Charleston – In an address to the state Tuesday evening, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice announced health officials have detected the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the Eastern Panhandle of the state.

“Be apart,” Justice said, referencing public health recommendations to stay six feet apart and avoid crowds. “Be smart.”

“We knew it was coming. We prepared for this, and we shouldn’t panic. We should be cautious. We should be concerned. But we should not panic.”

Justice also announced Tuesday that he was mandating bars, restaurants and casinos in the state be closed, as of midnight, in an effort to stop further spread of the respiratory illness. Officials said businesses may continue to provide take-out and drive-through services. In a press conference following, state officials said the closures are in place for at two weeks as of now.

“We should not be fearful,” Justice said. “We should not be afraid. We should be smart at this time. We should absolutely not be weak, and we ought to be West Virginia Mountaineer strong always.”

Health officials have also urged people to increase hand-washing, cough into the crook of one’s elbow, avoid touching their eyes and mouths, stay six feet apart, and avoid groups of more than ten people.

“We have to take seriously all the hygiene recommendations,” Justice said. “We have to take seriously the ability to stay six foot apart from one another. We have to take seriously the ability to stay away from our crowds. Help our elderly. Go to the grocery stores for our elderly. And if you show up at the grocery stores and that grocery store’s full of people, don’t go at that time.”

Most people with COVID-19 experience mild symptoms, but for some, particularly older people and those with underlying conditions, the disease can be fatal. COVID-19 is a new disease for which humans have built no immunity.

The announcement meant at least one case of COVID-19 is now confirmed in every state in the nation. However, public health experts have noted some people may be unaware they are carrying the disease, potentially transmitting it to more vulnerable populations. COVID-19 may be contagious before people show symptoms, such as cough and fever.

In a news conference following the address, state health officials declined to give more specific information about the location of the COVID-19 case, but did say the person is not being hospitalized for any serious complications, but is instead being cared for on an outpatient basis.

They said the decision to close bars and restaurants was made prior in the day, before the governor learned of the confirmed case.

As of Tuesday evening, the state Department of Health and Human Resources was reporting 122 negative cases and 14 tests pending.

In response to a question about whether testing would increase, Dr. Cathy Slemp, commissioner of DHHR’s Bureau for Public Health, said, “We test as many as we possibly can.”

She also noted that other entities, in addition to the state lab, are working on testing capabilities. WVU Medicine is working on that capability, and LabCorp, a private company, is already able to conduct testing.

More people may have been tested – LabCorp is only required to report positive case counts to the state.

Some states with fewer people have completed more tests than West Virginia.

Slemp has said West Virginia received enough supplies to test 500 people, although she had to borrow extraction kits from West Virginia’s flu supply.

Slemp said she had “no reason to believe” West Virginia received fewer test kits than other states.

“We have looked at some of that, and we are not the lowest and not the highest,” DHHR Cabinet Secretary Bill Crouch said.

In response to a question about limited testing, Crouch said that West Virginia expanded the pool of people eligible a week ago.

Addressing a question about other supplies, Crouch added that China, which is where the pandemic began, contributed to a worldwide shortage of personal protective equipment, such as masks.

“It’s not just us,” he said. “It’s everywhere in the world.”

He also said health officials may get creative when it comes to protective gear, possibly encouraging the use of other types of masks, including manufacturing masks or masks worn for things like mowing the grass.

President Donald Trump told governors Monday that they should attempt to reach deals with manufacturers to purchase more ventilators, which are needed for those who experience serious complications of COVID-19.

Slemp said Tuesday, though, that federal and state stockpiles would still be their first option.

She added that West Virginia has been implementing proactive measures even without positive cases.

Last week, the governor closed schools. He also halted visitation at jails and implemented a travel ban for state employees for state business.

“This is nothing unexpected,” Slemp said.

Dr. Clay Marsh, vice president and executive dean for health sciences at WVU, noted that social distancing, meaning separating people, would help reduce a surge of patients at hospitals.

“We have been able to be protected in some ways because we have a small population,” he said. “We have mountains. We have natural firewalls. But this virus doesn’t understand state lines.

He added that if people follow public health recommendations, such as washing their hands and wrists for 20 seconds, keeping their hands away from their faces, staying home and limiting social contact, “we have an opportunity to take this tsunami wave that will overcome some parts of our country’s healthcare (system) and make it more of a river or stream.”

Earlier in the day Tuesday, Trump suggested West Virginia would need less equipment because of the lack of cases.

But the Kaiser Family Foundation has reported that West Virginia has more people at-risk of serious complications if they do contract COVID-19.

Crouch said DHHR had been in touch with the state's U.S. senators and urged them to consider West Virginia’s vulnerability in allocating resources.

Also Tuesday, Sen. Joe Manchin, D- W.Va., sent a news release saying he had asked federal officials for more testing supplies and personal protective equipment.

He added that he hoped the announcement of the first case in West Virginia "will encourage every individual to take this virus seriously."

Email: ebeck@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @3littleredbones

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