Dave Mistich Published

West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle Has State’s Latest Cluster Of COVID-19


Updated Friday, April 3, 2020 at 4:00 p.m.

West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle is experiencing the state’s newest cluster of the coronavirus. 

At a Friday news conference, Gov. Jim Justice and other officials said they were made aware of the outbreak just before a Friday virtual news conference that was scheduled to start at noon. 

While Justice and other officials were not specific on the exact location of the new outbreak, the governor said 60 positive cases had been confirmed between Berkeley and Jefferson counties. 

The latest data from the Department of Health and Human Resources shows numbers lagging behind Justice’s announcement of the cluster in the Eastern Panhandle. Berkeley County has 37 confirmed cases of the virus and Jefferson County reports 12 positives. DHHR officials have said updates to state data will occur daily at 10 a.m.

The state’s coronavirus czar, Dr. Clay Marsh, said details about the outbreak are still being relayed to state officials.

“We do believe that this is a community transmission, which means that all in the community have likely been part of moving this between each other,” Marsh said at Friday’s news conference. “So that’s a reason why it’s so important for us to really ask people to focus on separating.” 

Justice mentioned the retail store Hobby Lobby twice during the news conference, but did not provide additional details whether the store is connected to the outbreak. Other officials did not make mention of the chain, whose location in Martinsburg is now reportedly closed. Nationally, some of the retail chain’s stores have drawn criticism for not closing during the COVID-19 outbreak. 

The discovery of concentrated cases in the Eastern Panhandle is the second notable cluster of cases that has been identified in West Virginia. The first was at a Morgantown nursing home where more than two dozen residents and staff tested positive. 

Gov. Jim Justice urged residents to remain at home to combat the spread of the virus. He also offered cautious optimism in terms of how the state is fairing compared to others in the country. 

“We’re not going to be immune to this terrible, terrible disease that is going across our land,” Justice said Friday. “But we have been making progress and keep the curve where we want the curve to be.”

Requests for additional information from both the Berkeley County Health Department and Jefferson County Health Department have not yet been returned. 

Justice Hints At Additional Response In Eastern Panhandle

Speaking about possible responses to the outbreak in the Eastern Panhandle, Justice hinted he may give additional orders to mitigate potential spread. 

“If it comes to the point that we need to send the National Guard in there to try in every way to get a better handle on it — we may very well have to put more strenuous guidelines as far as essential and non-essential,” Justice said. “But we need to at least contain this there.”

As of the state’s latest count, 272 cases have been confirmed out of 6,367 tests — putting the state at a positive case rate of 3.72 percent. Two West Virginia residents have died as a result of COVID-19. Press releases from the DHHR and local health departments indicate both deaths were older residents with preexisting conditions.

Justice Defends Decision To Not Yet Cancel School Year

Despite the growing number of cases and data projections showing the virus is expected to peak in early May, West Virginia officials are holding back on the decision to cancel school for the remainder of the year. As of now, schools have been closed until April 30. 

Justice and state Superintendent of Schools Clayton Burch deflected calls from legislative leaders to do just that.

“The last thing on earth we need is controversy. You know, these decisions are really tough,” Justice said. “You know I’m not going to shoot from the hip and just say, ‘Oh, we just think we should close schools to the end of the year and everything” — because we don’t know right yet.

On Thursday, Senate President Mitch Carmichel, R-Jackson, House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, and House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, wrote a letter to Justice arguing that reopening schools could be sending children into a “potentially hazardous and untenable learning environments.”

Justice, citing unnamed experts, indicated he is holding off on canceling the school year until necessary. However, he left the door open for such a decision to be made. 

“We absolutely will know and we will notify people in significant advance time, if that’s a decision that has to be made,” Justice said. 

At Friday’s virtual news conference, the DHHR also unveiled a new dashboard to display data on testing for the virus. Gov. Justice said the agency will release additional public health guidance for hotels, as well as information for handling take out and delivery food.