Gov. Jim Justice announced Friday that he is moving $50 million in federal CARES Act funds currently parked in an account to pay future unemployment compensation claims to provide additional personal protective equipment and COVID-19 testing for West Virginia’s public schools.
Justice said the move is in response to teachers and their union representatives who have raised concerns about whether it is safe to reopen schools Tuesday.
“That should allay, and put aside, additional concerns,” he said of the funds, which are in addition to a separate $91 million federal grant for school preparedness.
The announcement, at Justice’s COVID-19 briefing on Friday, came two days after Fred Albert, president of the state arm of the American Federation of Teachers union, and Democratic Party gubernatorial candidate Ben Salango held a news conference to address teachers’ concerns about not having sufficient PPE to safely open schools.
During his COVID-19 briefing on Wednesday, Justice denounced the concerns as political garbage.
“You can listen to the garbage all day long, but I can’t be any more clear: We’ve got CARES money that we can move over there if needed,” he said.
The Friday briefing took on a somber tone, opening with Justice announcing that West Virginia has had 13 COVID-19 deaths since the Wednesday briefing, noting the daily number of state COVID-19 deaths is approaching the number of miners killed in the Sago Mine disaster in 2006.
Going into the Labor Day weekend, the state’s Rt number — a measure of the transmission rate of the virus — soared to 1.28, the worst in the nation, ahead of South Dakota, which is experiencing a spike in cases after hosting about 250,000 bikers for the annual rally in Sturgis.
Dr. Clay Marsh, Justice’s COVID-19 czar and vice president for health sciences at West Virginia University, noted that West Virginia has gone from having the third-lowest rate of spread to the highest in the United States in less than three weeks. He said it is “extra important” that West Virginians stay home during the Labor Day weekend.
“We have a very serious situation in West Virginia,” Justice said of the surge of new cases, a surge that moved Monongalia County on Friday into the highest-risk red category on the state’s risk assessment map.
On the Harvard Global Health Institute risk map, on which the state map is based, red counties are to impose mandatory stay-at-home orders, something the Justice administration does not require.
“It’s a sad, sad state of affairs when the holidays scare you, but this scares me right now,” Justice said of the Labor Day weekend.
The state saw spikes in cases after the Memorial Day and Fourth of July holiday weekends.