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State officials struggle to meet demand for help as virus pandemic rages

TESTING SITE — Patricia Stutler, with the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department, left, and West Virginia National Guard Spc. Shawn Wears record information during a drive-through COVID-19-testing event in Wood County on Nov. 3. (File photo)

CHARLESTON — As the need for greater testing capacity increases, state agencies tasked with helping county health departments with testing events struggled to keep up with demand during the early days of the most recent coronavirus surge, though the state quickly caught up.

Almost a quarter of the requests from county health departments or emergency services for help with pandemic-related events were denied, according to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Despite some of the denied requests, sources said help was offered in different ways.

According to resource request reports made available by the West Virginia Division of Emergency Services by FOIA request, 11 out of 42 resources requests filed between Oct. 12 and Nov. 9 were denied. Several of the requests for assistance were by county health departments seeking assistance with free drive-through testing events.

The denied requests included asking for portable lights or temporary buildings and tents, assistance with traffic control or seeking guardsmen to help with testing support. The West Virginia National Guard pointed out that, in many cases, they reach out to the organizations that have had a request denied helping them find the assistance they need some other way. In some cases, requests were denied by being put into the system wrong.

The Division of Emergency Management facilitates the system used to process resources requests and has no role in approving or denying the requests according to Lawrence Messina, a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security. DEM coordinates with the county emergency management agencies and DHHR. “As with emergency response generally, the process begins locally: with potential assistance or resources from neighboring counties, and then regionally, and then from state-level agencies,” Messina said.

As cases began to increase, Gov. Jim Justice ordered the National Guard to increase testing capacity. According to the National Guard, 42 percent of the state’s positive cases have occurred in the last 30 days.

The National Guard has been on COVID-19 duty for more than 250 days since Justice first declared a state of preparedness on March 4. That turned into a state of emergency on March 17. There are 472 service members working on COVID-19 response as of Nov. 13, according to the National Guard, completing more than 2,614 assigned missions.

Over the last nine months, the National Guard has distributed more than 19 million pieces of personal protective equipment a week as well as manufacturing more than 220,000 face masks, gowns and face shields. The National Guard also assisted in ramping up testing, with 388 testing events being held between Oct. 30 and Nov. 13 resulting in more than 15,000 COVID-19 tests.

As of this morning, 34 locations in 20 counties are offering free drive-through testing. Another 45 locations in 25 counties offer weekly recurring test locations, many of which require appointments. Select Fruth and Walgreen’s pharmacies in 37 counties also offer COVID-19 testing by appointment. Locations for testing can be found at coronavirus.wv.gov.

Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, adjutant general of the National Guard, said Wednesday that the Guard also is working with senior living facilities and county emergency medical services to make sure they can also be tested.

“A significant number of test lanes continue to go on across the state,” Hoyer said. “Over the past 24 hours, our Task Force Sustainment conducted 86 missions in 20 counties primarily focused on delivering additional testing capability to nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and to our EMS counterparts to make sure they can test and stay safe as well.”

But even with all these efforts, that doesn’t mean that every request by county health departments can be fulfilled, especially with guardsmen and state health officials stretched to the maximum. That has resulted in some health departments having to be told no sometimes.

On Oct. 26, the Berkeley County Health Department requested two guardsmen to assist with traffic control for its COVID-19 testing events Oct. 27 and Oct. 29 at Shenandoah Community Health in Martinsburg. The request was denied on Oct. 27, stating “guard unable to support.”

On Oct. 23, the Berkeley County Health Department asked for nurses to help administer flu shots due to the department’s nursing staff being quarantined due to COVID-19 exposure. The State Emergency Operations Center forwarded the request to leadership for approval, but the request was denied with no reason given.

Another request, submitted by the Department of Health and Human Resource’s Center for Threat Preparedness on behalf of the Fayette County Health Department, requested two guardsmen for administrative and clerical support for a free testing event scheduled for Oct. 27 in Mt. Hope. The request was denied by the guard’s Task Force CRE, which stated it was “unable to support this mission at this time.”

Other denials included an Oct. 29 request by the Raleigh County Emergency Services Authority on behalf of New River Community and Technical College for disposable face masks and face shields was denied because personal protective equipment had already been given to the Higher Education Policy Commission for distribution to colleges and universities. An Oct. 26 request by DHHR’S Center for Threat Preparedness on behalf of Beckley Appalachian Regional Hospital for a tent was denied because no tents were available at the time, though a tent was later procured.

Justice, speaking Wednesday during his COVID-19 briefing, acknowledged the state’s response to the pandemic has not always been perfect. But he said no one has worked harder than the National Guard, the Division of Emergency Management and the Department of Health and Human Resources to help as much as they can.

“I’m sure we’ve dropped the ball somewhere at some point in time, but man, are these people doing good work,” Justice said. “They need to be commended and thanked in every way. To all the health departments, to DHHR, and all of those putting in these licks, thank you from me and all of us. It’s amazing what great work you’re all doing.”

The federal authorization for National Guard members to operate during the coronavirus pandemic has been extended a couple of times since March and is set to expire in mid-December. The state has asked for that authorization to be extended again to allow the nearly 500 guardsmen to keep fulfilling missions in the state.

An additional extension would keep the National Guard working through March 31, 2021, though another extension will be likely to help with vaccine support. While the state has contingency plans in case federal authorization is not extended, Hoyer was confident that the reauthorization request would be approved.

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

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