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CHARLESTON — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice shuttered schools statewide on Friday in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, also known as coronavirus, even though the state is one of the last in America without a confirmed case.

The closures taking effect after the school day ended Friday will last “as long as we have to close the schools,” Justice said.

There are benefits to keeping schools open, but “to me, the risk outweighs the good,” he said. “How would you answer the question, ‘Why did you wait?’”

On Thursday, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine ordered K-12 schools closed in that state for three weeks, starting Monday, March 16. Some Kentucky school districts have followed suit by suspending classes at the recommendation of Gov. Andy Beshear.

Following Justice’s announcement, Cabell County Schools announced its plan, which includes closing all public school extracurricular and co-curricular activities. Teachers will still be expected to report to work in order to provide support to students. As long as teachers are working, the county does not anticipate needing to make up instructional days.

The state Department of Education is encouraging districts to implement alternative learning. In Cabell County, lessons and packets will be developed Monday, with instructions on how to complete packets coming Monday evening. Middle and high school students will utilize the Schoology platform.

The district is creating Wi-Fi hotspots across the county for students to utilize. Ten of the district’s school buses are equipped with Wi-Fi and will be situated throughout the county. Most schools will also open their networks, and families can access the internet in the parking lot. All information regarding the county’s response can be found at www.cabellschools.com.

As of 8 p.m. Friday, state health officials said West Virginia has no confirmed cases of COVID-19 after 31 people have been tested, with 26 negatives and five tests still pending. But Justice said that with so few tests being done, people could be infected and not know it.

“We know it’s here,” the governor said. “I mean, let’s be real, it has to be here — we just haven’t found it yet, but it’s got to be here.”

West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources secretary Bill Crouch said a lack of testing has been a problem nationwide, and that hospitals in the state will begin testing for the virus next week. He said a positive test in the state is almost certainly on the way.

“What the governor is trying to do is be proactive, and what we’re trying to do is keep our citizens safe,” Crouch said.

As of Friday evening, testing for COVID-19 can only be done in Charleston through the DHHR’s Bureau for Public Health, though some commercial labs were beginning to be able to test. Only positive results from commercial labs will be reported to the state.

Cabell-Huntington Health Department medical director Dr. Michael Kilkenny said a person must still meet certain criteria to be tested for the novel coronavirus, COVID-19:

  • Have a fever and signs of the illness, including cough and shortness of breath.
  • Been in close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 patient, though Kilkenny said there is a time limit.
  • Have recently traveled to a high-risk area, such as Japan, Italy or most of Europe.
  • Hospitalized patients who have no other explanation for their illness.

Kilkenny said if a person is concerned they have COVID-19 and calls the health department, they will be directed to an epidemiologist who will determine if they meet the criteria for testing. Patients must also be tested for flu and do a full respiratory workup before they are tested for COVID-19. He also added the respiratory test includes common coronavirus.

Kilkenny said all health care providers in the area have been provided with these guidelines, and said the health department is available to help them evaluate cases if necessary.

“We’d like to let people know we do want to test people who need to, reassure those who don’t need to, and we want to be really responsive to this disease threat in the way that best protects our population,” Kilkenny said.

Calls have been increasing at the health department and area hospitals, he said. He asked for the public’s patience and added guidelines are changing frequently. The guidelines reported to The Herald-Dispatch were from March 12.

Also on Friday, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin announced that a U.S. Department of Agriculture waiver will allow the state to continue a free food program for students if schools shut down. More than 120,000 students in West Virginia receive the free meals, his news release said.

Cabell County Schools established “grab-and-go” meal sites. The locations will be announced this weekend.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, and the vast majority recover in several weeks. But for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause severe illness, including pneumonia.

According to a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, West Virginia’s population of adults 18 or older have a 51% chance of developing a more serious illness — the highest rate in the country. An estimated 5.7 million adults in the U.S. who are at higher risk of getting a serious illness if they become infected with coronavirus are uninsured, including 3.9 million adults under age 60 and 1.8 million who are ages 60-64.

On Thursday, the governor suspended state high school basketball tournaments and imposed travel restrictions for state employees. He also asked West Virginians to reconsider nonessential out-of-state travel, warned against gathering in large crowds and requested that nursing homes limit visitors, echoing similar precautions taken throughout the country.