CHARLESTON – Governor Jim Justice on Tuesday announced the state would be adding a new color – gold – to the West Virginia Department of Education’s School Re-entry Metrics and Protocols System.
Following an emergency meeting with his advisors “and all the experts” Monday evening, Justice said he hopes the new gold category will enable more children to attend school in-person while simultaneously encouraging larger numbers of people to get tested for COVID-19.
Two factors will now be utilized to determine what color a county is – the incidence or infection rate, and the percent of positive cases out of all people tested, and “whichever is better” or allows more students to partake in more academic or extracurricular activities will be used, the governor said.
Current gold counties are Putnam, Fayette, Mingo and Logan.
The governor said the rationale for the change was because he thought “the delta was too wide” between the minimum number and maximum number of cases within the orange category.
‘Gold’ counties fall between the yellow and orange classifications on the School Alert System and mean a county has 10 to 15 cases of infection per 100,000 people or a 5 percent or less positivity rate. ‘Yellow’ counties like Upshur have about three to nine cases of infection per 100,000 people or a 4 percent or less positivity rate on a seven-day rolling average.
Justice said the previous metric was discouraging particularly pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals from getting tested for COVID-19 because they didn’t want to detrimentally impact their county’s color.
“We have people who are making decisions that are saying, ‘We should not test because the more we test, the more we hurt ourselves,’” Justice said. “That’s not good information medically; it doesn’t help protect you because all we test is the sickest (people).”
Under the previous metric, Justice and state COVID-19 czar Dr. Clay Marsh estimated 67,000 children were not able to attend in-person school, 15,000 of whom are special needs students.
“If we can safely get some of those kids back in school, should we not try to do just that?” Justice asked rhetorically. “What’s the difference between trying to go to the moon and trying to figure out how you’re going to deal with a pandemic that nobody’s ever seen before? We need to change and adapt. It’s the prudent and smart thing to do.”
Using either the infection (incidence) rate or positivity rate, Justice said counties may utilize “whichever one gives you the better color.”
West Virginia on Tuesday still had an R0 or infection rate of 1.27 – down from 1.43 — but still the highest in the U.S., Justice said.
Marsh said the prior metric, which used just the infection rate, “started to work in the opposite direction that we wanted.”
“The message was received that, ‘you shouldn’t test,’” Marsh said. “That is 100 percent the opposite of what we want to do from a health standpoint. Most people who spread this art pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic, and our testing numbers have started to come down when we really need to accelerate testing, which will give us more valuable information.”
“By testing more, we’re able to identify people who are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic, which is what we want to do to reduce spread of COVID 19,” Marsh added.
West Virginia Superintendent of Schools Clayton Burch said schools in the gold category will require students in grades 3-12 to wear masks at all times.
“I’m all in,” Burch said of Justice’s latest map adjustment. “I want as many children in school as possible, as long as healthy, as long as safe.”
As far as extracurricular activities and sports go, gold counties will be allowed to have parents or guardians in attendance only and may only play/participate in their home counties or other gold counties.
Meanwhile, in yellow counties, such as Upshur, immediate household family members and grandparents will now be allowed to attend.
The governor said the new color “gets a lot of kids back in school.”
“We’re trying to give people some level of hope,” he said, “because what do you do without hope?”