Fayette County health official apprehensive about school reopening

Fayette County Health Officer Dr. Anita Stewart

Fayette County Schools are back to in-person instruction Thursday with concerns that the school board and superintendent are rushing into a Covid fire as the county health department is monitoring its own staff for the possible spread of the highly infectious disease.

The growing disease numbers, which pushed Fayette to a seven-day rolling average of 21.22 cases per 100,000 population on the DHHR website Wednesday, obviously have Fayette County Health Officer Dr. Anita Stewart concerned. She said she has expressed her apprehension to state and county officials.

"I'm very concerned with the trending of our numbers in Fayette County."

The Department of Health and Human Resources Wednesday report showed the county with a cumulative 492 cases since March 17, 11 more than on Tuesday, 71 in the past week and 132 in the first half of September – more than a quarter of all cases. 

The county health department's Covid count, which almost always leads the DHHR's, has 14 new daily cases and 519 cumulative.

Stewart is wary of circling and possibly contributing scenarios in the county such as Thursday's opening of schools in a blended fashion, out-of-state visitors arriving for the Gauley rafting season or other purposes, or smaller gatherings such as birthday parties.

Fayette is in a "very tenuous position," she said.

Stewart stopped short of recommending schools not open Thursday as planned. "This is their (Superintendent Gary Hough and the board of education) decision," she said.

The DHHR color-coded map had Fayette County in orange territory on Wednesday while the West Virginia Department of Education had the county in gold, the newly created category advocated by Gov. Jim Justice that was assigned the county on Tuesday. In gold, schools can resume or, in Fayette County's case, start in-person classes and allow their athletic teams to compete against others.

According to the DHHR, the county's rolling average has moved up nearly 10 points in the last week – and is now approaching red territory, 25.0, where all in-person classes halt and teams cannot even practice let alone compete.

In orange, schools cannot hold in-person classes or let its teams take the field.

If that rating holds through Saturday, the district's back-to-school effort will be short-lived while. 

AFT-Fayette of the American Federation of Teachers has urged the county to put the brakes on Thursday's school opening.

In a letter addressed to Hough and the county board of education, Tega Toney, president of AFT-Fayette #4865, revealed results of an online survey which indicated that 69 percent of almost 900 survey respondents said they are uncomfortable with the plan to bring Fayette students in Thursday for in-person instruction.

The unscientific survey included a mix of parents, school personnel, community members and students, Toney wrote.

Citing a recent daily case average hike and the health department's temporary closure, the letter concluded, "We urge the Fayette County Board of Education and Superintendent Hough to delay the Thursday student start date, and rely on local health data to determine whether in-person, blended or remote instruction is the safest option for students and staff, and to mitigate the spread of the disease into our community. While we acknowledge there are challenges with remote learning, the health and safety of our students and staff must come first."

The county health department announced Tuesday night it would be temporarily closed because several staff members had exhibited symptoms of Covid-19.

"We're in the thick of it all the time," Stewart said while discussing the fact that some of the health department staff have displayed symptoms of the disease. "For me, it's such a lesson that, even when you do everything (precaution-wise), we're not immune to this. It doesn't take many virus particles."

After the first initial symptoms and subsequent contact tracing, Stewart said, "We didn't feel like it was an issue."

Then, five Fayette County Health Department staff members eventually displayed symptoms, which are still evident.

After consulting with state outbreak epidemiologist Shannon McBee, Stewart said, "We felt the best thing to do was close the office. We felt like it was safer to close for our patients and other staff until we have the results."

Test results for three asymptomatic FCHD staff members came back negative Wednesday, she said. Stewart anticipates five remaining results to be available on Thursday.

Terminal cleaning with a fogger has been conducted twice — on Sunday and Wednesday — in the department's Fayetteville office.

The FCHD phone (304-574-1617) is being answered from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and employees are working from home and participating in virtual meetings, said Stewart. "And certainly we're checking in on each other."

Among the health department activities that had to be canceled due to this week's closure were weekly harm reduction and family planning clinics, both which Stewart acknowledged are important parts of the department's outreach. Those services will be resumed as quickly as possible, she said.

Stewart said state epidemiology officials and DHHR Cabinet Secretary Bill Crouch have offered their assistance in recent days, including expediting test results Wednesday. And, National Guard members, who have been a big help in recent months, are still offering remote assistance with tasks such as contact tracing. "They've been fantastic so far," Stewart said of Guard members.

As Covid-19 cases continue to rise in Fayette and elsewhere, Stewart said 14 new cases, including two Montgomery Rehab and Nursing residents, were reported in her county Wednesday, in addition to some other Mount Olive Correctional Complex cases which hadn't been reflected in the county totals yet.

Also, a recent outbreak at an unidentified county church has grown to include 12 cases. As of Wednesday afternoon, there were 519 confirmed Covid-19 cases – 27 ahead of the DHHR's Wednesday report – and five probable cases in the county.

A weekly drive-through testing event at the J.W. and Hazel Ruby West Virginia Welcome Center in Mount Hope on Tuesday served as a directed testing event for the state. Ninety-four tests were administered.

Besides wearing necessary protective equipment, those involved with testing utilized good hand hygiene, were not with others within 6 feet for more than 15 minutes, and undertook other precautions. "I don't anticipate any issues, nor would I have concerns with exposures," Stewart said.


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