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W.Va. Adds Fifth Color to County Map System

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A fifth color has been added to the color-coded county map that is being used by the state to determine each county’s ability to conduct in-person learning, and participate in extracurricular-activities.

In a media-briefing held on Tuesday, September 15, Governor Jim Justice announced that the color gold has been added in an effort to tighten the margin between yellow and orange.

The color-coded county map utilized by the W.Va. Board of Education is modeled after the ‘Harvard scale.’ This is an interactive, color-coded map designed by Harvard University to assist public-officials with understanding the threat-level faced by different communities due to COVID-19. The scale is based on cases per 100,000 residents on a rolling seven-day average, and assigns 1 of 4 color-designations (green, yellow, orange or red) depending upon the level of outbreak in a specific area.

Concern over the use of the scale stems primarily from the range between the two middle colors of yellow and orange. Before the inclusion of the fifth color, a county would be designated as yellow if they had between 3.1 and 9.9 active cases within the seven-day period. Counties with between 10 and 24.9 cases would be designated orange, resulting in the suspension of in-person learning, and extracurricular-activities. The feeling has been that counties with 11 or 12 cases are much closer to yellow than they are to red. And with over 67,000 West Virginia students unable to physically attend school this week, the decision was made to amend the model.

“Just because we had a good plan doesn’t mean we can’t make it better,” Gov. Justice said. “The orange color-code … the delta between the minimum and the maximum is just frankly too wide.”

Justice said that a county with 11 positive cases cannot be viewed the same as a county with 22, because the difference is too dramatic.

“Just think about this for a second: we’ve got 67,000 of our kids that aren’t in school, and we’ve got 15,000 of them who are special needs kids. If we can safely get some of those kids back in school, should we not try to do just that? Should we not continue to try and change and adapt and make our system even better and better? Well I think so,” Justice said.

The governor believes that with the addition of the fifth color “we’ve come upon a system that is slightly tweaked but absolutely better.”

Also present at the briefing was Dr. Clay Marsh, West Virginia’s COVID-19 Czar.

“We are learning in real time. There has never been a public-health map that could do exactly what we need it to,” Marsh said.

There were two things which W.Va. has learned since implementing the Harvard scale, the first being how “the model actually began working in the opposite direction,” Marsh said.

As counties would move through the different colors of the scale, a marked decrease was seen in that county’s level of testing. Dr. Marsh attributed this to counties feeling that less testing leads to fewer cases, thereby helping that county slide back down the scale to a more desirable color. The second significant takeaway is that the model, although agreed upon by Harvard experts, is more applicable to states with a more-even populace, and far less rural.

Dr. Marsh said that adding the fifth color “really will start to operate in two ways. One way is we continue to look at the infected-rate with the addition of the gold color, which will start to separate counties that are closer to the yellow versus the counties that are closer to the red, and then facilitate and try to help them reduce their spread. And the second thing we’ll do is we’re going to add a percent-positive rate that will also operate on the seven day rolling average. If your positive-rate goes to 5% or less over a seven day average, if you’re a larger county, then we will use that as an alternate method to measure safety to be able to get back into the gold.”

“So there are two ways for counties to get into the gold. One is to have their infection-rate go down, which is what we’re hoping happens. But number-two is to have that percent-positive rate go down,” Marsh said to incentivize county residents to get tested. “The more you test, the lower that number starts to go down.”

The gold color designation is identified as ‘elevated community transmission.’ A county will be classified as gold if there are between 10 and 14.9 cases of COVID-19 identified per 100,000 residents in a rolling 7-day period. Additional restrictions imposed upon gold counties include postponement or cancellation of assemblies or large group activities. Attendance of athletic or other extracurricular-activities will be limited to parents/guardians only. And athletic competition may only take place within the county, or with other counties also designated as gold.

Gov. Justice believes the addition of the fifth color “provides some level of hope,” by making more counties eligible for in-person learning and extracurricular-activities.

“There is no question that we should adapt and change, but it’s gotta be safe. It’s gotta be safe for our kids, it’s gotta be safe for our teachers, and it’s gotta be safe for our service personnel. It just has to be safe,” Justice said.

The Gov. further stated that the new gold color is in effect as of Tuesday, September 15. However, it is at the discretion of each county’s school Superintendent whether it will be implemented immediately, or with the Saturday evening update of the color-coded county map.

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