The bill is similar to a Mississippi law that is under review by the U.S. Supreme Court. Oral arguments for that law were held in early December, and a ruling is expected in coming months that could annul protections established in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

Health committee members engaged in discussion on the 15-week ban and the proposed amendments for more than an hour.

Ash Orr, a community activist based in Morgantown, shared their experience receiving an abortion past the 15-week mark almost 10 years ago. Orr had a high-risk pregnancy, which they learned about when they were already 12 weeks pregnant.

Despite doctors telling them the potential danger of carrying the pregnancy to term, Orr did not meet the requirements for what would be considered a “medical emergency” under state code. Orr found an abortion provider and had a safe, successful abortion at the 16-week mark.

“I didn’t want to die at age 22 ... if I had not had that abortion, I would not be here,” Orr said. “Had I been lucky enough to potentially survive childbirth I would have been stuck with a partner that was abusive. We couldn’t afford to be good parents and provide for a child at that time.”

There is only one abortion provider in West Virginia — the Women’s Health Center, on Charleston’s West Side — although, in certain cases, such procedures can be accessed in hospital settings.

Existing state law outlaws abortion at 20 weeks of gestation.

Those against the bill pleaded with their Republican colleagues to consider the implications of limiting abortion access any further in the state, especially without exemptions for cases of sexual assault or incest.

“Think about if it’s your daughter, your wife, your mother or niece, your grandchildren. What if it were them?” asked Delegate Lisa Zukoff, D-Marshall. “Would you help them through those nine months of trauma? Can you imagine the pain they would feel every day?”

Delegate Dean Jeffries, R-Kanawha, who is vice chairman of the committee, was the only Republican member to share his thoughts with the committee, and they were brief. He voiced his disapproval for the amendments presented and urged the members of his party to vote them down.

“I would love to return to the days where Republicans would stay out of bedrooms and doctors offices,” said Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha. “You can’t even tell us why you’re against these amendments — you’re just [in] lockstep.”

The committee also approved House Bill 4005, which would make it illegal to transport or sell fetal body parts from an abortion. The proposed law would not apply to such body parts donated to stem cell research.

That bill also was sent to the House Judiciary Committee.

A public hearing for the 15-week abortion ban and the fetal body parts bill will be held at 3 p.m. on Monday in the House chamber.

Senate makes quick work of 18 bills on first day of session

The West Virginia Senate on Wednesday passed 18 bills in the span of a little more than an hour as part of an effort Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, said was meant to beat one thread of insanity in the legislative process.

All of the bills the Senate passed during the first day of the 2022 regular legislative session were bills that went through the committee process and passed the Senate last year but ultimately died in the House of Delegates, Blair said.

The Senate voted 18 times to suspend the procedural rules that require three days worth of consideration by lawmakers and ultimately passed the bills.

“This is the first time that we’ve done it this way,” Blair said. “It’s something I’m adamant about doing.”

Blair had talked with House leaders about the Senate’s plans, and he encouraged them to do the same in their chamber.

“It’s not a surprise,” Blair said. “It’s not a bomb that we’re throwing over there. The House is very aware of it and I encouraged them to do the same for us, so that we can pick up where we left off last year basically.”

With House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, leaving the Capitol on Thursday after experiencing possible coronavirus symptoms, there were no plans to take similar action, House Majority Leader Amy Summers, R-Taylor, said.

Blair talked with Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, about the plan last week, and Baldwin said Senate Democrats were onboard with the plan.

“I thought it was a good idea just to take a relatively small group of bills that had bipartisan unanimous support last time and, for whatever reason, died in the House,” Baldwin said.

During a lull in activity in the Senate on Wednesday, Majority Whip Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, could be heard talking near a microphone about the procedures with someone off camera to the livestream of Senate proceedings.

“Normally, you don’t jump into the heady issues during the first two days of committee meetings,” Weld said. “So we were looking at stuff we could just get done, and all that stuff was this stuff.”

He likened the legislative process sometimes to being similar to if someone came to fix a water heater at your home at 4 p.m. multiple days in a row, giving them minimal time to get the job done.

“There’s a level of insanity of doing it that way,” Blair said. “So, to bills that we can come together on, that we agreed to over here, we get them moved and moved fast over to the House.”

The Senate and House reconvene at 9 a.m. Friday.