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West Virginia school re-entry metrics revised

SWITCHING IT UP — Gov. Jim Justice shows an example of the updated color-coded map for school re-entry. (Photo Courtesy/W.Va. Governor’s Office)

CHARLESTON — Gov. Jim Justice said the new school re-entry metrics for coronavirus cases and color-code system will be tweaked slightly due to feedback and media criticism received over the weekend, criticisms echoed by Justice’s Democratic opponent.

Justice, speaking Monday during his coronavirus briefing, said he was told by state health officials that changes were being made to how outbreaks in nursing homes and correctional facilities would be calculated as part of the seven-day rolling average of cases per 100,000 people to determine whether a county school system needs to close schools and switch to distance learning.

“I just found out about it, to tell you the truth,” Justice said. “There’s been some saber-rattling in the media, which is just as ridiculous as ridiculous can be.”

The School Alert System was unveiled Friday by Justice, coronavirus czar Dr. Clay Marsh, and the Department of Health and Human Resources. Based in part on a map developed by the Harvard Global Health Institute, West Virginia’s school re-entry map gives a county a color based on the seven-day rolling average of cases per 100,000 people.

Counties considered green and yellow are safe to re-open and stay open. Counties considered orange would have to stop all school sports and extracurricular activities except for practices and consider moving to a blend of in-person and distance learning.

Schools considered red would have to halt all activities and close schools until cases in the county decrease and can be rated yellow.

Criticism largely has come from how the state counts an outbreak in a nursing home or a correctional facility as part of the seven-day rolling average.

As part of the school re-entry metrics for the color-coded map (not the daily case counts compiled by DHHR), an outbreak among nursing home residents and inmates is counted as one instead of counting each resident or inmate as one case.

That’s because both nursing home residents and inmates are bound to the facilities they are in. Any outbreaks among staff were divided in half for the re-entry metric.

Instead, Justice said Monday that outbreaks among staff at nursing homes and correctional facilities would be counted as normal. Citing nursing homes as an example, Justice said these employees still have constant access to their communities.

“We can’t get around the fact that although they are at one nursing home, yet they still go out into the community,” Justice said. “We can’t put out arms around them at that nursing home, so we’re going to have to count them as for how many it is, that’s how they’ll be counted.”

Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango, Justice’s Democratic opponent in the governor’s race, held a press conference Monday morning accusing Justice and administration officials of purposely undercounting nursing home and correctional cases in the school re-opening metric.

“This is another attempt by Jim Justice to fudge the numbers,” Salango said. “This is a way of trying to keep the numbers low and distort reality. He released a plan last week that doesn’t count seniors and doesn’t count our front-line nursing home workers as whole individuals.”

Justice said any accusation that he was purposely changing the metrics based on outside pressure was incorrect.

“Nobody is going to pressure me in any way to put our teachers, our school service personnel, and our kids especially back into a situation that I feel in my heart is not as safe as we can possibly make it and as prudent a decision as we can make,” Justice said.

“If there is anybody out there that believes that the political component enters into this spectrum, they’ve got to be either so biased, living in a cave, or whatever it may be,” Justice continued. “That’s just not going to happen under my watch in any way.”

The second change was to the numbers used in the seven-day rolling average for when schools change from green to yellow, orange, and red. In the Harvard Global Health Institute that the state has used as a guide, fewer than one case per 100,000 is green, 1-9 cases is yellow, 10-24 cases is orange, and 25 or more cases is red.

When West Virginia unveiled its metrics last week, fewer than seven cases per 100,000 was considered green, 8-15 was yellow, 16-24 was orange, and 25 or more was red. The updated metrics released Monday more closely track with the Harvard metrics except for the green category. Now, fewer than three cases per 100,000 is green, 3-9 is yellow, with orange and red following the Harvard standard.

Marsh, the vice president and executive dean of Health Sciences at West Virginia University, said the reason the state chose to tweak the Harvard model was because their model didn’t differentiate between community spread and congregate spread in facilities. Marsh said he hopes West Virginia’s work on the metrics will help Harvard’s metrics.

“What we really are concerned about in our communities, particularly related to school openings…is related to the amount and the rate of community spread,” Marsh said. “We know that congregate spread in a nursing home or correctional facility’s inmates are in that place and will not go to the community to spread.”

“The Harvard mode really hasn’t been adapted specifically to a state like West Virginia,” Marsh continued. “Maintaining all the other thresholds from yellow to orange and from orange to red allows us to be very consistent with what I consider to be one of the best national models looking at the rate of new case over a seven-day rolling average.”

By Monday afternoon, the color-coded map had reflected the new metrics, showing much of the state in green and yellow. Taylor, Lincoln, Boone and Mingo are now orange, with Logan County still in the red. Last week, officials said any school that was in the orange and red prior to the Sept. 8 start date for schools would not re-open until conditions improve.

The School Alert System will be updated every day to reflect new cases, though the seven-day rolling average will be updated every Saturday night to give school officials time to make decisions regarding going to a hybrid of in-person learning and distance learning, or closing school and canceling extracurricular activities. The color-coded map can be found at wvde.us.

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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