by Kate Shunney
Editor’s note: This online story was edited to reflect the announcement late Tuesday that West Virginia had its first confirmed case of the virus.
Public life in Morgan County changed swiftly late last week, as state and then local officials took decisive action to implement public health measures to protect against the community spread of a novel coronavirus that causes severe respiratory illness in vulnerable people.
Public events, large gatherings and even daily activities that bring large numbers of people into contact with one another have been curbed here, with cancellations unfolding by the hour.
Last Thursday morning, Morgan County Commissioners were briefed on regional preparations to deal with expected illnesses from COVID-19. At that time, no widespread local measures were in place to direct the public’s activities. By Thursday afternoon, several public events had been postponed, including extracurricular school activities.
By Friday, March 13, Gov. Jim Justice closed all West Virginia schools and state agencies began announcing other restrictions on public interactions, meant to keep people from gathering unnecessarily. Local agencies have followed suit.
Public health officials have advised communities all across the U.S. to take steps to reduce the transmission of the highly-contagious virus. While the disease it causes can be mild in healthy individuals, COVID-19 can rapidly become severe respiratory illness in older people and those with underlying medical conditions.
Gov. Justice cited that fact as a particular reason for caution and prevention in West Virginia, where the elderly population is high and health issues widespread.
At press time, West Virginia was the only U.S. state without a confirmed case of COVID-19. On Tuesday evening, March 17, Gov. Justice announced that the state had identified its first confirmed case. He said that case is in the Eastern Panhandle, but didn’t specify which county. Public officials have said it’s likely the virus is circulating here and will continue to spread.
Many Morgan County church congregations announced over last weekend they would not hold in-person services for the foreseeable future. The step is meant to keep individuals from gathering, especially where church members might be older or infirm.
On Monday, March 16 the Morgan County Commission announced they were asking members of the public to conduct county business without coming to the county courthouse or other county facilities, if possible.
“Should you still wish to visit the courthouse, you will be subject to screening prior to entering our facilities,” county officials said in a press release.
Residents are urged to call county offices to request alternative ways to conduct business, from paying property taxes, fines or fees, registering to vote or seeking county permits. Some services can be accessed online at www.morgancountywv.gov. The Morgan County Commission can be reached at 304-258-8540.
The Berkeley Springs-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce cancelled all of their events for the month of March.
Several local businesses have also made the decision to close, change their hours or business practices. Roy’s Service Center, for example, announced they would offer limited local delivery of convenience items and food to those who didn’t want to venture out.
Some restaurants have offered take-out, curbside and home delivery of meals to customers who want to avoid dining with others.
Many public service agencies have adjusted their hours or policies to reduce social contact for at least the next two weeks.
West Virginia agencies are being asked to avoid holding in-person conferences or meetings. Cacapon State Park will not host conferences or meetings, for example.
Late Monday afternoon, Gov. Justice declared a State of Emergency for all 55 counties of West Virginia.
That follows a national declaration of a State of Emergency by President Trump.
Local residents are being urged to turn to reliable sources of information for guidance on how to remain healthy and help minimize the spread of the coronavirus.
West Virginia DHHR has set up a hotline for COVID-19 questions at 1-800-887-4304. Their website contains in-depth information about the disease and how to handle any suspected cases: https://dhhr.wv.gov/COVID-19.
Public health officials continue to say that basic hygiene is highly effective for the general population. They emphasize regular hand-washing, not sharing food or items, keeping hands away from the face and sanitizing frequently-used surfaces as key steps to avoiding infection and spreading of this virus and other disease.
Here are some of the agencies that have adjusted their service hours or practices locally:
Eastern Panhandle Empowerment Center (EPEC), a domestic violence agency, is working remotely for the next two weeks to promote social distancing. Referrals can still be made 24/7 by calling the helpline at 304-263-8292.
Starting Points Meal Time Kitchen at the Senior Life Services building will continue to operate, but asks patrons not to enter the building to pick up meals. Pull up at the kitchen entrance on the south side of the building and a staff member will bring meals out to a vehicle. Call 304-258-5600 with questions.
Senior Life Services will no longer host lunches or gatherings at their center in Berkeley Springs or pick up clients for meals through their transportation service. Seniors can continue to receive meals by delivery. Call 304-258-3096 for the Berkeley Springs center or 304-947-7922 for the Paw Paw center for more information.
Morgan County Public Library is closed to the public. They can be reached at 304-258-3350.
Morgan County Little League has suspended all activities until further notice.
Residents are encourage to check with offices, businesses, churches and service agencies about their hours of operation and policies during the next two weeks.