It might have been the saddest moment of Jim Justice’s tenure as governor.
The man who from day one on the campaign trail pledged to move West Virginia from 50th to first had to concede Wednesday the state was No. 1 in an entirely undesirable category, having the highest rate of COVID-19 case acceleration in the nation.
This in a state that, thanks to its comparatively remote location and lack of world travelers, had managed in 2020 to be the last state in the nation to report a confirmed case of COVID-19.
Looking beleaguered and, as he later admitted, appearing ill, Justice said to state COVID-19 briefing viewers, “I hate to tell you this … ”
State COVID-19 czar Dr. Clay Marsh, who has been a good soldier for Justice, frequently gently contradicting the governor’s refusal to reinstate statewide COVID-19 protocols by encouraging viewers to wear facemasks in indoor settings, later Wednesday subtly placed blame for the record surge squarely on Justice’s shoulders.
Marsh likened the current “explosive growth phase” of COVID-19 to a series of brush fires that had grown into a single raging wildfire.
The inference was clear: Brush fires can be put out relatively easily, while there’s nothing much that can be done to stop a raging wildfire except to let it burn itself out — which, Marsh said, in the case of the COVID-19 surge, could take another five to seven days to as many as 14, with hospitalizations and deaths continuing to increase for some time after that.
The point being that Justice failed to act when the current surge was in the brush fire stage and could have been stamped out.
Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, a physician who is seeing the ravages of the COVID-19 surge firsthand, pointed out Thursday the stark contrast from spring 2020, when Justice took action in the early days of the pandemic by mandating masks and restricting gatherings, among other things, at a time when the daily rate of positive virus tests was 3% to 4%.
Now, with a variant that’s seven times more infectious than the original COVID-19 virus, Stollings was incredulous that Justice had failed to act with daily positivity rates approaching 18%.
As Marsh said Wednesday, it’s too late to stop the surge. Even if the hundreds of thousands of unvaccinated West Virginians got their first shots today, they wouldn’t be fully protected until long after the surge has peaked. Essentially, they have to ride out the storm without shelter.
In April, when vaccination rates started plunging after everyone who wanted their shots got them, Justice calculated there were 588,000 adult West Virginians still unvaccinated.
That led to his short-lived, ignominiously named campaign “Beat 588 Bad,” intended to encourage the 588,000 to get vaccinated.
That evolved into Babydog Sweepstakes I and II, in which Justice attempted to bribe vaccination holdouts with $18 million in taxpayer funded prizes.
According to the state COVID-19 dashboard, 925,696 West Virginians 12 and older are fully vaccinated, leaving 632,141 residents 12 and older who are not.
Even giving Justice the benefit of the doubt and assuming all 925,696 of the fully vaccinated are 18 or older, that leaves 506,884 adults who are not vaccinated.
On the other hand, we have legislators pandering to the anti-vaxx and anti-mask crowd by calling for a special session to enact legislation outlawing such public health measures, which as Sen. Richard Lindsay, D-Kanawha, noted, takes a seemingly entirely un-Republican position of telling private business owners how they must run their businesses.
Meanwhile, vaccination rates continue to decrease, with the average daily doses administered by the state dropping to 1,192 as of Thursday.
A virus that initially preyed on older West Virginians has mutated into a virus from which no one is safe. This is particularly troubling with schools reopening under a hodge-podge of masking and other public health policies.
As of Friday, people 20 and younger accounted for 33.6% of all active COVID-19 cases, while us oldsters 61 and older accounted for 15.2%.
Justice noted approvingly that 51 of 55 county school systems have individually enacted varying manners of facemask requirements, but he said he would not compel the four outliers, including Putnam County, to join them:
“They may very well feel that in their county, they absolutely don’t need masks, and if they feel that way, we’re going to honor it,” he said, prioritizing politics and gut feelings over medical science and sound public health policy.
In order to deflect from his own inaction, Justice turned Friday’s briefing into a partisan tour-de-force, attacking everyone from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to crazy Democrats to President Joe Biden. He described the president’s vaccine requirements as “federal overreach,” suggesting they are a mere ruse to “change the news cycle.”
It’s called leadership, governor. You might try it sometime.
Meanwhile, for much of the remainder of this month, we can expect COVID-19 numbers will, to borrow a phrase from Justice, continue a rocket ship ride upward.
Many more more people will have their lives disrupted, many more will become sick and West Virginia will set record after record for hospitalizations, intensive care patients, patients requiring ventilators to breathe and people dying.
Justice admitted as much Friday, drawing a dire picture of the immediate future. He used a remarkably uncompelling argument to call on the unvaccinated to get their shots: “Whether I like or not, whether I’m for it or not, I’ve got to get vaccinated.”
It’s impossible to say precisely how many illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths could have been prevented had Justice acted when there were only brush fires. Perhaps it would not have mattered. Perhaps the 500,000-plus unvaccinated are so bullheaded or so swayed by the flood of misinformation on social media or from right-wing commentators that no mandate, no matter how strong, would compel them to get their shots.
No wonder Justice responded Wednesday to a comment about his wan appearance by saying, “I don’t feel good. It’s hard to sleep at night.”
Apparently, Justice is experienced at doing nothing.
In 2005, he founded the Justice Family Foundation, a 501©(3) nonprofit classified under the category of philanthropic, volunteerism and grant-making foundations.
It was originally headquartered in Beaver, Raleigh County, but was moved to Roanoke, Virginia, in 2012, when Justice bought a downtown office building and consolidated a few family business headquarters there.
According to IRS filings from 2005 through 2019, the Justice Family Foundation never has raised or received any money and never has dispersed any grants or awards.
It exists only on paper. I suppose the casual observer going through Justice’s long list of holdings might be impressed that he has a philanthropic enterprise.
In reality, Justice has been good at doing nothing for 16 years.
Tip of the cap to McKenna Horsley, reporter at our sister paper, The Herald-Dispatch in Huntington, for her coverage of City Council members exchanging text messages among themselves and with others outside the council during a meeting to select a replacement member, actions that flouted the intent of state open meetings law.
That got me reminiscing about the evolution of the regulation of the use of electronic communications devices during House and Senate floor sessions, where both chambers were late to the game in setting rules. (Although many committee chairpeople prohibited cellphones in committee rooms early in the devices’ rise in popularity.)
House Rule 137A, adopted in 2005, states “no person may use a cell phone to make or receive a call on the House floor during a session.” It was amended in 2017 to apply to other electronic devices.
It also states, “Members are prohibited from communicating by any means with a person not on the House floor, other than other members of the Legislature or legislative staff, regarding any passage or defeat of any pending legislative matter.”
Senate Rule 38B, adopted in 2015, states, “The use of electronic devices in the Chamber shall be limited to official legislative business when at all possible.”
Also, Senate Rule 55, the anti-lobbying rule, which prohibits people who are not members of the Senate from attempting to influence the vote or opinion of any senator when the Senate is in session, was amended in 2015 to prohibit lobbying by any means, “including electronic devices.”
The rules are enforced to varying levels and have become more difficult to enforce now that all members in both houses use laptop computers with Internet access during floor sessions.
Electronic versions of bills have long ago replaced bill books, the large binders containing printed versions of bills that for many years kept at each member’s desk.
Bill books survived in the Senate through the record-long tenure of former Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, who for those many years refused to allow senators to have laptop computers or other electronic devices on the Senate floor. That was in part to preserve the historic character of the body, but also to assure lobbyists and others could not have direct contact with members during critical votes or debates.
Horsley’s coverage of the Huntington City Council shows a critical need to update the state Open Meetings Act to address the pervasiveness of electronic media, giving public officials the ability to conduct private meetings in the midst of public meetings.
Finally, speaking of cellphones, one of my all-time favorite legislative moments came during those initial efforts to crack down on their use in committee rooms — primarily because of the disruptive effect of having multiple ringing phones over the course of a committee meeting, not necessarily to prevent undue influence on members.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Oshel Craigo, D-Putnam, was adamant about having cell phones shut off during meetings.
In the midst of a legislative debate, Sen. Bill Sharpe’s cellphone began ringing loudly.
Sharpe, an old-school character known for his quick wit, didn’t miss a beat.
Answering the flip-phone, Sharpe loudly declared, “Governor, I thought I told you never to call me here.”