Gov. Jim Justice battled congestion Wednesday while being treated for COVID-19 at his Greenbrier County home on the day he was to deliver his State of the State address to the West Virginia Legislature.
“He’s getting the care, and I think he’s trying to put up a strong front in front of us. When you talk to him, you know, he’s not doing well,” Chief-of-Staff Brian Abraham said. “You can hear the congestion, hear the distress in his voice. He’s being brave, but you can tell it’s affecting him.”
The Justice administration announced late Tuesday the governor tested positive for the virus after reporting he felt “extremely unwell.” Officials postponed the State of the State address. The governor has said he is fully vaccinated and boosted.
Justice was continuing to experience “moderate symptoms” Wednesday evening, according to a news release from the Governor’s Office.
Abraham said Wednesday that Justice is “still in charge of things” and has been on the phone “constantly” with the chief of staff and other leaders as they discussed and organized announcements scheduled to coincide with the beginning of the 2022 legislative session.
First lady Cathy Justice and Justice’s office staff all have tested negative, according to the news release.
Abraham said Justice has “medical people that are assisting him” at his home. The governor’s daughter Jillean, a physician, and state coronavirus czar Dr. Clay Marsh are advising on treatment, Abraham said. It was unclear which virus variant Justice contracted.
On Dec. 14, 2020, Justice, 70, received his first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine during one of his live pandemic briefings. Since then, he has pleaded with his constituents to follow his lead and get fully vaccinated — and now boosted — to protect themselves from the virus.
Administration officials said the governor is receiving monoclonal antibody treatments. The treatment was received well, according to a news release.
Dr. Myron Cohen, director of the University of North Carolina’s Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases, who helped develop the use of antibody treatments for COVID-19 and other illnesses, said such treatments are a useful intervention for people at risk of seeing progressed illness of COVID-19.
The largest risk factors for seeing progressing diseases are age — the older someone is, the more at risk they are, even if they are fully vaccinated — and body mass index, which is a measure of body fat based on height and weight.
Justice, who stands 6 feet, 7 inches tall, is a man of imposing physical stature and has referred to his size during news briefings and other events.
“Typically, we see the most progression of illness in people who are older, over 65. What we see in those groups is that, if you are older, you also are more likely to have other [health conditions] that could make you more vulnerable,” Cohen said. “BMI — that’s a big risk factor, too. If BMI is over 40, well that’s a huge risk factor. It’s certainly a concern that the [COVID-19 infection] could progress, and these factors make that more likely.”
Cohen said 80% of people who are administered monoclonal antibody treatments see an improvement in their COVID-19 infections. The more underlying conditions someone has — including if they’re older or overweight — can potentially lessen those odds.
Antibody treatments work by stunting the virus’ ability to reproduce in an infected person’s body. The sooner that replication is stopped — meaning, when the treatment is administered — the more likely it is to have positive results, Cohen said.
“In the first five days, you want to interrupt the reproduction of the virus. The sooner you’re able to do that, the more effective it could be,” he said. “That’s the key to any of the interventions available — the quicker they’re given, the better they can take effect.”
Breakthrough infections like Justice’s — where a fully vaccinated person contracts the virus — are not evidence that the vaccines are ineffective, Cohen said. With such high transmission of COVID-19, especially with the omicron variant, it’s inevitable that vaccinated people will contract it, and some will get sick, he added. The vaccines still work in preventing severe infection, hospitalization or death in most people, he said.
Abraham said any plans for future care — whether through a hospital or other means — would be up to the governor.
He said Justice has “tried to set the example” in following COVID-19 protocols. The governor initially mandated shutdowns and other steps to guard against the virus, but he halted those when the outbreak eased last summer and declined to reinstitute them when the pandemic roared back last year.
The governor has used his COVID-19 news briefings and other efforts, such as a sweepstakes for people who get the shots, to advocate for vaccinations.
“[Justice] was the very first person to get the vaccine when they came out. He’s had the booster, he wears a mask when he can,” Abraham said. “He’s followed his own lead and done everything he has asked everyone else to do. He’s anywhere and everywhere and, unfortunately, that meant he was exposed. I hope all West Virginians are praying for his swift recovery.”
It’s unclear when or where Justice was exposed to the virus. The administration’s news release said he began displaying symptoms Tuesday. Symptoms can occur two to 14 days after exposure.
Abraham declined to detail Justice’s schedule over recent days or say how many people might have been exposed to the virus through the governor. Photos posted on the governor’s website show Justice without a mask speaking to a crowd at a West Virginia Business and Industry Council event Monday at the Capitol Complex.
“He’s always running wide open — he’s everywhere. As he says, he’s anywhere and everywhere all the time,” Abraham said. “He’s been here late hours, into the evenings, preparing for the State of the State, for the big economic development announcements that are taking place. There’s not a person that comes up to him that he turns away, and [that] comes I guess with the risk of exposure.”
People who’ve contracted COVID-19 typically are infectious two days before their onset of symptoms, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. The peak viral load — meaning when the virus is most infectious — tends to occur with the onset of symptoms and usually decreases after the first week the symptoms began.
This can differ depending on the severity of the illness.
Justice’s health frequently has been a topic of speculation around the Capitol. In 2017, he was treated for a viral infection at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The governor has declined to release his medical records.
Gov. Jim Justice is approaching fiscal year 2023 with caution, introducing a budget that is set as low as possible with the hope that lawmakers will be able to allocate surplus revenue to pay for certain government initiatives as the year goes on.
Justice proposed a $4.645 billion budget, a 1.6% increase from the budget proposal he gave last year, to lawmakers to start the 2022 legislative session.
That proposal paired with the celebration of three significant economic developments were the topics of Justice’s State of the State message, delivered in writing to the West Virginia Legislature Wednesday evening, one day after the governor tested positive for COVID-19.
House of Delegates Clerk Steve Harrison read the statement aloud Wednesday evening.
Justice’s budget includes a $114 million measure to put a 5% pay increase into effect for state employees. It also includes a $41 million to pay for a new contract for health care services for inmates in West Virginia’s regional jails and prisons.
“For the fourth year in-a-row, I am proposing an essentially flat budget, which includes a third historic pay raise ... for our state employees,” Justice said in his written State of the State address. “We are not dipping into the Rainy Day Fund, which I am proud to report now has over $1 billion in funding! We are blessed as a state with the flexibility to fund projects out of our surplus funds without building the base of our budget in the future.”
The Legislature ultimately adopted a $4.95 billion measure for fiscal year 2022, which began July 1, 2021, and ends June 30 of this year.
Justice’s proposal for fiscal year 2023 is $155 million higher than the measure the Legislature approved during last year’s legislative session. That difference largely includes the pay increase, jail health care contract, and budget adjustments made this fiscal year since the regular session ended.
Most state agencies don’t experience any substantial cuts or increases to their budgets, State Budget Office Director Michael Cook said.
The only exceptions to that were the $114 million increase to accommodate 5% pay raises to state employees and the increase in cost of the contract for health care services to inmates in West Virginia’s jails and prisons.
The increase from the 2022 to 2023 fiscal year was small, relative to the 7% inflation the state experienced Wednesday, Secretary of Revenue Dave Hardy said during a budget presentation before the governor submitted his budget to the Legislature.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made it challenging to curate a budget, because it’s difficult to predict the evolution of the coronavirus and how it will affect the economy, and inflation has increased amid the injection of federal COVID-19 relief funds into the economy, Hardy said.
The state’s revenue streams are unpredictable right now, he said.
“Just to say we’re in extraordinary times would be the understatement of the year,” Hardy said. “This is our third fiscal year that we have tried to work with our budget and, of course, it has been very difficult. I would say, basically, the Department of Revenue, along with the governor, we ride the lightning every day with our revenue, because everything can change and all the traditional models have changed, as well.”
The state’s revenue predictions are “cautious,” Hardy said because of the unpredictability of revenue. The state is taking a conservative base budget approach, with the goal of having the Legislature reconvene if revenue in excess of the state’s base budget becomes available.
“It leaves room for other expenditures as the fiscal year progresses,” Hardy said. “So, the worst thing that can happen is our actual revenue exceeds our projections, and we can go back to the Legislature and have other expenditures as the dollars become available, and that, of course, is the best-case scenario.”
West Virginia has fully recovered fiscally from the recession brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020, and Justice’s budget and revenue team expects the state to be on firm economic footing, in terms of business development and revenue support from that, in fiscal year 2023, even as the markets, inflation and one-time federal revenue remain unpredictable, Deputy Revenue Secretary Mark Muchow said Wednesday.
The rebound has, in large part, been because of a “tremendous rebound” to the energy sector, Muchow said. There’s an imbalance between supply and demand that doesn’t often occur in the energy market, he said.
“We still expect a pretty strong economy here in West Virginia, as well as nationally, as we try to bring supply and demand back into balance with each another and try to slow inflation down,” Muchow said.
West Virginia lawmakers are thinking about going nuclear.
Legislators heard business pitches from nuclear industry representatives at an interim legislative session meeting Tuesday as they consider repealing a conditional state ban on nuclear power plant construction.
Nuclear technology leaders from across the country contended that West Virginia can shore up its economic and energy future amid the coal industry’s decline by encouraging advanced nuclear energy development.
The presentations before members of the Government Operations and Government Organization committees largely focused on small modular reactors — vastly smaller than the baseload power-generating conventional reactors often associated with nuclear energy.
Small modular reactors are advanced nuclear reactors capable of up to 300 megawatts of electrical output designed to produce power, process heat and desalinate on locations not suitable for larger nuclear plants while requiring less capital investment than bigger facilities.
But the technology is not yet market ready. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved its first design for a small modular reactor in August 2020 for what Portland, Oregon-based developer NuScale Power said would be a 60-megawatt power plant.
Marcus Nichol, senior director of nuclear reactors at the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nuclear industry trade association, noted that the U.S. Department of Energy has approved cost-share awards to develop small modular reactors that can be operational by the end of the decade.
“There’s a lot of excitement here in developing these reactors,” Nichol said.
Nichol reported interest from coal plant owners eyeing facility retirements in nuclear for replacement power, citing a study from a pro-advanced nuclear energy policy research organization finding that former coal plants are good potential sites for small modular reactors.
That policy research organization, the Good Energy Collective, released a report last month finding that small modular reactor technology could support communities reeling from coal plant and mine closures by offering similar pay, employment, power, and tax revenue compared to retiring coal plants.
The report cited a supplemental report to the annual U.S. Energy and Employment Report that found the nuclear industry supports a median hourly wage of $39.19, about a quarter higher than the median hourly wage of the coal industry ($28.69). For nuclear work in utilities specifically, the median hourly wage was $47, compared with $41.30 for coal work in utilities.
Christine Csizmadia, director of state government affairs and advocacy at the Nuclear Energy Institute, noted that Kentucky, Montana and Wisconsin have ended restrictions on new nuclear construction in recent years, with other states considering following suit.
“We hope that West Virginia continues the trend,” Csizmadia said.
West Virginia was one of 13 states that had restrictions on the construction of new nuclear power facilities as of August, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
West Virginia state code holds that the use of nuclear fuel and power “poses an undue hazard to the health, safety and welfare” of West Virginians and bans nuclear facilities unless the proponent of a facility can prove that “a functional and effective national facility, which safely, successfully and permanently disposes of radioactive wastes, has been developed.” State code requires that construction of any nuclear facility must be economically feasible for ratepayers and comply with environmental laws.
The code also mandates that the Public Service Commission approve construction or initiation of any nuclear power plant, nuclear factory or nuclear electric power generating plant.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, introduced a bill on the first day of the 2022 legislative session Wednesday that would repeal the conditional ban on nuclear power plant construction. That legislation, Senate Bill 4, has been referred to the Senate Economic Development Committee.
West Virginia’s net electricity generation was 91.5% coal-fired, as of Sept. 2021, according to the Energy Information Administration.
But coal accounted for just 19.3% of all utility-scale electricity generation in 2020 — just behind the nationwide clip of 19.7% for nuclear.
Chris Beam, president and chief operating officer of Appalachian Power, told lawmakers that his company relying on coal-fired power to generate electricity in West Virginia supports next-generation nuclear technology.
“They need a utility partner to make this happen, and that’s something we’re very interested in looking [at] going forward,” Beam said.
Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, asked Beam what Appalachian Power parent company American Electric Power’s options were for achieving its goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Beam said solar and wind power are part of a multiphase approach by the company to achieve carbon neutrality, with battery storage “in play.”
“As we sit here today, this option is not available to us,” Beam said of nuclear energy.
The International Energy Agency has said small modular reactors with lower technology readiness levels will be useful in for decarbonizing energy sectors in which emissions are hard to abate, especially industrial heat applications. But the agency added that extensive commercial buildout can’t be expected until the late 2030s.
Lawmakers heard from two executives of Curio Solutions, a nuclear waste recycling company, who argued that lawmakers don’t have to fear nuclear waste as they consider next-generation nuclear technologies.
“By recycling, we would consume virtually all of the high-level radioactive materials, with only 4% of [it] remaining in the form of fission products that would require safe storage for up to 300 years,” Curio CEO Ed McGinnis said. “But in fact, with some new transformational battery approaches, and other types of uses using this remaining 4% of fission products, it may be that we don’t even have to deal with the 300-year storage for the remaining 4%.”
Critics of advanced nuclear technology question whether it is safer and more secure than current generation reactors.
“Unfortunately, most ‘advanced’ nuclear reactors are anything but,” Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety in the Union of Concerned Scientists Climate and Energy Program, wrote in a summary of a report he authored published last year finding that nonlight-water-cooled reactor designs are not likely to be significantly safer than today’s nuclear plants.
Some nonlight-water reactor designs have capacities of 300 megawatts of electrical output or less and, thus, qualify as small modular reactors, Lyman noted. Although small modular light-water reactors could be safer than large light-water reactors, because of their size and lower heat production rate, Lyman said, they would produce more expensive electricity without substantially cutting capital and operating costs per megawatt.
Sean O’Leary, senior researcher for the Ohio River Valley Institute, a Johnstown, Pennsylvania-based pro-clean-energy think tank, said generation from advanced nuclear technology, such as the small modular reactors highlighted during Tuesday’s meeting, could come in at a cost two to three times the current cost of generation in the PJM market, of which West Virginia is part.
PJM is the regional transmission organization that coordinates wholesale electricity movement in all or parts of 13 states, including West Virginia, and the District of Columbia.
“[T]o the degree it may be necessary to embrace some new nuclear power in order to counter climate change, it would be at the cost of significantly higher utility bills, which may not be popular in a state that already has some of the fastest-rising electric rates in the country,” O’Leary said in an email.
Nichol contended that nuclear could provide West Virginia with low-cost electricity, with smaller modular reactors cutting costs by requiring fewer components and greater quality control.
West Virginia Environmental Council President Linda Frame said her organization has not taken a position on the state’s conditional nuclear construction ban.
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice was present in the prayers of state lawmakers Wednesday, but not anywhere near the Capitol after being diagnosed with COVID-19 late Tuesday.
The first day of the 2022 regular legislative session began with news of the governor’s illness, which overshadowed three economic development announcements that were meant to lead up to his State of the State address.
Instead, the announcements happened in Charleston while Justice rested at his home in Greenbrier County with his wife, Cathy, and their daughter, Jillean Justice Long, who is a physician.
When the House of Delegates convened for its session at noon, Delegate David Kelly, R-Tyler, who is a pastor, included Justice’s name in a prayer.
“Father, we come to you today with a real sense of urgency,” Kelly prayed. “We know that our governor has COVID, and we know that he’s recovering, but we pray, Lord, that you would cause an accelerated recovery to occur, that you would surround his family with that type of faith that they could release into his life.”
The Governor’s Office sent out a news release just before midnight Tuesday announcing that Justice had tested positive for the virus after experiencing symptoms earlier in the day.
Wednesday evening, Justice’s State of the State address and his proposed budget for fiscal year 2023 were delivered by members of his staff to the House and Senate.
Justice used his written State of the State report to apologize for not delivering his statement in person.
“While I was surprised that my test results came back positive, I am thankful to the Lord above that I have been vaccinated, I have been boosted, and that I have an incredible support system, especially my loving family,” Justice wrote. “For this to happen just one night before the State of the State — knowing I am not able to be there — saddens me.”
Lawmakers largely were shocked to learn Justice was sick. In particular, the timing of Justice’s illness is unfortunate, said Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley. Blair said he was disappointed when he learned that the governor wouldn’t be present for the economic announcements.
“It’s wonderful news for the state of West Virginia, but bad news for the governor,” Blair said. “I’m quite confident that he’s going to get on the mend and back to work with us.”
Blair and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, said it was their understanding that Justice would deliver his State of the State speech at a later date.
“We’re sad for him,” Hanshaw said. “We are disappointed that he will not be able to deliver the State of the State address [Wednesday night]. That is always a highlight for the year for the state, and certainly for the members.”
On the Senate floor, Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, prayed for the governor and everyone else who has the virus.
“We pray for their health and the health of those working to provide health care,” Baldwin said. “Governor Justice has taken COVID very seriously, and this just shows how prevalent the virus is right now. It’s our duty to live out our prayers and take precautions to protect our neighbors. That’s how we will get through this — together.”
House Minority Leader Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, offered prayers for Justice and his family on behalf of the House Democratic Caucus. Skaff is the president of HD Media, parent company of the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
“As we continue to navigate through the COVID-19 pandemic, we applaud him for doing so much to encourage West Virginians to get vaccinated,” Skaff said. “This should be a reminder to us all that we must continue to take this virus seriously and do our part to stop the spread.”
Justice, 70, remained in contact with his staff throughout the day, according to his chief of staff, Brian Abraham, who said the governor is “still in charge of things.”
Abraham said he didn’t know what constitutional provisions are in place if Justice has to temporarily hand power over to Blair.
The West Virginia Constitution says the Senate president “shall act as governor” if there’s a vacancy or “other disability” of the governor. If the Senate president is unable to act, the speaker of the House would act as governor.
Blair said Wednesday his focus is on supporting Justice’s recovery and managing the legislative session.
Abraham said it is his and Justice’s interpretation that “disability” in the constitution refers to a condition or circumstance that make someone incapable of performing the role of governor. He said the constitutional provision, in his opinion, does not apply to temporary circumstances.
“Disability would infer something permanent that would impair one’s ability to complete the duties of office,” Abraham said. “The governor is still working. He’s still involved in all we’re doing, I’ll tell you that.”