On April 19, Kanawha County reported its first COVID-19 related death. On Tuesday, 178 days later, the county reported its 100th.
“With 100 deaths, I think people should really sit back and assess where we are and what our responsibility is to our fellow West Virginians,” said Dr. Sherri Young, health officer at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department. “It’s our duty to protect them the best we can, regardless of their age or any comorbidities. Wearing a mask and being diligent about that stops community spread — all the things we’ve been saying need to continue.”
Deaths are labeled as COVID-19 related if a physician rules that the patient would have lived longer were COVID-19 not a factor. Kanawha County’s 100 deaths account for nearly a quarter of the state’s total 387 COVID-19 related deaths, as of Tuesday morning, according to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources.
Kanawha County — with 178,000 people — accounts for nearly a tenth of West Virginia’s total population. As of Tuesday, there have been 3,242 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the county, 997 of which are active and 2,145 are recovered, according to the KCHD.
Per the DHHR, no other county in West Virginia comes close to Kanawha’s death count. Logan County is a distant second, with 43 dead, and Mercer County a far third, with 29 dead.
Of the 100 dead in Kanawha County, 57 were residents of long-term care facilities. A racial breakdown showed 91 of those who died were white, seven were Black and two were “other.” There were 48 females and 52 males. Most — 76 — were more than 70 years of age. They all leave behind families, friends, neighbors and community members who grieve their deaths.
Young said, while sad, it is not surprising that more than half the deaths in Kanawha County came in long-term care facilities, where many elderly people live with potentially serious underlying conditions.
“That is a vulnerable population, but here’s what I want people to remember as we go back to school and we go back to reentering as a society,” Young said. “Over 100 people have died from this, meaning that, even though they have potentially weaker immune systems, or the fact that they were older, they still died of a disease that we have a responsibility to detect, to treat to the best of our ability and prevent in every way possible.”
There are eight ongoing outbreaks at long-term care facilities in Kanawha County, some of which have lasted weeks or even months. Outbreaks at long-term care facilities are defined as having one or more positive cases of COVID-19 in facility patients or staff.
Long-term care facilities in Kanawha County, overall, have reported a total of 568 positive COVID-19 cases, according to the DHHR. Of those, 227 were in staff members and 341 in residents.
While long-term care facilities are isolated populations, the virus still gets in the facilities from community spread, Young said.
“We know that it has to come from outside, whether a staff member who gets sick and doesn’t know it, or someone visiting who brings it in,” Young said. “It’s not intentional, no, but it is from community spread. We prevent those deaths the same way we do others, by using the tools we know — face coverings, social distancing — whenever possible.”
Young said there also were people who have died in the county who had no comorbidities or underlying conditions, a reminder that, while some might be more vulnerable to the virus, no one is truly immune.
Tuesday marked day 224 of COVID-19 response efforts in Kanawha County. Young and other health department employees have worked nearly every one of those days. She said she knows people are sick of hearing the same things but that they can’t stop being said: Wear a mask, keep social distancing, wash hands frequently and avoid large gatherings whenever possible.
“That is what we do to improve. That is all we ask,” Young said. “Looking back over the last few months, 100 deaths is really tragic, but I know, it could have been more. We don’t want to lose any more people but, unfortunately, we probably will. Let’s do what we can to make sure it’s as few lives lost as absolutely possible.”
September saw a COVID-19 spike in Kanawha County, Young said. Now, schools are back in session and flu season is quickly approaching. In recent weeks, the county’s rate of infection has slowed and cases are inching down, but that, in itself, worries Young.
“I think a lot of people have been focusing on color maps and looking that our incident rate is getting better. It is getting better, but that is when I’m afraid people will let down their guard,” she said. “I’m hoping that these 100 deaths are not in vain, that this will awaken people to know that this is a deadly disease and we need to be very responsible, not just for ourselves but for other people’s family members, and, of course, our thoughts and prayers go out to all these families and all these individuals.”