“If we’d done that, right now, we’d have a third to half our state shut down. Just think how preposterous this is in so many ways.” — Gov. Jim Justice on Wednesday, justifying multiple state tweaks to water down the Harvard Global Health Institute’s COVID-19 risk map.
One of my all-time favorite TV series is “Six Feet Under,” about a family that runs a funeral home in Los Angeles, and one of my favorite characters on the show is Rico Diaz, a gifted “restorative artist” who works for the family business.
In the series, Rico takes corpses horribly mangled in accidents or violent crimes and makes them look picture-perfect, providing great comfort to family and friends for viewings and services. In his work area, Rico proudly displays “before” and “after” photos of some his best work.
I thought of Rico last week when the Gazette-Mail (and many on social media) posted side-by-side pictures of the Harvard Global risk map for the state and West Virginia’s hyper-tweaked version of the map.
Each day, the Harvard Global map looks scary and intimidating, mostly in orange and yellow colors, with highest-risk red counties frequently outnumbering the small handful of all-clear green counties. On most days, about a third of the state shows up as high-risk red or orange, with about 5% of the state showing up in safe green.
Meanwhile, the most recent West Virginia version of the map is reassuring, with nearly 70% of the state in a pleasant shade of green, a fourth of counties in yellow or “gold” and only three in orange and none in red.
While that achieved the goal of Justice and many of his supporters to reopen schools and play high school football in most counties, many West Virginians are not reassured. They believe the tweaks, like Rico’s restorative magic, are merely masking the horrible reality.
It has not been unheard of in the past week for counties to show up as high-risk orange or even highest-risk red on the Harvard Global map, while showing up as all-clear green on the West Virginia version.
So, which is it? You can’t simultaneously have widespread contagion and full containment of the virus, can you?
Of course, Justice has been tweaking the Harvard Global map since the administration “borrowed” it in July and began falling short of getting the desired effect of a mostly green map.
That all changed when the state went to an either-or option, either using a seven-day rolling average of new daily cases per 100,000 population (the Harvard Global metric), or one based on the daily percentage of positive tests.
Daily positivity is much more nebulous and dubious. I seem to recall at one point early in the pandemic when the state standard for reopening was to have multiple consecutive days of positive test rates below 3%.
Now, topping 3% barely moves a county into yellow, and the high-risk red designation requires positive test rates of 8% or higher. If nearly one in every 10 people coming to get tested is infected, you’re in a world of hurt.
Also, it appears people quickly figured out how to game the positivity system, by having known healthy individuals get tested in order to drive down positivity rates, a callous case of willfully endangering people’s health all for the sake of a high school football game.
Which is why, as of the time of this column’s deadline, while Cabell County was showing up as green — virus spread contained — on the hyper-tweaked state map, the Cabell-Huntington Health Department had issued a public alert regarding high levels and increasing cases of COVID-19, urging residents to limit activities and calling for high-risk individuals to stay at home.
Likewise, Tucker County as of this writing is all-clear green on the state’s hyper-tweaked map, but red on the Harvard Global map, with a seven-day rolling average of 37.6 new daily cases per 100,000 — the highest infection rate in the state.
The official rationale for using positivity to determine counties’ risk levels is to encourage more testing, supposedly because people were eschewing testing for fear of raising case numbers in their county — which, of course, is a crock.
I talked to a caller who said he wouldn’t get tested because if he were to test positive, his employer would require him to self-quarantine for 14 days, and he can’t afford to go two weeks without a paycheck.
I suspect the caller is not an anomaly and that many workers in the state are reluctant to be tested since they do not have the luxury of two weeks of paid sick leave or two weeks of vacation time in the event they have to quarantine.
Bottom line, Justice has been able in a matter of days to take whatever confidence the public had in his administration’s ability to guide the state through the pandemic and smash it to smithereens.
For many, his watered-down, mostly green risk factor map has become completely useless and meaningless.
Justice has effectively abandoned the pretense of protecting public health in a play to his political base, the “Let Them Play” crowd, the anti-maskers and those who believe the virus is either a hoax or that its threat has been greatly exaggerated.
Quote of the week: “It’s not a question of a lack of legislative oversight. It’s a question of complete absence of legislative oversight.” — Delegate Mick Bates, D-Raleigh.
Last week, the minority leaders of the House and Senate Finance committees made their objections known to Justice unilaterally handing out more than $20 million of Small Business Grants, using federal CARES Act funds as a personal campaign war chest.
Had the grants come before the Legislature in the form of an appropriations bill, or as Bates suggested, had they been subject to scrutiny of the interim Joint Committee on Government and Finance, one can imagine intense debate on some of the more controversial grants.
No matter one’s position on the appropriateness of awarding grants to a Martinsburg strip club, Limited Video Lottery parlors and machine distributors, tobacco stores, tattoo parlors, a nudist resort and legislative lobbyists, the bottom line is that the Legislature should have been allowed to exercise its constitutional authority to appropriate state funds.
That oversight hasn’t happened because legislative leadership has balked at calls for the Legislature to call itself into session, since Justice has refused to call a special session.
The silence of Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, and House Finance Chairman Eric Householder, R-Berkeley, on the matter is deafening.
Finally, in all my years, I never imagined I’d have a newspaper editorial written about me, so I sort of look at that as a capstone on my career. The editorial criticized Justice for attacks on me.
I don’t think Justice has any personal animus toward me. I just happen at the moment to be the most visible face of a publication that recognizes it has a responsibility to aggressively cover his administration, not to simply reprint its press releases.
This follows the Trumpian playbook to attempt to discredit the media.
As President Trump told supporters at a rally in 2018: “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”
Of course, authoritarians who long pre-date Trump have been using the tactic of denigrating the press in order to convince followers to believe what they tell them, and not what they read or see on the news.
Or, as George Orwell wrote in 1984: “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”
Meanwhile, given that my Friday deadline for submitting this column has been moved up (presumably to give copy desk extra time to verify all the obscure pop culture references herein), I’ve opted out of covering Justice’s Friday COVID-19 briefings.
This Friday, when the editorial ran, Joe Severino pinch-hit the briefing, and happened to be the only reporter on the teleconference who was not called on to ask a question.
For a big guy, Justice can be awfully small.