Editor’s note: This story was updated on Tuesday, March 31 with comments from additional health officials.
by Kate Shunney
The head of the Berkeley-Morgan County Health Department confirmed Sunday the first positive test of COVID-19 in a Morgan County resident.
That is the disease caused by the new coronavirus that has spread globally, causing a world health crisis.
Bill Kearns, administrator of the combined health departments, said he was alerted to the positive test of the disease caused by the coronavirus on Sunday morning. March 29. Early Sunday, the case had not shown up on the state’s official DHHR case report but Kearns said testing around the state is being reported most rapidly where there are “hot spots”, as in Monongalia and Kanawha County. Test results from other sources are being reported less quickly.
The first confirmed case in Morgan County came from reports from the state lab, said Kearns. Not all tests from private laboratories are being reported the same way, he said.
Chief Health Officer Dr. Terrence Reidy said the local test results, which he receives directly, are no surprise.
“The only surprise is that it wasn’t until now,” he said.
“We sort of had our hopes that hills would keep it away, but it doesn’t work like that. People travel here from all over,” Reidy said.
Public health officials in West Virginia are following the lead of medical experts in other states, Kearns said, in estimating what one confirmed COVID-19 case means in a community.
One confirmed test can often represent 10 other cases in the community that may or may not have been confirmed.
“When you look at that one, you can multiply that by 10,” he said.
According to Dr. Reidy, current testing methods can’t show the real number of people who have been infected by the coronavirus and developed the COVID-19 respiratory illness.
He said medical personnel are now working on the assumption that if a patient has a respiratory illness, they have been exposed to the virus.
“My assumption is you have COVID unless proven otherwise,” he said.
Not every person who becomes ill with a fever or cough will seek medical care, Kearns and Reidy noted. Many will simply stay home and take care of symptoms themselves.
COVID testing is limited to those who have specific clinical symptoms tied to the disease, including fever, cough, sore throat and likely exposure.
Reidy said tests are being done all over the region – at Berkeley Medical Center, Winchester Medical Center, Meritus Health. Results from those tests are reported to the state where the patient lives, so health departments can track them.
Tracking other contacts
Reidy declined to give any specific information about the Morgan County resident who tested positive for the disease – not their gender, age or town of residence.
Once a COVID-19 case is confirmed by testing, Health Department officials work with the patient to determine who they have had close contact with recently, and alert those individuals, said Kearns.
“That starts tracking who might be symptomatic and who might need to be tested,” he said. “We’ll touch base with family and close contacts, and make daily contact with the positive case to check their temperature and symptoms.”
Dr. Reidy said his staff also checks to see if the patient is staying in quarantine and following rules about how to avoid spreading the virus.
If individuals who are ill stay at home and treat their own symptoms, that’s often in line with recommendations from doctors about how to treat the disease. Patients who have those symptoms should also isolate themselves from other family members, use a designated bathroom that no one member of the household uses, and stay isolated until they improve. If a patient starts to experience respiratory distress, or trouble breathing, that’s when they need medical intervention.
Reidy has talked to several patients who are already recovering from COVID-19 illness and said some describe it as getting better after a few days, but remaining tired, as happens with the flu.
He said for most people, the illness will not be life-threatening. But remaining apart from one another will protect very vulnerable people from developing severe cases, and will enable medical workers to keep up with caseloads.
Those who are sick should stay home unless they need medical care. Everyone else should stay home, too, said Reidy.
Widespread testing isn’t a top priority, Reidy said. Instead, physicians are looking to test people who are already sick to determine the best course of treatment and to guide isolation from others.
Stop the spread
Kearns reminded the public that if they call 911 for assistance and have any fever, cough or sore throat, they should alert 911 officials so that first responders can wear the appropriate protective gear to avoid getting or spread the virus. That’s one way to protect EMS and law enforcement personnel, he said.
Health department officials said Morgan County residents should keep practicing social distancing — staying apart from groups and crowds — and continue the top hygiene recommendations to reduce virus spread. Those top steps are washing hands and keeping hands away from the face.
“Nothing replaces soap and water to fight it,” Kearns said.
Those who are ill should stay away from others for at least 14 days. Those who aren’t sick should also reduce stay apart to stop the movement of the virus.
“If you’re not sick – stay home. Just like a fire, this will keep burning if it has fuel. We’re the fuel,” Dr. Reidy said.