There are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Southern West Virginia. However, state and local leaders are taking action to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.

In a news release Saturday evening, Gov. Jim Justice and the state Department of Education announced a minimum amount of time that schools will be physically closed to students: at least through March 27. All extracurricular activities have also been canceled.

All public school employees are expected to return to work starting Thursday and Friday. County school systems will determine staffing requirements after that.

Justice said a question kept coming back to him when he was considering closing schools: “What if we awaken to a situation where we’ve lost a lot of our elderly people? How are you going to answer the question of why did you wait?”

He said schools are “a breeding ground, we know that, and they can go right straight back and go to their grandparents and whatever it may be and cause a real lot of problems.”

Children and staff members can be carriers of the virus to particularly vulnerable people, including the elderly and those with chronic health problems.

President Donald Trump has urged people to stop the panic-buying of grocery staples that has depleted store shelves nationwide.

Mingo BOE’s planIn Mingo County, NTI packets and assignments will be used this week starting Thursday. Student meals may be picked up at any school location from 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Monday-Tuesday March 16-17. Delivery of student meals will happen along bus routes starting Wednesday, March 18. Times and locations had not been announced as of press time. Visit the Mingo County Board of Education Facebook for updated information.

Instructional materials are expected to be delivered for the week of March 23, either at school locations, during food distribution or online. Kindergarten and preschool registration are postponed indefinitely.

Spring break, which was planned for March 30-April 3, is expected to still be observed, but no meals will be provided that week, according to the Mingo County Board of Education.

More help for students

Volunteer groups and restaurants are also working to help students.

The Mingo County STOP Coalition plans to continue with its Backpack Blessings program. To volunteer, call 304-664-3986.

Students will received free lunches from noon-2 p.m. weekdays at the Larry Joe Harless Community Center Cafe in Gilbert.

Arby’s in South Williamson, Kentucky, is offering a free kids meal with the purchase of a regular value meal (the child must be present).

Smokin’ Pit BBQ in Williamson is offering one free kids meal per day between noon and 4 p.m. (Child must be present).

SWVCTC’s plan As of press time Monday, Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College is still conducting face-to-face classes, and activities remain on schedule.

Spring break is slated for this week, with all classes at all locations resuming Monday, March 23. However, this is subject to change according to the situation.

WHWCH’s planThe Williamson Health & Wellness Center advised if patients are concerned about keeping a scheduled appointment to call 304-236-5902 and reschedule. The center will also send in a month’s supply of maintenance prescriptions, if requested. The Patient Portal can be accessed from Williamsonhealthwellness.com.

Court guidelinesThe Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia issued guidelines last week to help courts run as smoothly as possible while also addressing concerns about the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

The protocol encourages the court systems to postpone court proceedings that are not time sensitive, while also using available technology — such as phone and video calls — to minimize the amount of people coming in contact with each other. The Supreme Court is encouraging judges to schedule dockets to limit the number of people gathering in large crowds.

Supreme Court Administrative Director Joe Armstrong said the protocol was carefully crafted based on guidance from federal and state officials and others.

“It is intended to balance health and safety concerns with the need to continue to provide an essential service to the citizens of the state,” he said in a letter. “We will continue to closely monitor the circumstances and will update and/or modify this plan as needed. Likewise, depending on future events, it may be necessary to take additional steps limited to a certain county, circuit or region.”

Following Gov. Jim Justice’s announcement of a travel ban for state employees, the Supreme Court has ordered out-of-state travel temporarily canceled, except in special circumstances, which must be approved.

Kentucky plansOn Monday, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear ordered bars and restaurant dine-in services to close in another effort to curb the spread of coronavirus as the state reported its first death from the illness.

All Kentucky schools are closed until March 27, but that could be extended.

Beshear also recommended the temporary closure of senior centers to protect elderly residents from the virus, but said efforts are underway to ensure they continue receiving meals provided by the centers.

AEP pitching in American Electric Power is temporarily suspending all disconnections for non-payment as the coronavirus continues to spread, according to a March 13 news release.

“We know our customers are concerned about their families and ensuring they have reliable electric service allows them to focus on staying healthy and well. AEP is committed to doing what we can to help our customers, our employees, and the communities we serve navigate this uncertain time,” the release said.

Virus basicsVisit coronavirus.wv.gov, or call the state’s 24/7 toll free hotline at 1-800-887-4304.

What is the coronavirus and COVID-19?COVID-19 is a respiratory illness is caused by the new coronavirus. The World Health Organization has deemed the virus a global pandemic. The virus was first detected in China at the end of 2019 and has since spread to more than 100 countries globally. On March 13, President Donald Trump declared a national state of emergency in response to the coronavirus.

What are symptoms of COVID-19?Common symptoms include coughing, fever and shortness of breath. The symptoms occur 2-14 days after initial exposure to the virus.

Who is most at-risk to contract the virus?People over the age of 60 and those of any age with underlying medical conditions — including heart disease, respiratory illnesses, lung conditions and diabetes — are at higher risk of contracting the virus and suffering the most severe symptoms.

Per the CDC, children are not at a higher risk of contracting the virus than adults. Most reported cases globally have been adults. While children may show mild symptoms (similar to a cold) or no symptoms, they can pass the virus on to more vulnerable people.

What do I do if I have symptoms?If you believe you are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, or that you’ve been in contact with someone who has the virus, call your health care provider or local health department before visiting. Calling first will ensure people who may be infected do not pass the virus on to others in a waiting room or around the facility.

Tell your doctor what your symptoms are, how long you’ve had them and if you’ve traveled to or been around anyone who has traveled to a location with a heightened rate of infection. Your doctor should work with you to set up testing if they believe it’s necessary, or instruct you on other steps to can take, including ruling out other illnesses like the flu.

Who is being tested and what is the procedure for testing?West Virginia has one testing kit currently available, and health leaders expect to receive more as the federal government (through the CDC) provides them. Each kit can run up to 500 samples.

Individuals who are deemed “high risk” are currently the only ones being tested by the state. These are people who are showing symptoms of the virus and who have recently traveled to places with higher infection rates, as well as individuals who suffer from severe underlying conditions that may weaken the immune system and make them more susceptible for infection.

Where do I need to go to be tested; can my PCP test me or do I need to go to a hospital?Your primary care provider can either direct you where to go to be tested, or take the sample themselves and send it to the testing facility. If you have been directed to be tested by the state, the sample will go to DHHR’s Office of Laboratory Services, in South Charleston, to be checked.

Hospitals currently do not have testing kits on hand, but some hold contracts with private companies, like LabCorp, which could run a test by request.

If I need to be tested, how is it paid for?For anyone considered “high risk,” testing is free. Your doctor, however, may charge you for a visit if they take your sample or if you receive other care during this visit.

If you are a state employee covered by the Public Employee Insurance Agency, testing for those who meet the state’s guidelines or for those who request it through an approved network provider will be free of charge. Per the agency: “Deductibles, copayments and coinsurance will also be waived for any physician or facility services incurred in the process of being tested.”

If you’re on PEIA and test positive for COVID-19, care will be covered at “normal benefit levels.”

If you’re uninsured but believe you need to be tested, work with your local health department or a free clinic to be connected to the necessary services.

If you are not deemed “high risk” but are requesting testing from a private lab, call your insurance provider to understand the costs.

Can I request to be tested for COVID-19?People not deemed “high risk” by the DHHR but who would like to be tested can do so through the private lab company LabCorp, which is currently the only private lab in the state verified to test samples. Call your primary care physician to ask how you can access this testing.

More private labs are also in the process of being verified to offer testing within West Virginia.

Is COVID-19 the same as the flu?No. On an international level, experts know less about COVID-19 than the flu, which has been around for hundreds of years.

COVID-19, so far, can spread to more people than the flu. More than 3% of confirmed cases nationally have proved fatal, according to the WHO, while only an average of .1% of flu sufferers die each year.

There is also no vaccine available for the new coronavirus, while there is one for the flu.

While the flu and COVID-19 are very different, people can lessen the spread in similar ways — wash your hands regularly, disinfect common spaces, cover coughs and sneezes, and stay home if you believe you’re sick.

Should I be avoiding large crowds/staying at home?The state is recommending that individuals at risk — older people and those with underlying diseases — strongly consider staying away from large groups and crowded events.

Others should make their own decisions by weighing the risk or benefits of attending events. If you’re sick however, stay home.

Many events and large gatherings in the state have been canceled by organizers to try and lessen the likelihood of the virus spreading. If you have plans coming up, call the venue or event organizer to see if the event is still happening.

If you are staying home, know that the West Virginia Public Service Commission is “urging” all the state’s public utilities to suspend service terminations for any reason, with exceptions for emergencies, over the coming weeks.

How can I avoid infection?Regularly wash your hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds. If water and soap are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.

Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue and throw the tissue away immediately after. If there isn’t a tissue available, use your elbow, not your hands. Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a cleaning spray or wipes.

When and if the illness does become more common in West Virginia, leaders may encourage residents to practice “social distancing,” which according to the CDC, means “remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance” from others when possible to limit the risk of being infected.

Where can I get trustworthy information about COVID-19?There’s a lot of inaccurate information spreading about COVID-19. Make sure your sources are factual. You can double-check anything you read or are told by checking with the CDC or WHO.

What services have been affected?Visitation at West Virginia correctional facilities is currently banned. Lawyers meeting with clients can still do so, however are urged to set up video conferencing if possible. Lawrence Messina, spokesman for the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, said the department is in talks with vendors to waive or lessen fees for inmates using tablets or phones to contact their loved ones.

On Thursday, Justice requested all nursing homes in the state ban visitations with the exception of those with life-ending illnesses.

Several shows and concerts have been canceled in the state due to the illness’ spread.

How long should I take precautions?Unfortunately, there’s no way to know how long COVID-19 will be around. Individuals should stay up-to-date with precautionary measures announced by the state DHHR and national CDC as the situation develops in West Virginia and around the country.