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WV officials urge young people to get vaccinated as UK variant of COVID-19 detected in Kanawha

West Virginia health officials on Wednesday warned that the United Kingdom variant of COVID-19 will make a significant impact in the state if young people do not get vaccinated at a higher rate.

Dr. Clay Marsh, the state’s coronavirus czar and vice president of health sciences at West Virginia University, said the medical community is seeing the COVID-19 pandemic go through a transition in the United States, where virus variants are making their presence known. Michigan, Minnesota and Florida are already being hit hard by the U.K. variant, he said.

“The concern about this particular virus is, it is more infectious. It’s about 50% more likely to spread than the virus that started in China ... and it’s also about 50% more lethal,” Marsh said.

In West Virginia, the U.K. variant has been found in 19 counties, totaling 142 cases, state health officer Dr. Ayne Amjad said. The number has nearly tripled from just seven days ago, when 53 cases of the U.K. variant had been identified.

The Kanawha-Charleston Health Department detected the first case of the U.K. variant in Kanawha County on Wednesday, breaking the mold of where most prior cases had been found. Infections have mostly been in border counties, Amjad said, with Berkeley, Monongalia and Ohio counties reporting the most variant cases.

A virus that spreads faster and kills more people poses significant challenges for West Virginia, Marsh said. With the most vulnerable population in the country, he said the climbing spread should signal that the state is “not out of the woods yet.”

State officials urged younger West Virginians to get vaccinated as soon as possible, to prevent the chance that this variant becomes widespread. The age group driving these infections is 19 to 40 years old, Amjad said.

The California variant of COVID-19 has been found in about 160 West Virginians, she said. This variant is not as lethal as the U.K. version, Marsh has said previously, but it spreads much faster.

Marsh noted that 24 West Virginians died of the virus in just the past two days, furthering the urgency for everyone to get vaccinated. State officials again urged older West Virginians to get vaccinated, as well, as the virus has now killed 2,722 West Virginians.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, West Virginia Secretary of Transportation Byrd White and Gov. Jim Justice (right) take turns speaking during the official groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday for work to begin on a new 6-lane Interstate 64 Nitro-St. Albans bridge. The existing 4-lane span is seen in the background.

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Work begins on six-lane Nitro-St. Albans I-64 Kanawha River crossing

Gov. Jim Justice remembers traffic on Interstate 64 between Charleston and Huntington being a problem almost since the highway linking the two cities opened in the 1970s, when he drove from his family’s home to Marshall University, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

“Way back when I had brown hair and was skinny and I was going to school not too far down the road from here, there was some level of congestion,” he said during a groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday for a project that will eliminate one of the freeway’s most enduring bottlenecks.

Behind him, westbound traffic could be seen slowing down and stacking up for a bumper-to-bumper crossing of the four-lane Nitro-St. Albans I-64 bridge. During the next three years, it will be replaced with a two-span, six-lane crossing.

“This project’s been needed for a long, long time — since forever,” Justice said. “Now, we’re not just talking about what needs to be done, we’re doing it”

“It’s a great project for West Virginia,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who also took part in the dedication.

“As a resident of the Kanawha Valley, I know how difficult negotiating I-64 can be, especially here,” she said, where the existing bridge narrows westbound traffic down to two lanes from three.

The dual-bridge project is part of a 3.8-mile, $224 million widening between Nitro and the U.S. 35 interchange at Scott Depot. It will convert the last remaining segment of four-lane I-64 between West Virginia’s two largest cities to six lanes. On average, 70,000 vehicles each day travel through the bottleneck.

Construction already is underway on the widening project and the St. Albans interchange upgrade.

Justice’s Roads to Prosperity bond issue will finance most of the project’s cost, with a $20 million federal grant covering the rest.

A new bridge for westbound traffic will be built first, in close proximity to the existing span. Once that bridge is completed, the existing span will be demolished and the new three-lane bridge will carry all westbound and eastbound traffic until the second three-lane bridge is built at the site of the former two-lane span.

The project also involves two new flyover ramps at the St. Albans interchange, and the replacement of several much smaller bridges, including I-64 crossings over Rocky Step Road, W.Va. 25/McCloud Road and Conrail tracks, plus a new Bills Creek Road bridge over I-64.

Work is expected to be completed by October 2024.

To speed construction time, the project is being built through a design-build contract in a joint venture involving Brayman Construction and Trumbull Construction, both of Pittsburgh.

Construction activity can be monitored by visiting the state Department of Transportation’s www.nitro64.com website.

Justice used the groundbreaking ceremony as an opportunity to declare April to be Work Zone Safety Awareness Month in West Virginia.

“People need to remember to slow down and protect our workers,” he said.

“We all need to be patient when construction is underway,” Capito added.

The WV House adopted a measure to end some executive orders in May, setting up another potential disagreement with Senate on executive authority

One year and 22 days after Gov. Jim Justice declared a state of emergency in West Virginia, the House of Delegates adopted a resolution that would put an end to some executive orders Justice has issued since March 2020.

House Concurrent Resolution 104 would make most of Justice’s executive orders expire on May 17, but the governor’s state of emergency proclamation itself would remain intact, Delegate Dianna Graves, R-Kanawha, said Thursday.

Introduced with four days left in the 2021 regular legislative session, the resolution would exempt 20 executive orders specifically defined in its language.

Delegates adopted HCR 104 by a margin of 76-24.

The resolution will head to the Senate for consideration but, as Graves noted during debate Wednesday, there has been less will from the Senate to affect the state of emergency or the governor’s authority therein for the past year.

“I would say this adequately expresses the majority opinion of the House, and we should pass it, if we agree with it,” Graves said under questioning by Delegate Mick Bates, D-Raleigh, about the effect of the resolution. “What the Senate does is probably no longer our concern.”

The resolution sets May 17 as the deadline, because “the vast majority of West Virginians will have immunity from COVID-19 through either having recovered from the disease or being fully or partially vaccinated” by then.

The resolution states that there had been 530,328 initial COVID-19 vaccinations in West Virginia, and another 355,892 complete vaccinations administered as of Tuesday, when Graves introduced the resolution.

Graves said the vaccination and recovery rates already should have provided for the state-of-emergency executive order to have been lifted to “restore liberty to our citizens.”

Among the executive orders that would remain in place are those that allowed for health care and child care workers to be tested for COVID-19 twice a week and receive the COVID-19 vaccination, as well as giving the National Guard and the Department of Health and Human Resources the means to administer those tests and shots.

Other executive orders that would remain intact affected unemployment benefits, tax deadlines, telehealth and licensing requirements for certain occupations. The Legislature has adopted some of the provisions of those executive orders as law this legislative session.

The order would allow the governor’s July 2020 executive order that established his mask mandate to expire.

Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, said he appreciated the intent of the resolution, but he couldn’t support ending the mask mandate.

“If you remove the mandate, people think we’re in the clear,” Pushkin said. “It sends the message that we’re completely in the clear. We are so close to the finish line here. There is light at the end of the tunnel, but we’re not quite there yet.”

The House’s vote comes a day after the official death of a bill that was meant to limit a governor’s authority during a state of preparedness or emergency over an apparent disagreement between the Senate and House.

House Bill 2003 originally put a stop clock of sorts on states of emergency or preparedness and would have required the Legislature to extend them. The House had intended for the bill to end the current state of emergency and argued about whether its language was clear.

When the bill went to the Senate, senators took out provisions requiring the Legislature to intervene. Instead, they required the governor only to submit reports to the Senate president, House speaker and the Joint Committee on Government and Finance to keep states of emergency or preparedness in effect.

The Senate’s version of the bill also stated that it would not affect the COVID-19 state of emergency.

Members in both chambers, where Republicans hold supermajorities, refused to cede to the others’ position. Conference committees from the House and Senate weren’t able to reach an agreement on the bill last week.

Justice declared the state of emergency via an executive order on March 16, 2020.

The Senate and the House also couldn’t agree last year on a special legislative session to administer $1.25 billion West Virginia received in federal CARES Act money.

The House garnered the required three-fifths of members to call a special session early last summer, but the Senate did not gain enough support to petition the governor to call the special session.

Justice called the House’s action “nothing but politics.”

Delegates have said Justice appointed former Senate president Mitch Carmichael to be director of the Economic Development Office and backed a subsequent bill to elevate that post to a Cabinet-level position as a reward for Carmichael blocking that special session last year.

In March, Justice called those accusations unfounded and utterly ridiculous.

As of March 28, West Virginia was one of 16 states that remained under a state of emergency with no set end date, according to tracking by the National Academy for State Health Policy. States of emergency in 33 states either already have expired or are set to expire by the end of June. A state of emergency in Michigan was overturned last fall by the Michigan Supreme Court.

The legislative session ends Saturday.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the intent of House Concurrent Resolution 104. A previous version of the story stated the resolution would end the state of emergency Gov. Jim Justice declared March 16, 2020. The resolution would end certain executive orders signed by Justice through his authority under the state of emergency, but not the state of emergency itself.

Senate Judiciary amendment dramatically changes bill limiting enforcement of gun laws

A bill that would have required state and local law officers to refuse to assist federal authorities in enforcing federal gun laws stricter than state law was dramatically changed in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.

House Bill 2694, as amended by the committee, would now prevent federal authorities from commandeering local law officers for federal activities.

In a rare and lengthy explanation of the strike-and-insert amendment, committee Chairman Charlie Trump, R-Morgan, said the House version of the bill goes too far, effectively giving state and local authorities the ability to refuse to cooperate with federal counterparts on legal matters going beyond firearms laws.

“It’s a complete anti-cooperation law,” Trump said of the House version. “It’s not about preventing the federal government from taking over our police. It’s about making sure there’s no cooperation between the state and local police and federal authorities.”

Trump cited testimony from a number of law enforcement officers who said the House bill would prevent them from operating joint task forces with federal authorities, such as the Metro Drug Unit in Charleston and Kanawha County, and would effectively defund police units by requiring them to refuse federal funding and resources.

Trump said he objected to language in the House bill that states, “Entangling state and local agencies with federal law enforcement programs diverts already limited resources and blurs the lines of accountability between local, state and federal government,” saying the statement was objectively false.

“I think the cooperation that has existed between state law enforcement and federal law enforcement ... has bolstered limited resources. I think they’ve enhanced the ability of our local law enforcement to deal with the problems they’re facing,” Trump said, specifically citing drug units.

Trump said the idea that federal law enforcement agencies hinder or hurt local and state law enforcement efforts is a false premise.

“If anything, they help us,” he said. “It’s when we ask the Federal Bureau of Investigation to help us find a child that’s been kidnapped.”

Trump said the Senate committee amendment more directly addresses the underlying fears prompting the legislation — the belief that President Joe Biden and a Democrat-controlled Congress might enact strict gun regulations, either through legislation or executive order.

Earlier Wednesday, Kevin Patrick, with the pro-gun West Virginia Citizens Defense League, said there are concerns that restrictions on sales of semi-automatic weapons and limiting capacity of firearm magazines might be pending.

As amended, state and local law officers could refuse to help execute federal search warrants and arrest warrants only if the warrants are limited to seizure or arrest for the lawful possession of firearms, firearms accessories or ammunition.

In the event there are concerns that federal law infringes on Second Amendment rights, instead of requiring state and local officers to refuse to enforce the law, the amended bill directs the state attorney general to pursue legal action to overturn the law.

“That’s how you deal with a law you believe to be unconstitutional,” Trump said. “You challenge it in court.”

He noted that, as introduced, the bill would have made it a crime for state and local officers to cooperate with federal authorities, saying, “To threaten them with criminal convictions for doing their jobs is nothing I could have ever accepted.”

The amended bill also clarifies supremacy of the U.S. Constitution and federal law.

The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced the bill on a voice vote, with at least one “no” vote heard.

The bill now goes to the full Senate and, if passed there, would go back to the House to attempt to reconcile differences. The 2021 regular legislative session ends Saturday.

Last week, the lead sponsor of the bill, Delegate Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, berated members of the Senate Government Organization Committee to pass the bill over objections from law enforcement officers.

“Either you like this bill or you don’t,” he said. “Either you like gun rights or you don’t. Either you’re going to stand with your constituents’ Second Amendment rights, or you’re going to fall in line with the bootlickers in Congress that want to take your 30-round magazines, and want to take your semi-automatic rifles from your citizens.”