Editor’s update: West Virginia confirmed its first case of COVID-19 on March 17.
The novel coronavirus epidemic first reached the United States on Jan 21, when a American in Washington State who had recently returned from travel in China was diagnosed. Since then, a wave of coronavirus infections has spread across the country (and the world), infecting 2,174 Americans in 49 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.
The red wave of COVID-19 would now cover the entire United States, but for West Virginia. As of Friday March 13, the Mountain State of 1.8 million people had yet to document a known coronavirus infection.
As recently as Tuesday Mar 5th, 36 states had yet to report any coronavirus infections. Five days later on Tuesday Mar 10th, that number was down to 12 states. Forty-eight hours later on Thursday Mar 12th, only three remained: Alabama, Idaho, and West Virginia.
But on Friday, Alabama confirmed its first six cases spread over six different counties. Idaho did the same a few hours later as a conference-goer returned from New York with the virus. What’s more, Puerto Rico reported its first three cases the same day, leaving only West Virginia (and some US territories) as COVID-19-free.
But WV state officials believe their first reported infection is a matter of when, not if. “We know it’s here,” West Virginia Governor Jim Justice told reporters on Friday. “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.”
While the state has yet to report any cases, it has been preparing for the inevitable arrival. On Friday, Gov Justice ordered all K-12 public and private schools in the state to shut down, joining 18 other statewide school closings in the US.
(Washington DC, Los Angeles, San Diego, Denver, Houston, and San Francisco are just a few of the major US cities that have ordered their school districts to close. Notably, New York City schools have not announced closures.)
The WV school closings begin Monday Mar 16 until Mar 31 at the earliest, but Justice said it would last “as long as we have to close the schools.”
“There are real benefits to keeping those schools open,” Justice said, referring to the daily meals provided to children by the schools. But “the risk outweighs the good,” he said, asking if the public health situation deteriorated quickly, “How are you gonna answer the question ‘why did you wait?'”
Also on Friday, the US Department of Agriculture approved a waiver for the West Virginia Office of Child Nutrition to prepare to feed children meals following the Summer Food Service Program and National School Lunch Program Seamless Summer Option guidelines if West Virginia schools close due to the coronavirus outbreak, according to US Senator Joe Manchin’s office.
The approval will allow the state to feed roughly 120,000 children who receive free school meals. “I am glad [the USDA] agrees this is an urgent matter and hope that this will help our state leaders make the right decisions to protect all West Virginians from this virus, including closing our schools if necessary,” Manchin in a press release announcing the waiver.
At his press conference on Friday, Gov Justice recognized that the “monster” of COVID-19 was looming but urged his state to continue working and living their lives and helping one another. “Let’s, as West Virginia, rally around and try to help every single one of our neighbors … and we’re gonna beat this doggone thing, I promise you that.”