Charleston — The color coding criteria for the County Alert System map may be changed again because of the number of counties around the state now in the red.
“Our medical experts are going to advise on expanding the orange zone,” Gov. Jim Justice said during his pandemic briefing Monday. “We may change the criteria to expand the orange zone to allow some more freedom, fewer reds, and not be as restrictive as we have been.”
Students are slated to return to classrooms next Tuesday, Jan. 19, with students in eighth grade and below back in classrooms regardless of the county’s color on the map.
However, high school students cannot return to in-person instruction or have sports or extra-curricular activities if the county is in the red. As of Monday, 42 of the state’s 55 counties remained in red. If that holds up and the criteria don't change, high school students in those counties would remain on remote learning next week with no activities or sports.
Justice said the current standard of a score of 25 on the infection rate (average number of new positive cases over a seven-day period) as a threshold for red is a “low number compared to other states.”
An increase in that number would move many counties into the orange, where in-person instruction is now allowed.
“In orange, we will go back to school,” he said. “Our medical experts believe that the exposure for going to school is extremely minimal and eighth grade and down very, very minimal. They believe it is safe.”
He did not suggest a new number on that scale as a threshold for red, saying that will be determined.
On Monday, though, Mercer County had a 97.6 rate of infection and Monroe County’s rate was 83.9, both far above the current 25 minimum for red.
Justice also said winter sports practices can start Feb. 14 with the first games on March 3.
“They have to have 14 practices,” he said of sports like basketball. “That would give them 16 days to practice. But if you are in the red and not in school, we can’t play.”
Justice said all of these decisions are made working with the state Department of Education, medical experts and the West Virginia Secondary Schools Activities Commission.
Winter sports was initially canceled until Jan. 11 but then postponed until March 1 because of the post-holiday surge in cases, the rising number of deaths and hospitalizations, and the record positivity rate and infection rates. Those rates are reflected on the County Alert System color-coded maps.
On another front, West Virginia is leading the nation in vaccinating residents, Justice said, as all long-term care facilities are being wrapped up and the initiative to inoculate all residents 80 and over as well as school personnel 50 and over should be finished soon.
As of Monday, according to the DHHR, 109,440 first doses have been received with 92,070 administered, the best percent (84.1) in the nation.
About 16,500 second doses have been received by the state with about 13,500 administered, or 81,3 percent, also the best in the nation.
“We need more vaccines,” he said, adding that West Virginia is the center of national attention for its job in handling and administering the vaccine as well as how it has handled the pandemic.
Justice was interviewed on CNBC’s "Squawk on the Street" Monday morning to talk about the steps the state is taking to protect its citizens.
“West Virginia knew how to move without a playbook. We knew how to move to get things done,” he said. “We are accomplishing some really wonderful things and I know we will continue to lead the pack in terms of caring for our people … As the world sees West Virginia leading, it drives people to us. It makes people want to come to us and it changes our image. It does so much good for the state.”
The state was also the first in the nation to test all residents and staff of all long-term care facilities.