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trial run

Kanawha County Clerk Vera McCormick holds up an official test ballot after running it in the Express Voting machine Wednesday ahead of the June 9 primary election. Early in-person voting runs from May 27 to June 6.

U.S. roadways more lethal during pandemic, safety group says

U.S. highways have been emptier during the coronavirus pandemic, but they also have been more deadly, according to statistics released Wednesday.

The National Safety Council said preliminary data show that, in March, when most Americans began to drive less because of pandemic-related stay-at-home orders, the fatality rate per mile driven went up by 14%, compared to March 2019.

The traffic fatality data, compiled from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, confirm the alarming reports across the country that speeding and reckless driving during the health crisis are leading to a disproportionate number of crashes and fatalities.

“The risk on our roads has actually increased,” said Ken Kolosh, the council’s manager of statistics, who ran the data analysis. “Although an 8% decrease in deaths from one March to the next March is great news, that decrease should have been even greater, if the risk on our roads had stayed the same. We should have seen closer to an 18% decrease in deaths.”

The overall number of fatalities went down by 8%, according to the report, a decline that is attributed to shelter-in-place orders and other restrictions across the country.

The number of miles driven dropped 18.6% in March, compared to the same month last year, according to the council. But the death rate per 100 million vehicle miles driven was 1.22 in March, up from 1.07 in March 2019, the organization said.

The surge in speeding and reckless behavior on the nation’s roadways has alarmed police and road safety groups. It also has prompted increased patrolling on some highways and renewed calls for drivers to slow down.

As traffic volumes fell dramatically following the stay-at-home orders, average speeds increased significantly above posted limits, more than doubling in some cities, traffic data show. Police agencies from New York City to Los Angeles reported more speed-related crashes. State troopers in Maryland, Virginia, California and Minnesota have reported writing more speeding tickets. Some drivers have been caught traveling at speeds topping 130 mph.

The National Safety Council numbers are the first official statistics confirming the trend, which experts think continued in April and this month.

“We really have to keep a very close eye on the trends going forward,” Kolosh said. “Unfortunately, with the anecdotal reports of risky driving, we fear that the fatality rate per hundred-million miles traveled is going to continue to be elevated.”

Road safety advocates and police are urging people behind the wheel to slow down, not to drink and drive, and to wear seat belts.

About 40,000 people die on U.S. roads each year.

Over the Memorial Day three-day weekend alone, the council estimates 366 potential fatalities — the lowest number of fatalities for the holiday period since 2014, in part because fewer people are expected to travel.

Even with the 8% decline in fatalities in March, the council said road deaths were up 2% in the first quarter of 2020, compared to the same time last year.

CDC study will test for antibodies in 25 metro areas over 18 months

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is embarking on an expansive study of the prevalence of novel-coronavirus antibodies in people in 25 metropolitan areas, an effort to provide long-awaited insight into the way the virus is spreading and its presence in communities.

The study, which is scheduled to test 325,000 people by fall 2021, will build on an antibody study that has been underway in six of the cities since March, according to Michael Busch, who is overseeing the study and is director of the Vitalant Research Institute.

The CDC’s Kristen Nordlund confirmed plans to announce the study but declined to discuss details.

Starting in June, this vast new antibody study will test samples from 1,000 blood donors each month for 12 months in the 25 metro areas. Researchers will test the samples for evidence of coronavirus antibodies, which are created by the immune system when someone is infected with the virus.

By determining who has antibodies, epidemiologists can figure out who has been infected with the virus, even if someone never reported a positive test or experienced symptoms. Several early studies suggest a large portion of those infected never display symptoms, making the extent of the virus’s spread more difficult to track.

“What we’re going to be able to do is a little like a monitoring station for forest fires. We’ll be behind the outbreak, but we’ll be able to tell policymakers whether opening up resulted in new spread,” said Busch, who added that case rates and death rates show a more limited, momentary picture of the infection’s spread.

A smaller preliminary version of the study is underway, led by Busch and funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. That study began testing 1,000 donors each month in six major metro areas: Boston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York, San Francisco and Seattle. The CDC will provide $4.5 million for technical assistance as the study expands to 19 more metropolitan areas that remain to be determined.

Vitalant Research is a nonprofit that specializes in blood-related research and is linked to 170 blood donation centers throughout the country. The effort will include major blood collection organizations such as the American Red Cross and New York Blood Center. Those groups will collect samples and demographic data from people who come to their facilities to make routine blood donations.

In each metro region, 1,000 blood samples will be tested each month for a year; then, six months later, 1,000 more blood donations from each region will be evaluated, allowing researchers to track the virus’s spread through the end of 2021.

Plans to launch the study were first reported by Reuters.

Antibody testing — known as seroprevalence surveys — can provide researchers and policymakers with a wider snapshot of the presence of the virus than the acute viral testing that has dominated much of the public health conversation for the past four months.

Instead of testing whether one person has the virus at a moment in time, which can often miss asymptomatic cases and gives no insight into prior infection, antibody testing determines whether someone ever had the virus — and, in some cases, when they had it. Prevalence and patterns of antibodies can sometimes indicate the difference between a more recent infection and one that occurred months ago.

Michael Mina, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Harvard University who is advising Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker on that state’s coronavirus response, said using acute testing to inform public health policy is analogous to “trying to find a needle in a haystack.”

Broad antibody testing, he said, “is the public health tool that should be used,” because it provides evidence of whether the virus is spreading. If testing in a given month shows that 20% of New York City’s population has coronavirus antibodies, and testing a month later continues to show a prevalence of 20%, that suggests the city isn’t experiencing significant ongoing transmission.

“That probably means that the epidemic has diminished,” Mina said. “If it continues to increase, then you know that there’s still cases.”

The data can show how prevalent the virus is in a location, how incidence has changed and how it varies among demographic groups. In the case of the coronavirus, long speculated to exist asymptomatically in many of those infected, a survey such as this could shed light on the percentage of people infected with the virus who do not show symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

Some cities, including Boston and New York, have begun smaller-scale serological testing, in addition to the preliminary study being overseen by Busch. In Chelsea, Massachusetts, a city adjacent to Boston that has emerged as a COVID-19 hot spot, a survey of 200 blood samples found that nearly a third tested positive for antibodies, according to reports.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced this month that 12.3% of samples taken from 15,000 New York state residents — including nearly 20% of samples taken from those living in New York City — were positive for antibodies.

Experts cautioned that, because the planned nationwide study will rely on people who donate blood, it could limit the ability to provide a comprehensive picture of the virus’s spread.

“You’ll come out of [the study] knowing the fraction of people who have experienced this virus who are donating blood,” Mina said. “So that’s potentially a very limited pool.”

Busch said that, because of the high number of collection centers involved, donors are expected to cover a variety of demographic groups, which will allow researchers to extrapolate the data responsibly. He said the study will take into account the fact that blood donors are generally healthier than the general population.

“What we know from many previous studies is that the data from asymptomatic blood donors will trail, by a month or two, the infection rates that are taking place in the general population,” Busch said. “They call it the healthy donor effect.”

Data collected from the tests will be made public on a rolling basis, allowing researchers and policymakers to track the changes in real time. Busch said the study could provide a sense of how close the country is moving toward herd immunity — a population’s resistance to the spread of a disease because a high proportion of individuals are immune to it — in the next year.

“If, after 15 months, we still see that less than 10% or so of the population has been infected, we’ll know we better have a vaccine because natural infection rates have not created herd immunity,” Busch said. “And that immunity won’t be enough to preclude another significant outbreak if society returns to the way we used to live.”

Justice administration admits rules, guidance for reopenings can be confusing

As the Governor’s Office continues to authorize a wide variety of businesses and activities to reopen in West Virginia, the different rules and guidance for each can be confusing, the governor’s general counsel conceded Wednesday.

“Quite frankly, sometimes we’re confused ourselves,” Brian Abraham, general counsel to Gov. Jim Justice, said during Wednesday’s state COVID-19 briefing.

A particular source of head scratching, he said, has been over whether a policy limiting public gatherings to a maximum of 25 people applies to businesses.

Abraham clarified that the 25-person limit applies to nonbusiness entities and activities, noting that, under the 50% capacity rule for dine-in restaurants, many eateries would exceed that 25-person limit. Justice’s executive orders allow dine-in restaurants to reopen beginning Thursday.

Thursday also sees approval to reopen a number of nonessential retail businesses, including malls and tanning salons.

Justice said state officials will carefully monitor for any outbreaks of coronavirus as West Virginia comes back online, particularly in the Eastern Panhandle, where border counties have much higher numbers of positive cases and COVID-19 deaths.

“We’re still really dialed in and watching our panhandle counties,” he said. “We’ve got to be super, super careful there.”

When later asked about the likelihood people from closed counties in Virginia and Maryland will flood into panhandle restaurants — and next week, bars — Justice said, “You can be daggum if you do and daggum if you don’t ... . I think what we have got to do is all the proper things in restaurants and bars that we can possibly do.”

Also during Wednesday’s briefing:

  • State Corrections Commissioner Betsy Jividen said a second inmate, as well as a second staffer, at the Huttonsville Correctional Center have tested positive for COVID-19. She said both inmates were isolated Monday after running low-grade fevers.

As of Wednesday morning, she said more than 200 day-shift employees and all 43 inmates in the unit where the positive cases were reported have been tested.

  • Scott Adkins, executive director of WorkForce West Virginia, said the state has paid out more than $600 million in unemployment claims to more than 200,000 residents.

He conceded there have been glitches in Pandemic Unemployment Assistance payments to self-employed and gig workers, including a system issue that delayed payments on May 12 and 13. He said delayed payments should be made by Friday.

Additionally, Adkins said about 200 PUA applicants submitted incorrect bank account information for direct-deposit payments and will be paid by check.

Dr. Clay Marsh, the state’s COVID-19 czar, encouraged residents to wear face coverings when around others, citing an unnamed multinational study that said the spread of the virus can be contained if 80% to 90% of residents wear masks.

Justice picked up on the theme, stating, “Just wear your mask if you’re going outside and you’ll be in a crowd of people.”

While encouraging wearing masks, Justice has stopped short of mandating usage of face coverings.

Justice downplayed tweets from President Donald Trump earlier Wednesday threatening to cut federal funding to Michigan and Nevada if those states proceeded with efforts to expand absentee voting by mail in light of the coronavirus.

Trump claimed those states had illegally mailed ballots to all registered voters, when both states actually mailed applications for absentee ballots — something West Virginia did earlier this year for the June 6 primary election.

Justice said that, while he is not a fan of absentee balloting, he commented, “I can’t imagine the president is going to withhold funding in any way to West Virginia.”

In closing, Justice again urged residents to wear masks and practice social distancing, comparing successful efforts by Japan to curtail the spread of coronavirus with the United States. He noted that Japan, with a population of 126 million, has had 784 COVID-19 deaths, while the United States, with a population of 330 million, will soon surpass 100,000 deaths.

“In a half of a day,” he said, “we are going to lose as many people as Japan has lost.”

Kanawha Parks Commission takes the plunge for June opening of Coonskin Park pool

Citing health concerns and financial issues as the COVID-19 pandemic lingers into summer, a number of West Virginia cities and counties have already pulled the plug on swimming in public pools, while others remain indecisive.

On Wednesday, Kanawha County Parks and Recreation Commission members bucked that trend by voting to prepare county-owned pools at Coonskin and Pioneer parks for opening.

The vote took place at about the same time Gov. Jim Justice said, in response to a reporter’s question during a COVID-19 news briefing, that he planned to announce health requirements and opening dates “hopefully, in the next couple of weeks,” for public swimming pools, including those in state parks and forests.

The decision to open the Kanawha County-owned pools came on a 6-3 vote.

Some members questioned moving forward with opening plans without knowing what coronavirus-blocking health requirements the Justice administration would impose, including group size limits and social distancing standards. Commission members Janet Drumheller and Karen Haddad voiced concern about the park system’s reduced income because of COVID-19 forcing parks to close for nearly two months, and not having enough money budgeted to cover operating costs through Labor Day.

Parks and Recreation Director Jeff Hutchinson said he is confident the needed funding will be available. The motion calling for the Coonskin pool to be repaired, filled and prepared for opening contained wording stipulating that it would open only if it could be operated in a manner that meets all state COVID-19 safety requirements.

Hutchinson said it would take about three weeks to complete minor repairs to Coonskin Park pool’s aluminum liner, fill it, and ready it and other pool amenities for opening.

The Olympic-sized pool, operated by the YMCA of the Kanawha Valley, has provided a haven from summer heat for decades and is a center for swim team activity and swimming lessons.

Pioneer Park pool is adjacent to East Bank Middle School, in Eastern Kanawha County. Management of the county’s former Shawnee pool was transferred to the city of Dunbar several years ago.

Charleston officials said Wednesday that none of the city’s four pools will be open for Memorial Day weekend and that the possibility of opening them at a later date remains under consideration.

The prospect of opening pools was discussed during a Monday City Council meeting. Mayor Amy Shuler Goodwin said that, to open the pools, a determination must be made that it is financially feasible and safe from a public health standpoint. She said it costs $50,000 to $60,000 to open each of the four pools.

Because of added expenses and a loss of revenue from the COVID-19 lockdown, Charleston faces a $3 million deficit going into the next fiscal year, Goodwin said.

Among West Virginia cities that have announced they will not operate pools this summer are Beckley, Kenova and Eleanor, along with Putnam County’s Waves of Fun wave pool at Valley Park in Hurricane and Boone County’s WaterWays water park at Julian.