With the latest West Virginia version of the COVID-19 risk map looking markedly different from the original Harvard Global Health Institute map, Gov. Jim Justice took umbrage Monday to suggestions the state is manipulating the map to reopen public schools more quickly.
“I really probably would take terrible offense to someone who would say we are manipulating the numbers,” Justice said during Monday’s state COVID-19 briefing.
On Monday, West Virginia’s version of the map had no counties in red — denoting critically high spread of the virus — and only two counties in orange (Kanawha and Barbour), designating high spread.
Additionally, six counties were gold — a recent tweak by the state to break the orange risk category in two, with limited restrictions on counties falling into the new, lower designation — while 14 counties were yellow, and 33 counties were green, designating that spread of the virus is essentially contained.
By contrast, the Harvard Global map on Monday had two counties in red (Kanawha, Gilmer), 15 counties in orange (including Cabell, Wayne, Putnam, Boone and Fayette counties), 34 counties in yellow, and only four counties in green.
Among the multiple tweaks to the Harvard Global map, a major change came last week when the state decided to count either the number of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population — the standard Harvard Global metric — or the county’s percentage of positive tests, whichever is lower, to determine each county’s color-coded risk level.
Justice said Monday that change was needed to encourage people to undergo COVID-19 testing, since, in the short term, increased testing will result in increased numbers of positive cases in counties.
“It gives us the motivation to test,” Justice said, adding, “If you test 1,000 people instead of 10, the number of infected on the left goes up. Everyone knows that.”
He said that explains why Putnam County has moved from orange to green on the state’s risk assessment map, even as the number of active cases in the county increased to 190 on Sunday.
In interviews, a spokesman for Harvard Global — a consortium of leading scientists, epidemiologists and public health experts from around the country — has been critical of West Virginia’s multiple “tweaks” to its map, which measures risk levels county by county across the United States.
“We can’t have different risk-level dashboards for different purposes; that is, we can’t be shifting our metrics to fit our policies,” Dr. Thomas Tsai told the Gazette-Mail. Tsai is an assistant professor of health and policy management at the Harvard School of Public Health and a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
“I can’t help it that the Harvard people want to criticize,” Justice said in response Monday, dismissing the Harvard Global metric as a “one-size-fits-all situation that maybe isn’t the best way to go.”
“I don’t know why in the world, all of a sudden, you think the Harvard map is a better map than what the experts right here in West Virginia are doing,” he added.
Speaking directly to state teachers and school service personnel, Justice said, “Have I not, since the get-go, done every single thing I can do to keep you safe, to keep our kids safe?”
He added, “There’s no way that somebody’s going to manipulate numbers. Not on my watch.”
Also Monday, Justice said he would look into claims that high school coaches are having players undergo testing multiple times in order to artificially lower positivity rates in their counties, but he said he doubts that any coaches in the state would “stoop to that level.”
Reach Phil Kabler at email@example.com, 304-348-1220