West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and his health officials agree on one thing: There's a coronavirus hot spot in the state's eastern panhandle. What they couldn't get consensus on was where exactly it's happening or whether it was linked to one particular retail chain.
The governor's daily virus briefing broke down Friday as he and his own administration contradicted each other on details about a virus hotspot of at least 60 positives across two counties, appearing to work out the specifics during a live-streamed news conference.
Justice, who has previously drawn criticism for holding confusing news conferences, said details of the outbreak in Jefferson and Berkeley counties reached his ears just before he addressed the public.
“From what I’ve been fed so far, I was told some information about a Hobby Lobby but y'all can elaborate please,” he asked, marking the second time he mentioned the craft store.
Cathy Slemp, a state health officer, walked that back.
“The preliminary information I've got is that it’s not specific to an individual community, so that’s why we are looking at this in terms of a larger geographic location,” she said, adding that they believe the cases were caused by community spread.
Hobby Lobby issued a statement Friday saying it was closing all of its stores.
In response to a question asking for more specific locations, Justice asked his health officials if there was anything they could say on what towns or cities were seeing the spike.
“I mean, I think it’d be really helpful to those people in those counties if we could say that, you know, we had more cases or we had a lot of cases in Martinsburg or whatever it may be,” he said.
Slemp again countered, saying “we have enough to know that it is transmitting within the community across a large geographic area.”
The back-and-forth came to a close when Clay Marsh, a high-ranking West Virginia University health official tapped as the state's coronavirus czar, said the situation was still fresh and that more details would soon be shared.
“Everyone’s sitting on the edge of their seat nonstop, including me,” the governor said.
At least 237 people in West Virginia have the virus, with 6,367 tests performed, according to health officials. Two people have died, an 88-year-old Marion County woman and a Jackson County resident with several underlying health issues.
Justice, a billionaire with no previous political experience, has declared a state of emergency, issued a stay-home order and directed all non-essential businesses to close. He has also pushed back the primary election from May 12 to June 9, citing fears about the coronavirus spreading at polling places, and extended school closures statewide until at least April 30.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks, and the overwhelming majority of people recover. But severe cases can need respirators to survive, and with infections spreading exponentially, hospitals across the country are either bracing for a coming wave of patients, or already struggling to keep up.
Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak