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National
Pence urges mask-wearing as coronavirus cases soar

WASHINGTON — Vice President Mike Pence on Sunday implored Americans to wear face masks, practice social distancing and stay away from senior citizens protect them amid a new spike in coronavirus infections, as the United States surpassed 2.5 million confirmed cases.

At an event in Dallas, Pence commended Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, for his “decisive action” in reopening the state’s economy in early May. But with the state’s hospitals experiencing a surge in patients amid skyrocketing infection rates, Pence praised Abbott for scaling back some reopening measures, including ordering bars to close and restaurants to reduce occupancy.

The virus has killed more than 123,000 people in the United States, and U.S. cases make up by far the largest share of the worldwide caseload. In Texas, coronavirus-related hospitalizations reached a record high for the 16th day in a row on Saturday, with 5,523 patients being treated.

“It’s a good time to steer clear of senior citizens and to practice the kind of measures that will keep our most vulnerable safe,” Pence said at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, where he was joined by Abbott, White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson.

All four were wearing masks as they entered and left the briefing room, a striking contrast with the image Trump administration officials have presented in recent months. Members of the White House coronavirus task force have typically not worn masks and have stood near one another at media briefings, and President Donald Trump has frequently ridiculed reporters and others who have worn face coverings during the pandemic.

Earlier Sunday, a “Celebrate Freedom” rally Pence attended at First Baptist Church in Dallas featured a large choir that did not wear masks while singing, despite evidence that some choir practices have served as “superspreader” events.

Members of the choir put on their masks after they finished singing, and about two-third of attendees were wearing masks during the event, though many were sitting side-by-side in the pews. Face coverings and social distancing were urged but not required.

As he opened Sunday’s news conference, Abbott defended his decision to reopen the state — as well as his abrupt reversal.

“Families need to put food on the table. They need to pay rent. . . . We know that we can do both — continue to allow businesses to open while containing the coronavirus. But it does require all Texans to go back to those strategies that we mastered,” including wearing masks and maintaining good hygiene, Abbott said. He added: “If you don’t need to get out, there’s no reason to go out at this particular time.”

As other Trump administration officials have done in recent days, Birx sought to put a positive spin on the situation facing the country, noting that the United States has “additional tools that we didn’t have just two months ago,” including various therapeutics and knowledge of social distancing measures.

The event comes as Arizona, Florida and Texas have emerged as the country’s latest epicenters after reporting record numbers of new infections for weeks. It also comes as some testing centers in those states have become overwhelmed by an influx of patients, with residents reportedly waiting several hours in their cars or on foot receive a test.

The campaign of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden criticized Pence’s trip, saying in a statement that his decision to go ahead with events in Texas “epitomizes the dismissive attitude this administration has taken in addressing this crisis from the onset.”

“Our leaders should be tackling this pandemic head on and laying out concrete recovery plans for the American people — not jet setting across the country to hold events that go against basic public health guidance,” Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager, said in the statement.

Meanwhile, Pence’s spokeswoman, Katie Miller, appeared to dispute reports that the vice president would cancel upcoming trips to Arizona and Florida over virus concerns, saying on Twitter that Pence will still travel to both states this week.

Trump remained largely out of the public eye on Sunday, spending the day at Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Va., where Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was among the president’s guests.

On the morning news shows, Pence and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar defended Trump’s claim that increased testing is to blame for the recent surge in coronavirus cases.

In an interview on CBS News’s “Face the Nation,” Pence was asked about Trump’s statement at a rally in Oklahoma this month that when more coronavirus tests are conducted, “you’re going to find more cases.” Pence replied by disputing that Trump’s comments were effectively undermining Americans’ confidence in testing.

“I think it’s inarguable that the historic increase in testing that we’ve accomplished in this country has played a role in the new cases, particularly among younger Americans,” Pence said.

Azar said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that “the surveillance and testing is actually bringing out this information” about the recent spike in cases and acknowledged that “the window is closing for us to take action and get this under control.”

But he also appeared to play down the significance of the surge, saying it includes “younger and asymptomatic cases in many instances” and disputing the notion that it is related to states reopening their economies too quickly.

“It is not really about reopening,” Azar told host Jake Tapper. “We can and we have to get back to work, back to school and back to health care. . . . And if we act irresponsibly, if we don’t social distance, if we don’t use face coverings in settings where we can’t social distance, if we don’t practice appropriate personal hygiene, we’re going to see spread of disease.”

Despite the comments about testing by Trump and members of his administration, the numbers paint a different picture. In some states, the average number of new cases has increased while the average number of tests has gone down. In others, the number of new cases is increasing at a higher rate than the number of tests. And in others, such as New York, cases of the disease are going down while the number of tests has continued to rise.

While Azar put the onus on individuals to behave in ways that help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, some Democrats on Sunday called for the federal government to do more.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in an interview on ABC News’s “This Week” that the wearing of masks should be mandatory nationwide, arguing that it is “long overdue for that.”

“My understanding [is] that the Centers for Disease Control has recommended the use of masks but not . . . required it, because they don’t want to offend the president,” she added. “And the president should be an example. You know, real men wear masks.”

As cases of the virus surge in parts of the country, testing centers have been overwhelmed with an influx of patients, leading to long wait times and huge lines.

The Texas Tribune reported over the weekend that several problems have plagued the state’s testing program. Many people have been waiting in long lines, the newspaper reported, and some sites have closed early. Video footage shared on social media by Houston Chronicle reporter Alex Stuckey shows throngs of people crowded in huge lines for testing.

The Miami Herald reported that some people waited up to four hours for a swab in Miami Beach last week. In Phoenix, patients waited up to 13 hours for a test last week, and some were turned away because of a shortage of tests, the Arizona Republic reported.

Tom Frieden, a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned Sunday that the outbreaks in states that eased restrictions — and have since reinstated many of them — will continue to worsen in the next few weeks because such figures tend to lag.

Frieden also pushed back against Trump’s claim that increased testing is the reason for the spikes, telling Fox News Channel’s Chris Wallace that the positive cases identified through testing are only “a tip of the iceberg.”

“As a doctor, a scientist, an epidemiologist, I can tell you with 100% certainty that in most states where you’re seeing an increase, it is a real increase,” Frieden said on “Fox News Sunday.” “It is not more tests. It is more spread of the virus.”

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The Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung, Rachael Bade, Meryl Kornfield and Philip Bump contributed to this report.


Spreading their wings

Alexis Weimer (left) and Mateo Arroyo use chalk to draw a peacock on the Tennessee Avenue side of the Gaddy Engineering building, on Charleston’s West Side, Friday. The wall, which features other works of art, including a colorful pair of wings and a tribute to Mothman, has become a popular photo spot for visitors to the city.


Education
WVSU presidential finalists coming to campus starting Monday

The woman who recently lost her bid to become Bluefield State College’s leader, a vice provost at a North Carolina historically black university and the president of the University of The Bahamas are the finalists to become West Virginia State University’s next president.

The trio will meet West Virginia State students, alumni, employees and community members on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, according to Katherine “Kitty” Dooley, a Charleston lawyer and university Board of Governors member who leads the search committee.

Dr. R. Charles Byers, who has served as West Virginia State’s interim president since mid-May, did not seek the full-time position, according to the university. Byers, who also served as the school’s interim provost, was installed as the interim president after former leader Anthony Jenkins left to take over Coppin State University, in Baltimore.

“Each of the on-campus sessions will be available via Zoom conferencing and follow the state and CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] social distancing and safety guidelines for events,” Dooley wrote in an email.

The meetings with the various groups will all be in the Wilson University Union.

Following employee forums that begin at 8:45 a.m. each day, the student forum will start at 11:15 a.m. Community members, lawmakers and WVSU Foundation board members will meet with the finalists beginning at 1 p.m., and the W-Club/alumni forum will start at 2:15 p.m. The search committee will accept feedback on the finalists following the forums.

Patricia Ramsey, who last year was a finalist to lead Bluefield State College, will be the first of the finalists to visit Institute on Monday. Bluefield State and West Virginia State are West Virginia’s only two historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs.

The only other finalist for the Bluefield State job was Robin Capehart, who had been serving as the interim president for months and was ultimately picked to stay.

Ramsey is a former provost and vice president of academic affairs for Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University and is currently a senior executive fellow at the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which supports HBCUs and their students.

Arriving Tuesday will be Nicole Pride, vice provost for academic strategy and operations since July 2018 at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, one of the largest HBCUs in the country.

She previously served in several other roles there, including about five years as chief of staff to the university’s chancellor.

Rodney Smith, president of the University of The Bahamas since October 2014, will be the last to visit. He arrives Wednesday. He previously led Ramapo College of New Jersey in the early 2000s.

All three finalists are Black.


Education
Boone school workers win $2.5M settlement over severe 2016 pay cuts

Nearly four years after the Boone County school system slashed their salaries by thousands of dollars apiece, Boone County public school workers have won a combined roughly $2.5 million settlement.

Around 400 current or former employees were scheduled to pick up their checks over the past couple weeks.

“I’m just glad it’s finally over,” said Heather Hayes, treasurer for Boone’s chapter of the American Federation of Teachers union. “We can finally move on and put this past us. This has been four years of a very stressful time in our county. We lost so much.”

Andy Katz, general counsel for the state branch of the National Education Association union, said that by far the most common payout amount for workers was about $7,200.

That is a gross amount, before paycheck deductions for things like retirement are factored in. The Boone school system has to pay the employer’s share of benefits for the payouts.

So, combining that with the $2.5 million, the school system is paying a combined $3 million, said county schools Superintendent Jeff Huffman. He did not provide details on how the school system would shoulder that cost, other than saying the money is coming out of the general budget.

Before the 2016 cuts, which were ordered by the state, Boone County was second only to Putnam County for average school worker pay. Almost exactly four years ago, in June 2016, then-state schools superintendent Michael Martirano abruptly ordered salary cuts of roughly $4,000 per employee.

Martirano said the budget Boone had proposed for the 2016-17 school year wouldn’t have been able to fund teaching students for the minimum required number of instructional days and wouldn’t have been able to pay employees for their full employment terms.

The Boone Board of Education twice refused to obey, but relented in July 2016, after the state Board of Education threatened to seize power from the county board and make the cuts anyway if it refused again.

“Our [county] board members didn’t want to do this to us,” Hayes said. “But they didn’t have a choice. The state department [of education] was like, ‘Do it or there’s going to be repercussions.’”

School officials back then largely blamed the budget woes on sudden coal company bankruptcies and the loss of personal property tax revenue associated with those shutdowns.

Then-state school board vice president Lloyd Jackson, however, criticized Boone for burning through its reserves in the previous few years. The judge in employees’ resulting grievance case also noted these years of declining funds.

Starting in August 2016, members of the local branches of the American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association and West Virginia School Service Personnel Association filed what became a mass consolidated grievance against the county school system.

Both sides had appealed the disagreement to the courts after state Public Employees Grievance Board Chief Administrative Law Judge Billie Thacker Catlett gave a ruling early last year that didn’t specify how much workers were owed.

The judge dismissed the employees’ claims for the employer-paid dental and vision insurance coverage they lost to the cuts, but she also accused the Boone school system of misspending excess levy property tax funds on improper expenses.

She wrote that in “2017 and 2018 [the Boone school board] failed to spend more than $5.5 million [of] excess levy funds on excess levy purposes,” and one of that levy’s purposes was to fund the county’s salary supplements.

She also said it didn’t matter that Boone did this under the threat of a takeover by the state school board.

“The State Superintendent cannot order those funds to be used for another purpose because that would be in violation of law,” she wrote. “When the State Board of Education directed a county board to apply excess levy funds improperly, the county board was not absolved of liability.”

But she also wrote that “it is impossible to tell from the evidence presented in this case how much [the school system] paid in actual county supplements each year, as opposed to its share of the State supplement amount, or how much excess levy money would have been available to pay.”

The state board now has almost entirely different members, and Martirano is gone.

Current state Department of Education spokeswoman Christy Day wrote in an email Friday the state-ordered cuts were “to ensure that the county was able to meet its financial obligations, including employee payroll.” She said neither the state board nor the department had comments to offer on Boone’s settlement.

Boone didn’t admit wrongdoing in the settlement.

“It is further agreed that the Settlement Payment made by the County Board is not payment of the salary supplement,” the settlement says, “but is a mere payment paid to the grievants as a compromise to settle any and all claims.”

However, the mediation agreement attached to the settlement document said the amount paid to employees is based on 90% of the “16-17 and 17-18 supplemental salary.”

When a county school board asks voters to raise their own property taxes — called an excess levy — to provide the local school system more support, it must tell voters what it will spend that extra income on. County salary supplements for the school years 2016-17 and 2017-18 were part of what Boone’s school board told voters they were voting for when those voters agreed to pass the excess levy. At the start of the 2018-19 school year, Boone partially reinstated the salary supplement.

Katz, the general counsel for the state National Education Association branch, said law supports having to pay for what voters pass in these excess levies.


Coronavirus
COVID-19 impacting summer travel plans

HUNTINGTON — Nearly every summer, Brian Jones and his family take a summer vacation trip to Myrtle Beach around the Fourth of July holiday, but not this year.

“With all the reports of people getting COVID-19 after going to Myrtle Beach we decided to cancel our normal summer vacation plans for now,” said Jones, 45, of Huntington. “Maybe we can go later this year if things get better.”

West Virginia has recorded 100 cases of COVID-19 tied to people traveling to Myrtle Beach, according to Gov. Jim Justice.

In his COVID-19 briefing Friday, Justice said the state is aware of outbreaks in 18 counties tied to people traveling to the area.

AAA recently issued its summer travel forecast and predicts a nearly 15% drop in travel compared to last July through September. This is the first forecasted decline since 2009.

AAA says Americans will take approximately 707 million trips based on economic indicators and state re-openings.

That number is the first decline in summer travel since 2009.

“Americans have spent the last few months dreaming about their summer vacations,” said Bevi Powell, senior vice president of AAA East Central. “As Americans return to making travel plans, they are doing so cautiously and more spur-of-the-moment.”

Powell said there have been some changes in booking trends this year.

“Travelers are booking long-weekend getaways and impromptu trips, with many loading their cars and heading to their favorite sunny destination or national park,” she said.

AAA says car trips will account for 97% of the favored mode of transportation and are expected to see the smallest decrease in travel volume, approximately 3% year-over-year.

Meanwhile, air travel is expected to decrease by about 74%, while rail, cruise ship and bus travel will slide by 86%, according to AAA.

AAA says the good news is that hotel and rental car bookings have been gradually increasing since April. Also, the share of travelers making plans 48 hours to seven days before departure is significantly higher than normal.