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West Virginia Headlines

West Virginia vaccinations slow down as fewer step forward

By CUNEYT DIL Associated Press
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia’s coronavirus vaccination drive is slowing down as fewer people come forward to get shots, the governor said Friday.
The administration rate of vaccine supply in the state is about 85%, down from higher figures early in the year when the state momentarily led the nation in most people vaccinated.
“That is incredibly low as a percentage,” Republican Gov. Jim Justice said at a news conference. “And I will promise you state after state is running significantly ahead of us, because we don’t have arms to get it in people right now.”
All five states that border West Virginia now have a higher rate of doses administered per 100,000 residents, according to federal data.
State data show that 38.1% of the state’s 1.78 million residents have received at least one vaccine dose. Nearly 27% are fully inoculated against the virus that has killed 2,777 people so far in West Virginia.
The current situation is a far cry from two months ago, when demand for vaccines in the Mountain State outstripped supply and the governor was pleading to the federal government to receive more doses. Officials claimed they could administer 125,000 shots a week.
“We continue to have plenty of availability of vaccines,” said James Hoyer, a retired major general leading the state’s coronavirus task force. “It takes us longer each week to get those vaccines in arms not because of the logistics, but because of people getting to those vaccines.”
The state is hosting vaccination events for businesses, churches and clubs. Those interested in requesting a clinic can call the state hotline at 1-833-734-0965.
Vaccine eligibility opened up to all residents aged 16 and over a month ago.
Justice acknowledged a divide in the U.S. between conservative and liberal states on vaccine progress. “There are more people in red states that are hesitant,” he said. “We really need to be listening to the experts.”
A high school girls basketball coach, Justice said he was “dumbfounded” to learn that no one on his team took up the offer to be vaccinated when recently offered. Then he said a freshman was diagnosed with COVID-19.
West Virginia has followed the federal recommendation to pause the use of Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose vaccine regimen after six cases of a rare blood clotting issue were discovered. Officials have said they have not found such a case in the state, and urged people to take shots from Moderna and Pfizer, which both require two doses.
Justice has aimed to dispel myths and rumors about the vaccine during his regularly scheduled news conference. On a recent afternoon outside his apartment building, Charleston resident Michael O’Farrell, 77, said taking a shot was a “no brainer” for him after growing up in the era of the polio vaccine.
He said those hesitant should see it as a sort of citizen’s obligation. “You have to ask, what about my loved ones? Is it ethical that I’m going to decide I’m going to pose a risk to other people? And I think the answer is no.”
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Follow AP’s coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.

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West Virginia Headlines

8 WVa schools targeted for closing, contingent on funding

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Eight public schools in four West Virginia counties have been targeted for closing, contingent on those counties receiving state funding to consolidate schools.
The state Board of Education on Thursday approved the closing of Fall River, Kimball and Welch elementary schools in McDowell County; Fort Ashby Primary, Wiley Ford Primary and Frankfort Intermediate in Mineral County; Buffalo Elementary School in Wayne County, and Cedar Grove Middle School in Kanawha County.
The closings were earlier approved by local boards of education. They are contingent on funding approval from the state School Building Authority, which is set to meet next Monday in Charleston, The Charleston Gazette-Mail reported.
The authority receives more requests for funding from county school systems every year than it can accommodate.
A new McDowell County elementary school is planned on 350 acres near Mount View High School. In Mineral County, a consolidated primary school would be built in the Frankfort area.
Wayne County would tear down the elementary school and expand an adjacent middle school that would house prekindergarten through eighth graders.
Kanawha County’s plan would renovate Cedar Grove Middle School as a new elementary school and send middle school students to DuPont Middle School.

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West Virginia Headlines

West Virginia gov signs needle exchange program regulations

By JOHN RABY Associated Press
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice on Thursday signed a bill to introduce more stringent requirements to needle exchange programs that critics say will make it harder to get clean needles amid a spike in HIV cases in the state.
The bill won legislative approval on the final day of the session Saturday.
In urging Justice to reject the bill, the American Civil Liberties Union’s West Virginia chapter had sent the Republican governor a letter Wednesday on behalf of nearly 300 doctors, nurses, recovery coaches, clergy and others who work with people directly affected by injection drug use. The letter said the bill will wipe out exchange programs and result in more lives lost. West Virginia has by far the nation’s highest death rate from drug overdoses.
The bill “is premised on fear and stigma,” the letter said. “West Virginians need leadership grounded in compassion and science.
“This is no less a public health crisis. Many, many, more will die if this cruel legislation is enacted into law.”
The bill requires licenses for syringe collection and distribution programs. Operators would have to offer an array of health outreach services, including overdose prevention education and substance abuse treatment program referrals. Participants also must show an identification card to get a syringe.
Supporters said the legislation would help those addicted to opioids get connected to health care services fighting substance abuse. Some Republicans said the changes were necessary because some needle exchange programs were “operating so irresponsibly” that they were causing syringe litter.
One provision would require syringes to be marked with the program passing them out. Another provision would give local governments the authority to bar certain groups or providers from setting up a needle exchange program.
Justice has said the bill was a compromise.
“We’ve got now a situation where we have people who can dispense this through a registration process, and … we won’t hopefully have needles just laying around all over the place,” he said at a news conference last week.
The new rules take effect amid one of the nation’s highest spikes in HIV cases related to intravenous drug use. The surge, clustered primarily around the capital of Charleston and the city of Huntington, is being attributed at least in part to the cancellation in 2018 of a needle exchange program.
City leaders and first responders complained that the program in Kanawha County led to an increase in needles being left in public places and abandoned buildings, and it was shut down.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes syringe programs as “safe, effective, and cost-saving.”
Last week U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin submitted a congressional inquiry with the CDC regarding the county’s HIV outbreak. The West Virginia Democrat asked for the inquiry on behalf of the Kanawha County Commission two months after a CDC official warned that the county’s outbreak was “the most concerning in the United States.”
As recently as 2014, only 12.5% of HIV cases in West Virginia were the result of intravenous drug use. By 2019, 64.2% were, according to state health department data. The increase was due primarily to clusters in Kanawha and Cabell counties

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West Virginia Headlines

First concert in over a year to be held in Huntington

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) — Live music will return to Huntington for the first time in over a year on Friday for a concert that will mark the city’s 150th anniversary.
The Herald-Dispatch reports that doors will open at John C. Edwards Stadium an hour before the performance begins at 7:30 p.m.
It will be the first major musical event held by the Marshall Artists Series since the beginning of the pandemic.
Angela Jones, a spokesperson for the series, told the Herald-Dispatch the “Mountain Stage” concert will feature local indie-rock band Ona.
“It’s been a while for people, and to be able to do something in the Joan C. Edwards Stadium is super exciting for us because it’s a new venue for us to do any kind of entertainment,” Jones told the paper.
Seating will be socially distanced and tickets are $60.

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Deaf, vision services hope to grow with Unity Campaign help

By COLIN MCGUIRE, The Journal
MARTINSBURG, W.Va. (AP) — When Mary Ann Jividen moved to West Virginia, she fully expected that there would be services available for deaf people to utilize throughout the area. With only two hours separating her and Washington D.C., it felt like a foregone conclusion.
Shocked to find the Eastern Panhandle devoid of any such services, Jividen, who is deaf herself, took matters into her own hands.
“I was so surprised,” she said in a recent interview. “So, in 2017, I started to build everything through word of mouth.”
What she built was Eastern Panhandle Deaf Alliances, Inc., which “strives to provide the services to Deaf, Hard of Hearing, Deaf-Blind, and Late-Deafened to improve the quality of their lives,” according to the group’s Facebook page. In addition to that, the group provides case management, deaf advocacy, community education, interpreter advocacy, early family services and senior citizens services to those who need it.
It’s been four years since Jividen hatched her idea, and this year, the organization is part of the Unity Campaign, which is organized by the United Way of the Eastern Panhandle and aims to raise money for area nonprofits that service the community.
With the money raised this year, Jividen said she hopes to be able to pay for a proper website for the organization in order to help communicate with clients and spread the word of the service, among other things.
“We need to expand services,” she explained. “We only have a few programs like communication education, family services, information and referrals. We need to expand that, and we need to add additional information in the form of a website, as opposed to Facebook. So we need to be able to grow more, so we can reach a larger audience.”
Part of that growth includes working with Jefferson Community Ministries. It was there where Kasey Walsh began working as the department head for case management in February. Fairly new to the job, she received an elderly client who was deaf and brought into JCC in an emergency situation. Quick on her feet, Walsh contacted a friend who knows interpretation. That friend ultimately connected Walsh with Jividen.
From there, Jividen set up a way for Walsh to utilize video chat software on her computer, diffusing a potentially disastrous situation for not just Walsh, but also Jefferson County Ministries.
“Mary Ann was so helpful, because the first time I met the client, we had to write down things, because I had no way to communicate with her,” Walsh recalled. “I was talking to the interpreter on the phone, and Mary Ann would sign to the client what I was saying. The communication was so much better. We got her the help that she needed. She felt very grateful that we were able to do that — that both my agency and Mary Ann’s were able to work together to make her feel more comfortable.
“She had no idea their organization even existed,” Walsh continued. “It’s really important, because I’m sure she has felt very lonely not having people like her within the deaf community. It was really one of those good wins for the day. It was just a really joyful experience with Mary Ann. Without her, I don’t know that I would have been able to get the client the help that she needed.”
According to Jividen, a crucial element for the alliances’ ability to help those in need comes in the form of Wavello, a video call system where everyone from the deaf person, to the hearing person, to the interpreter, can be seen. The technology played a key role in the organization navigating its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, as Jividen noted that she hasn’t seen an increase in need throughout the deaf community over the last year.
“Thank God for technology,” she said. “Many people needed help way before the pandemic started. They were lost in the dark, trying to find help, and they reached out for a number of reasons. All the social things were put on hold, so it’s been very quiet, but we were fortunate to have the video phone for the deaf, so they can see one another and chat. And I believe that helps their mental health. … The video phone allows the deaf people to reach out to the hearing community.”
While the Shenandoah Community Health Foundation doesn’t offer services for the hearing impaired, it is in the process of developing a vision program for its patients. Tina Burns, director of resource development for the foundation, explained recently that being part of this year’s Unity Campaign will hopefully help the organization raise enough money to purchase the equipment needed for diabetic eye screening.
The idea for the program came as the foundation realized that about 10% of its patients in 2020 had diabetes, and as it goes, many of those patients don’t receive the recommended dilated eye exam, which is suggested to those who suffer from diabetes because of the loss of vision that the disease oftentimes causes.
The eye screening, Burns said, would be able to identify whether there is an issue with the eyes that needs to be followed up on, and the screening would be done under the foundation’s supervision. The images would then be transmitted to an off-site ophthalmologist and in return, the foundation would receive a report outlining if there’s evidence of vision issues that they need to be addressed.
To get the program up and running, Burns said she hopes to raise $10,000 for the equipment to do the screening. According to the CDC, 50% of diabetics don’t receive the vision screening they need, and the progression of vision loss as a diabetic ages can become significant if it goes untreated.
“A high percentage of our patients have diabetes,” Burns said. “Many just don’t go to have their vision checked. We serve a lot of patients who have limited income or are uninsured. Even the ones who have Affordable Care Act coverage, the co-pays can be pretty high. The ACA is a wonderful program, as long as you fall in the ‘sweet spot.’ For people who fall just over what we call the ”sweet spot, they can have pretty high deductibles. And with this, in the long run, it’s going to cost more anyway, so we really need to do preventive work now.”
Roy Hess has been going to the foundation for diabetic treatment for more than 15 years. Seeing a doctor once a month for his diabetes, he initially thought he had a kidney issue before the nurses at Shenandoah discovered he had a diabetes level greater than 500. From there, he’s been going back for treatment ever since they tested his blood level to properly diagnose him.
“Especially when you’re a diabetic, your M.D. wants to know about your eyes,” Hess said. “I’ve had both of my eyes operated on, and the doctor tells me for my age, he’s blown away that every time he checks me, my eyes are as good as they are. They take really good care of me.
“Shenandoah didn’t just change my life, it saved my life,” he added. “I would recommend going there every day of my life. My diabetic nurse keeps me straight and going, because as a diabetic, things get old to you. Every night I put insulin in my body, it gets to be old, and you get tried of it. That’s why a lady like my R.N. keeps me straight and keeps me doing the things I need to be doing. She’s the best. She’s just a tremendous nurse and a teacher.”
When Lisa Marion adopted her daughter, Lily, from China at the age of 7, she knew Lily was deaf, but she also saw a “really cute little girl” to whom she kept coming back when Marion and her husband decided to adopt. Marion knew a little bit of sign language already, and after talking with a friend, she learned that the only thing Lily would need is a set of hearing aids to begin learning language.
Since then, Marion has befriended a lot of those involved with the Eastern Panhandle Deaf Alliances, Inc., and, according to her, they have been extremely helpful as she navigates raising a deaf child. Recently, Lily got to the point where she needed new hearing aids, and as it turns out, children’s hearing aids are not covered by health insurance. As a result, some of the people in the alliances helped Marion find a grant aimed at helping her get the money to purchase the $6,000 hearing aids.
“The people in that organization are friends of mine,” Marion said. “They’ve been very welcoming to me. They teach me and correct me when I make mistakes. It’s all in a more of an informal friendship type of way. They’ve just been a great help.”
Walsh, of the Jefferson County Ministries, agreed, noting that while the alliances keep growing, she would love to see more people know that their services are even available. Most of that, she said, comes in the wake of how swiftly Jividen helped her out last year.
“She responded so quickly,” Walsh said. “They were going to try to send an actual interpreter to our facility to help me with communication, but it was so last minute that no one was available. Nobody was in the area to drive over and do it, and she said, ‘You know what, I’ll do it.’
“That,” Walsh reflected, “that was really amazing.”
Donations can be made to these organizations and other Unity Campaign participants at www.uwayep.org/unitycampaign.

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West Virginia Headlines

Biden plan would spend $16B to clean up old mines, oil wells

By MATTHEW DALY Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden’s $2.3 trillion plan to transform America’s infrastructure includes $16 billion to plug old oil and gas wells and clean up abandoned mines, a longtime priority for Western and rural lawmakers from both parties.
Hundreds of thousands of “orphaned” oil and gas wells and abandoned coal and hardrock mines pose serious safety hazards, while causing ongoing environmental damage. The administration sees the longstanding problem as an opportunity to create jobs and remediate pollution, including greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.
Biden said last week he wants to put pipefitters and miners to work capping the wells “at the same price that they would charge to dig those wells.”
Many of the old wells and mines are located in rural communities that have been hard-hit by the pandemic. Biden’s plan would not only create jobs, but help reduce methane and brine leaks that pollute the air and groundwater. Methane is a powerful contributor to global warming.
The Interior Department has long led efforts to cap orphaned wells — so named because no owner can be found — but does not assess user fees to cover reclamation costs. Bond requirements for well operators, when known, are often inadequate to cover full clean-up costs.
Biden’s plan, which needs approval by Congress, would jump-start the well-capping effort and expand it dramatically.
Similarly, the White House plan would exponentially boost an Abandoned Mine Land program run by Interior that uses fees paid by coal mining companies to reclaim coal mines abandoned before 1977. About $8 billion has been disbursed to states for mine-reclamation projects in the past four decades, but Biden’s plan would ramp up spending sharply.
Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has long pushed to expand the mine-lands program, which he calls crucial to his state.
“It cannot be forgotten that West Virginia coal miners powered our country to greatness,” Manchin said. While many mine lands in coal communities have been reclaimed, “there is still much more work to be done to clean up damage to the land and water in those communities,” he said.
Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the top Republican on the Senate energy panel, ridiculed Biden’s overall plan as “an out-of-control socialist spending spree.”
The proposal “starts with the punishing policies of the Green New Deal and builds back worse from there,” Barrasso said in statement. The plan would hike taxes and “spend trillions of dollars on the left’s radical agenda,” he added.
A spokeswoman said Barrasso has “has been very active in trying to re-evaluate and improve” the Abandoned Mine Land program. Barrasso is working with Manchin and other committee members to “responsibly reauthorize AML fee collection and facilitate reclamation (of mine sites) across the country,” spokeswoman Sarah Durdaller said.
Environmental groups hailed the announcement, saying unplugged wells and abandoned mines pose a significant environmental threat. Some former drilling or mining sites have sat unattended for decades.
“From launching a visionary Civilian Climate Corps and reclaiming abandoned mines and orphaned wells to restoring America’s lands, waters, wetlands, grasslands and coasts, the president’s plan proposes strategic investments that will make communities more resilient and healthier,” said Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation.
An oil industry group said it shares the administration’s goals of safety and environmental stewardship.
“Our industry is fully committed to complying with existing state and federal requirements for abandoned wells” and “will continue to support efforts to plug these wells and further reduce methane emissions,” said Frank Macchiarola, senior vice president of the American Petroleum Institute.
The National Mining Association said it supports the renewed focus on abandoned mine lands, but wanted to see more details. “We’re eager to work with Congress on legislation around the president’s initiative, while bringing reform to the coal AML program and standing up durable, bipartisan solutions on hard-rock” mining sites, spokesman Conor Bernstein said.
Environmental groups and Democrats have called for stronger bonding requirements for oil and gas companies that drill on public lands, as well as changes to bankruptcy law that make it harder for companies to evade responsibility for cleaning up old sites.
“Investing in orphan well clean-up would create good-paying jobs while helping reduce pollution, restore habitat and protect our climate,” said Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., who has introduced legislation to clean up federal sites and strengthen bond requirements for drilling on public lands.

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West Virginia Headlines

Intermediate court system wins approval in WVa legislature

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A bill that would establish an intermediate court system in West Virginia won approval in the Senate on Thursday and awaits the signature of Republican Gov. Jim Justice.
The proposal cleared a key hurdle Tuesday when it passed the House of Delegates, where it has been introduced and stalled in each of the past several years. This year, Republicans hold a supermajority in both chambers and the legislation has mostly received opposition from Democrats. Senators passed the bill on a 21-12 vote.
Critics said the intermediate court system would be wasteful spending and add another layer of government in a time of a tight state budget. They also said the state Supreme Court is not overburdened to the extent the system needs to be expanded.
They argued the money is better spent in areas such as relieving an overburdened foster care system, helping senior citizens, or establishing drug and family courts or a court for abuse and neglect cases.
Supporters of the bill said the lack of an intermediate court system creates unpredictability. A group called West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse said it would “provide relief to the current judiciary, by reviewing civil cases between the circuit court and Supreme Court.”
Nine states currently have no intermediate court system.
The new court would hear appeals of civil judgments from circuit courts as well as decisions from family courts and workers compensation rulings. It would not hear criminal cases.
The House version would create one panel of three judges starting in July 2022. Their salaries would be set at $142,500. Senate versions of the bill would have created two intermediate judicial districts.
“This bill in its current form demonstrators how we’re just playing with fire,” said Sen. Mike Romano, a Democrat from Harrison County, criticizing amendments made to the bill in the House of Delegates. “Here we’ve taken six intermediate court judges and made them three, gone from two divisions to one.”

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West Virginia Headlines

West Virginia University gets grant for high school students

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia University will get $800,000 from the National Science Foundation to recruit underrepresented students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.
The state’s U.S. senators, Democrat Joe Manchin and Republican Shelley Moore Capito announced the funding Wednesday.
The project will include research and education with high school biology students in rural schools, a news release said. Students will study a parasitic orchid species native to Appalachia.
“This project will serve as an educational opportunity for high school students in West Virginia, especially in rural communities where recruitment to STEM is low, and will recruit underrepresented students in STEM including first generation college students,” Manchin said in a statement.
Capito said that the funding will help “students better-understand native plant life in Appalachia.”

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West Virginia Archery in the Schools state tournament held

SOUTH CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Three West Virginia schools have taken top honors in the Archery in the Schools state tournament.
The tournament was held in a virtual format last week due to the coronavirus pandemic. About 770 students from 51 schools participated. Each participant shot 30 arrows at targets from two distances. Scores were submitted online.
Awards were presented to the top three teams and the top 10 male and female individuals in each division, along with the top two overall male and female archers.
Ripley High School won the high school team division, while Elk Elementary Center and Elkview Middle School captured their respective divisions, the Division of Natural Resources said in a news release.
Sophomore Elijah Bryant of Buckhannon-Upshur High School earned the top score among male shooters and Peterstown Middle School student Carolyn Clarkson was the top overall female shooter.
The DNR started the archery program in 2013 with 18 schools. The pandemic forced last year’s tournament to be canceled.

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West Virginia Headlines

3rd family member sentenced in man’s ‘trust game’ murder

WELCH, W.Va. (AP) — A North Carolina woman has been sentenced to the maximum 40 years in prison in a West Virginia “trust game” murder that involved her father and sister.
Anna Marie Choudhary, 33, of Boone, North Carolina, was sentenced Wednesday in McDowell County Circuit Court for her January guilty plea to second-degree murder in the 2019 death of John Thomas McGuire, the Bluefield Daily Telegraph reported.
The body of McGuire, 38, of Owatonna, Minnesota, was found months later in a grave at the now-former residence of Choudhary’s father, Larry Paul McClure Sr., in the McDowell County community of Skygusty.
McClure, 55, of Pendleton, Kentucky, was sentenced last year to life in prison without the chance for parole for first-degree murder. Choudhary’s sister, Amanda Michelle Naylor McClure, 31, of Chisago City, Minnesota, previously received a 40-year sentence for second-degree murder.
According to earlier testimony, Amanda McClure and McGuire, who were in a relationship, were living in Indiana and were having problems with a vehicle. Larry McClure and Choudhary drove there to bring them to West Virginia. All four were using drugs.
Choudhary said at her sentencing that Larry McClure enticed McGuire to play a “trust game” in which McGuire’s feet were tied up. When he tried to get out of the bindings, Amanda McClure hit him in the head with a wine bottle, Choudhary said.
Larry McClure testified that McGuire was tortured for three days. At one point he had a garbage bag placed over his head and, eventually, he was strangled, McClure said. McClure also testified that McGuire was buried in a shallow grave behind his house.