KEYSER, W.Va. — No further public health restrictions are likely to be enacted to combat Mineral County’s skyrocketing COVID-19 numbers, the county health administrator said Wednesday.
While there have been discussions with Gov. Jim Justice’s office on the subject, Mineral County Health Administrator A. Jay Root told the Times-News Wednesday afternoon that nothing came of those. Root said he didn’t anticipate any announcements about further guidelines being imposed, given recent statements from Justice’s office and the state health command.
Mentions of Mineral County made during recent press conferences, he said, are likely “more of a hypothetical situation” at this point.
Following the guidelines, however, remains crucial.
“He wants to keep the community going at this point,” Root said of Justice. “If the community is following the guidelines, that is definitely going to help. The problem is, we started seeing spikes after we had Halloween parties, homecoming-type parties and the election. That’s a lot going on at once, and we started seeing the huge spikes right after that.”
“I know I keep saying the same thing, but that’s because the message hasn’t changed,” Root said. “If you properly wear your masks out and about, social distance and avoid group gatherings, it’s definitely going to help. I don’t know if I want to say we got comfortable, but something changed.”
The county has seen more than 1,200 cases of the virus and 23 deaths linked to it. The latest deaths, announced by health officials Wednesday night, were an 87-year-old man who had been hospitalized and a resident of Piney Valley nursing home in Keyser. An outbreak at the nursing home has resulted in 12 resident deaths, and 74 residents and 52 employees testing positive.
There will be something of a lull in numbers over the coming days, Root said, which is to be expected as they weren’t conducting testing over the Thanksgiving holiday. There were two days of testing scheduled this week. On Tuesday, 510 people were tested, a large amount for the size of the county, he said.
The health department will also soon begin the transition to placing much of the testing operations in the hands of a private company, Curative Labs, Root said, so that the small health department staff can have some of their resources freed to focus on vaccinating the community.
That could begin as soon as Wednesday, Root said, and Mineral County is one of the state’s “pilot counties” testing that approach. They are still working out the details, he said, and hope to begin vaccinating “key groups” like those in long-term care the week after that.
Their community partners, like the county sheriff’s department and nursing students, have been a huge boon as they test large amounts of people, he said. The county health department has been a statewide leader in terms of volume of folks tested, Root said. In November alone, 5,139 people were tested. Of those, 2,847 were Keyser area residents and 1,792 resided in the Frankfort area.
Root was hopeful about community members who may have been reluctant to follow the guidelines coming around, noting “some people did change the way they celebrated their holidays,” but “time will tell” what effect Thanksgiving will have on the numbers.
“We’re going to have to keep watching, because whatever effects we have from Thanksgiving will probably carry us on through the Christmas holidays, and then there’s New Year’s,” Root said. “Hopefully, once we get past the new year, we’ll start seeing vaccinations for the general population.”
In the spring, when the vaccine was still very far off, “extreme measures” were needed to control its spread, Root said. Now that there’s a potential light at the end of the tunnel, continuing to observe the guidelines “will help us get through.”
There will be “ebbs and flows” moving forward, he said, pointing to a big spike right before Thanksgiving that was the result of a large volume of tests coming back. They won’t see that similar spike for a while, “but in a day or so we’re going to start seeing those 510 tests we did Tuesday coming in, and then we’ll see those increases again.”
Vaccines are expected to arrive in the state within two weeks, Root said, and while that’s certainly a bright spot, residents should not become complacent about adhering to the guidelines. It will likely be January before it can be made widely available, he said.
“Hopefully we can get our community through this without too much more heartache, but I’m sure there will still be some,” Root said.
Mineral County Schools Superintendent Troy Ravenscroft said it remains to be seen what will happen with schools for the remainder of the month.
“If our school map system stays unchanged, I think it is unlikely we’ll return to in-person learning in the coming weeks — but I don’t want to guess past mid-December,” Ravenscroft wrote in an email Wednesday. “That said, things can change, and we don’t yet know the impact of the vaccine or how quickly it will help us with our local health trends, or if it will impact the advisory system for in-person learning.”
Much of that, Ravenscroft noted, depends on residents’ actions.
“At this point, I think we’ve done well with in-person school statewide from a health perspective and there has been little evidence of community spread in our buildings,” Ravenscroft said. “With our map system, our return to school is heavily dependent on our community. We continue to encourage adherence to guidelines to help minimize the spread and help us get back to school.”