In the latest of a series of tweaks to West Virginia’s COVID-19 risk map, government officials Wednesday announced plans to count outbreaks among students on college campuses as a single case, under certain circumstances.
Under the plan, if infected students are quarantining together in a designated, isolated on-campus location, they could be counted as a single positive case for the state’s risk metric.
“This is just another step of improvement to where we very well may have had numbers skewed,” Gov. Jim Justice said of newest adjustment.
As of Wednesday evening, the policy change would apply only to West Virginia University, where nearly 80 students are in isolation in Arnold Apartments on the Downtown Campus.
Counting those students as a single case of COVID-19 should drop Monongalia County on the state’s color-coded risk assessment from red, designating a critically high level of COVID-19 spread, to orange, a high-risk level that still prohibits opening public schools or participating in school sports or other extracurricular activities.
Justice said that, while the color change would not permit reopening of schools or allow high school sports in the county, it could be a morale boost for a county that has been at the red risk level for days.
Dr. Lee Smith, health officer for the Monongalia Health Department, defended the adjustment Wednesday, saying there is no evidence that infected students are spreading the virus to the general population of the county, particularly in rural areas.
“We’re not seeing similar increases of COVID-19 cases in the general population,” Smith said.
The tweak comes a day after Justice announced a major change to the risk map, breaking the orange high-risk category into a new gold category for 10 to 14.9 cases per 100,000 — a designation that would allow schools to be open and permit a limited amount of school sports — with the orange designation kicking in at 15 cases per 100,000.
Asked if it is wise for West Virginia to be second-guessing the Harvard Global Health Institute, which created the original color-coded risk map using the recommendations of a consortium of scientists and epidemiologists from around the country, Justice said of the state’s risk map, “In my opinion, it’s better, and we’re going to move forward with something that’s better.”
Officials with Harvard Global did not respond to a request for comment on West Virginia’s tweaking of its risk assessment metric.
Also during Wednesday’s briefing:
- Kanawha County moved to the red risk level on the risk assessment map.
State Public Health Officer Dr. Ayne Amjad blamed the surge in cases to at least 20 COVID-19 outbreaks in the county, including in upward of 15 nursing homes and at two churches.
“We have a lot of community spread in Kanawha County,” she said, urging residents to wear face masks.
As of Tuesday, the seven-day rolling average of new positive cases in Kanawha County reached 25.02 per 100,000, just above the 25 per 100,000 threshold to move into the red risk level.
- Justice said he will release $6 million of the state’s $1.25 billion in federal CARES Act funding to continue a program subsidizing day care costs for essential workers through the end of the year.
- Scott Adkins, acting director of WorkForce West Virginia, said the state has paid out more than $1.5 billion in unemployment benefits since mid-March and, this week, will send out $100 million in payments through the FEMA Lost Wages Assistance program.
That program will provide four weeks of $400 supplemental unemployment benefits to unemployed West Virginians, retroactive to Aug. 1.
The CARES Act provided $600 a week in supplemental unemployment benefits for 12 weeks. It ended in the final week of July.