Mineral County officials respond to COVID-19 changes

KEYSER, W.Va. — It's been quite an adjustment, but Mineral County officials say they're taking COVID-19 as it comes.

As of Thursday morning, no cases had been confirmed in the county. Mineral County Health Department administrator A. Jay Root told the Times-News that so far, they've administered "a couple tests, not a lot." None of those have come back positive, Root said, adding that the same goes for the results for a few Mineral Countians who chose to cross the state line into Allegany County to be tested there.

Root said he and other local leaders, including representatives from Mineral County Schools, Potomac Valley Hospital, the county commission and others, virtually convened on Monday to discuss the subject. During the conference call, Root said he presented them with a situational report that was up to date at the time, heard their reports and concerns and provided them with strategies intended to combat the spread of the illness. But still, he said, “That was Monday. Things have changed so much since then it’s ridiculous.”

Since Monday, West Virginia has had its first reported positive tests: Until Tuesday night, the Mountain State had been the last state in the country without any confirmed COVID-19 cases. That was when the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources announced the first positive test in the Eastern Panhandle. A second case was confirmed Wednesday night in Mercer County. Both cases, the department said in its most recent press release, are "travel-related."

For about the last three weeks or so, Root said, he and the rest of the health department staff have been swamped trying to address the virus, meeting with school and hospital officials even ahead of the schools closing statewide through March 27.

Lately, Root said, the focus has been on making sure they're keeping up-to-date with all the latest developments and putting the information out to the community accordingly, as well as other means of preparation. He emphasized the importance of adhering to suggested measures like social distancing, hand washing, sanitizer and coughing into one's sleeves rather than on one's hands.

Health department nurses have been going to meet with local health care providers, he said, and members of the environmental health team have been meeting with local business owners. They're also preparing to distribute protective gear to local first responders: "We cleared out our own storage at the health department" to do so, he said.

Root said he felt the state's late diagnoses were not the result of later exposure but of delayed testing and inadequate levels of aid from the federal government. 

“The testing has not caught up to everyone else,” Root said, referring to rising incidents of diagnoses in other states. "Make no mistake, it’s been here, it's just that the testing hasn’t caught up to it.”

Root advised residents to keep calm, check in with reputable sources like their web presence or the Centers for Disease Control for the latest information and stay home if they're unwell.

“The best thing I can tell everybody is as West Virginians … we always take care of each other,” Root said.

Absentee voting

Speaking just ahead of a 2 p.m. staff meeting Thursday, County Clerk Lauren Ellifritz said she and the others were convening to decide their next steps in addressing the pandemic from their side. Gov. Jim Justice has said so far to keep the courthouses open, Ellifritz said, but as with so much surrounding COVID-19, that guidance might change in the coming hours or days. 

Ellifritz said that since Secretary of State Mac Warner and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey's press conference Wednesday afternoon, they've received requests for applications for absentee ballots, which she said are a prerequisite. Those ballots will begin to go out Friday. 

There's no way to predict how many absentee ballots they'll issue overall, Ellifritz said, but she expects a high number. In elections past, she said, it's been dependent on both the race itself and the candidates in it: For example, she said, after Sept. 11, 2001, they had more than 400 folks vote absentee. Another, she said, they processed just 13 such ballots.

Ellifritz echoed Warner's call for voters to apply for the medical absentee exception, for both the sake of the community at large, poll workers and herself.

“A lot of my poll workers are in the group that’s at high risk,” she said.

Overall, Ellifritz said it was far too early to tell how election turnout would shake out in Mineral County.

“We are still 54 days out, so we’re not sure if we’re going to be better off then or not," Ellifritz said. "... There’s a lot to cover over the next few days. We’ve already been planning scenarios for weeks knowing it eventually was going to come here. It’s been on my mind day and night. ... We’re going to take every step we can to protect our voters and poll workers.”

City offices to close

Although there's staff in the office currently, Keyser city administrator Amanda Brafford said Thursday that the office will be completely closed the week of March 23. The lobby was closed to the public beginning Wednesday. Residents are asked to contact the police department in the event of an emergency during that time, Brafford said, and they'll be connected to the right department. An employee will also stop by to post payments received in their dropbox or by mail, she said.

Brafford said the council will reevaluate next week.

On Facebook last Friday, the town of Ridgeley announced that they'd be closed to the public through this week. Carpendale Councilman Butch Armentrout said Thursday that they weren't immediately planning to close their town hall altogether, but would "probably eventually" have to close it to the public. 

Follow staff writer Lindsay Renner-Wood on Twitter @LindsayRenWood

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