Emily Allen Published

Counties With High COVID-19 Numbers Turn Down Student Athlete Testing, To Miss First Games

Coronavirus (COVID-19)

School superintendents in three counties with especially high numbers of COVID-19 cases are forgoing an offer from the governor to test all of their student athletes, a proposal that he said would’ve allowed teams to compete in their first respective games of the season this week. 

Original guidance from the state calls on counties with higher numbers of daily COVID-19 cases than others to cancel public sporting events, holding only practices for their student athletes.

Following a protest outside the Capitol from parents on Monday, Gov. Jim Justice offered that afternoon to test all student athletes in counties affected by this guidance. Barring one positive result per team, Justice said, the state would allow them to play this weekend.

School officials in these three counties –Fayette, Logan and Kanawha – said they would not ask their athletes to participate in the testing because they were more interested in reducing in-person activities, to ensure a safer start to school next week on Sept. 8. 

“I think we need to focus on our testing priorities,” state Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, told West Virginia Public Broadcasting Monday. Baldwin represents Fayette County, one of the three who were eligible but declined Justice’s testing offer. “Playing sports for a week is not a crisis. We have people dying.”

Fayette, Logan and Kanawha counties were all colored orange Saturday night, referring to a color-coded map of the state designed to document each county’s number of daily COVID-19 cases on a rolling seven to 14-day average.

Orange is the second worst color to red, which would require schools to cancel in-person classes for the week and practices for student athletes.

Justice said Monday his offer to test all student athletes in the three orange counties – which, according to the state’s color-coded map, were required to cancel games – was a “one-time opportunity.”  

“We have consulted with every health expert, we’ve consulted with all kinds of people,” Justice said. “… We’re going to test all the coaching staff, all those that are involved, the bands, everybody in those three counties.”

In Fayette County, superintendent Gary Hough said coaches and principals all agreed the testing would be a lot of work for schools that were already prepared to cancel or reschedule their games later this week.

“I think they wondered how that could all be done in 24 hours,” Hough said of high school principals and coaches. “A lot of them had already rescheduled games.” 

In Logan County, superintendent Patricia Lucas said schools there already canceled their games this week, due to their red status on the color-coded map of West Virginia counties last week.

“We were not at a place where we could’ve competed this Friday anyway,” Lucas said.

Kanawha County schools released a statement Monday afternoon, in which their superintendent Tom Williams said the focus would “be on making sure that we do everything in our power to get our students back to school.”

Increased Community Transmission

Kanawha County, West Virginia’s most populous, had three outbreaks in long-term care facilities as of Monday afternoon, according to the governor.

Logan County recently was in the red on the state’s color-coded map for counties earlier in August, while dealing with several coronavirus outbreaks among churches and one at the Logan Regional Medical Center.

Although many of the Logan County residents infected from those outbreaks have recovered and several residents there have died, Justice reported there were still active coronavirus cases at the local Trinity Health Care Services nursing home.

More than 140 prisoners at the Mount Olive Correctional Complex in Fayette County have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation on Monday. Local health officer Anita Stewart said Monday the county also has seen more community transmission, or cases that aren’t linked to out of state travel, following COVID-19 surges from neighboring counties.

“The counties that surround us – you know, Raleigh, Kanawha, those counties in particular – have had increasing numbers in the last three weeks,” Steward said. “So, it’s not surprising that we’re seeing an increase in our numbers here, two to three weeks after they saw a surge.”

Monongalia and Mingo counties were also in the orange zone Monday. Although both counties’ athletes are still allowed to play games this weekend because they remained in the yellow on Saturday, Justice said Monday that he hoped to offer the two communities additional testing.

Monroe County, where several residents and staff at the Springfield Nursing Home have tested positive for the coronavirus, was in the red on Monday. Schools there are not allowed to have practices or games for the week.

Although Justice said his testing offer was a “one time opportunity,” implying schools will stick to the rules accompanying the color-coded map once school starts next week, he and other health officials encouraged people to seek testing, regardless, to ensure “healthy opportunities.”

“We are highly cognizant that the time frame of delivering any tests back is a challenge for us,” said the state’s coronavirus czar, Dr. Clay Marsh, on Monday. “We have worked with a few organizations to try to make sure that these particular tests return [rapidly] …  not only because that that will impact the ability of the teams to schedule to play the teams that would be eligible after testing, but also so that we can prepare the communities and the schools for the ability to get back into classrooms.”

The pressure of the fast turnaround was one of the reasons why at least Fayette County decided against the testing, according to local superintendent Hough.

According to the state Department of Health and Human Resources, the state has contracts with five laboratories for coronavirus testing. Commissioner Bill Crouch for the DHHR announced the state was partnering with two more private labs to minimize the time that West Virginians spend waiting on their results.

DHHR spokesperson Allison Adler clarified that the state has contracts pending with Quest and Ipsum laboratories.

Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.