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Gov. Jim Justice began his COVID-19 briefing Monday by reading the ages and counties of residence for all the West Virginians who have died because of the virus since his last briefing, as he has since the state recorded its first COVID-19 death nearly 19 months ago. He went through the active case and hospitalization information that anyone can see on the state Department of Health and Human Resources website.

Viewers then had to wait for several minutes before any other useful information was presented. Justice patted himself on the back for attending a band competition over the weekend and allowing bands to play at high school football games a year ago. He took credit for the state’s financial shape at a time when billions of federal dollars are propping up a sluggish economy. Of course, he also took the usual swipes at the news media for not giving him enough praise, saying some outlets are against reporting “good news.”

None of this had anything to do with COVID-19 in West Virginia. There was a considerable change in tone when Dr. Clay Marsh, the state’s coronavirus czar, took over, mentioning the now 5 million lives lost globally to COVID-19, and noting that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is likely to issue recommendations for vaccinating children ages 5 to 11, who were previously ineligible for the shot. This is vital, Marsh said, because, with evolving variants of the virus, more children are getting sick from COVID-19 and they can also easily spread the virus.

Those are all important things to know, but you wonder how many viewers are still tuning in to the virtual briefings and how many of those stuck around after Justice’s political grandstanding to hear what Marsh and others had to say. (The governor went on another long-winded rant about the necessity of fossil fuels while accusing Democrats of trying to “buy” the midterm elections during the portion of the briefing when he fielded questions from the news media.)

The format of these briefings is unlikely to change. Justice doesn’t want to allow reporters to attend in person, because he and his team can’t cherry-pick who gets to ask a question, and can’t eliminate follow-ups.

It’s a crucial time, as it pertains to the virus. Deaths are mounting and, while active cases and hospitalizations are gradually dropping, public health officials have warned of another surge, once winter weather hits, especially with the state’s anemic vaccination rates. Last year, the Thanksgiving holiday kick-started a surge in cases, hospitalizations and deaths that lasted nearly three months. That same holiday is now just a few weeks away.

It’s time to put the experts out front on this issue, if the briefings continue. Or perhaps Marsh and other members of the governor’s team, along with officials from the DHHR, should start having their own briefings, where the focus is solely on informing the public about what is happening with COVID-19. Remembering those who have lost their lives to this virus is an important part of the process, but Justice’s self-aggrandizing political schtick is irrelevant, uninformative and a disservice to those he would honor.

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