If West Virginia wants to suppress Covid-19 transmissions and simultaneously keep its citizens informed, as well it should, it ought to invest resources toward testing and tracing via county health departments, and then punctually communicate clearly and precisely all of what is going on. To do that, its communications channels, public health care networks and their data must be aligned, accurate and as transparent as possible.
We know they are not.
What we have, in the interest of local control, are 55 different counties conducting public health care business in 55 different ways, no two playing by the same set of rules. Far be it for the state government to tell the county how to conduct its affairs in a public emergency that Gov. Jim Justice has cited to keep control of some $1.25 billion in federal CARES Act funding. But in that tangled bureaucratic and political spider web is the loss of public confidence in the governor’s leadership to coordinate an effective response to the pandemic.
The governor has been pounding the table with his insistence that the state increase its testing to 7,000 to 10,000 Covid-19 tests per day. While it is an admirable and worthy goal, one that would help reduce the incidence of viral transmission, he’s been saying as much going on two weeks now and we are nowhere closer to realizing that fantasy than when he first implored his pandemic panel to get it done.
Since Monday, Sept. 21, the day the governor talked the talk on testing, the state has seen 64,245 results delivered to the Department of Health and Human Resources – an average of 5,354 tests per day – with a high of 9,909 and a low of 2,927.
Oh, yes, the governor has put his fingerprints all over the state’s confusing color-coded map that tracks the virus’ rate of transmission. Forget the fact that by one measure on Saturday, Kanawha County ought to be buttoned up tight, while by another qualifying indicator the school district is in the least restrictive category of all.
At this critical juncture, if this is what constitutes our state’s moonshot, we need something stronger than a slingshot.
For now, the state testing effort is wholly reliant on its National Guard – which numbers some 400 troops – and county health departments that are both understaffed in normal times and overextended in extraordinary circumstances the likes of which no one living can remember.
So, yes, we have a definite lack of trained and ready manpower for both missions, but no answers and certainly no plan from the governor on how to staff up – on the run.
Likewise, how county health departments dispense information is different pending on what side of the county line you stand. By way of example, some counties have regularly updated Facebook pages where citizens can check infection tallies, testing locales and news of the latest outbreak. In other counties, well, all you hear is crickets.
Justice has acknowledged that local health departments can’t do the testing on their own, and if they can’t get that done, then communication is going to be a bridge too far.
“We have to help them with resources,” the governor said. “It’s a monumental task for people who are already doing incredibly good work, but we will find a way.”
Again, that was nearly two weeks ago and, now, seven months, 357 deaths and 16,468 infections since this pandemic showed up on our front porch back in March.
And yet nothing, really, has changed. Justice remains in reactionary mode – “running to the fire,” as he is fond of saying.
Well, that may work as long as you have small brush fires to extinguish, but you risk the forest with such a strategy.
The better way forward, for starters, is to improve the delivery of public health which this pandemic has exposed as a fraud. To do that, counties – each and every one of them – will need additional funding.
And then each and every one of them will need to execute on science-based state protocols in dealing with outbreaks as well as single incidents – with contact tracing and with providing information on a timely basis that the public has a right to expect.
The governor needs to think bigger, less reactionary. Seems to us that he has been spending too much time coloring maps and too little on painting a bigger picture.