Wednesday night was supposed to be a victory lap for Gov. Jim Justice.
There were three major announcements in the wings. Nucor Corp., a Fortune 150 company, was set to open a steel mill in Mason County and bring an expected 800 jobs. An electric vehicle manufacturer announced it would open a plant to produce zero-emissions school buses in South Charleston. And an expansion of a partnership between WVU Medicine and the health care company Owens & Minor is expected to bring 125 jobs to the Morgantown area.
It was the perfect set up for a State of the State address that would allow Justice to tout the progress the state has made since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.
But reality got in the way.
Less than 24 hours before he was scheduled to make his speech, Justice announced that he tested positive for COVID-19 and was feeling “extremely unwell.” The governor was receiving monoclonal antibody treatment at home after experiencing a high fever, heightened blood pressure and heart rate, as well as respiratory symptoms. His remarks, delivered to both chambers of the Legislature, were read aloud in the House chamber by Clerk Steve Harrison, with Justice’s text noting he hopes to give a longer speech in person following his recovery.
In his written remarks, Justice described an economic “rocket ship ride” for the people of West Virginia, something of a catchphrase he’s used frequently to describe the economic growth he hopes to preside over as governor. The only mentions of COVID-19 were to acknowledge his own condition, tout the state’s surplus budget in spite of the virus’ economic impact, and to mention that Justice asked President Joe Biden, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for permission to distribute second booster shots to eligible West Virginians.
It was a post-COVID speech, delivered to a Legislature that just began its regular session with virtually none of the safety precautions it enacted during the 2021 session.
It was also a speech that did not reflect the reality for many West Virginians, perhaps best epitomized by Justice’s own absence; COVID-19 continues to impact the state in profound ways, and the danger is not gone. Cases have reached an all-time high in the state, according to state Department of Health and Human Resources data. Though the emerging Omicron variant is less likely to result in severe illness, and deaths in the state have yet to tick up, recent analysis shows that it can still result in the kind of hospital overcrowding and heightened mortality rate that West Virginia saw during previous peaks of the pandemic.
Currently, West Virginia hospitalizations are the highest they’ve been since an October peak, and the number is expected to rise. According to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, over 80% of intensive care unit beds in the state are full, with more than a third of all ICU beds holding COVID patients. Many hospitals face a worker shortage, straining the health care system, even before beds fill entirely.
While the governor’s speech noted that his “Do it for Babydog” vaccination drive “was one of the most well-known vaccine incentive programs in the entire country,” it was far from one of the most effective. Though data available as early as the end of the first round of the vaccine lottery showed that such programs were ineffective, the governor continued implementing new iterations as more studies found lotteries didn’t have a noticeable effect on raising vaccination rates.
Even the Nucor deal, which Justice hoped to announce in person at the State of the State address, was paid for in part by shuffling money to effectively use American Rescue Plan funds meant to help the state recover from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic toward the corporate handout.
That’s not to say West Virginia’s prospects of emerging from the pandemic on decent footing haven’t increased since the worst of COVID’s economic impacts were felt last year. The unemployment rate has drastically declined, and the three announcements made Wednesday could bring much-needed jobs to the state. Vaccine availability has also remained consistent, and the Omicron variant, while more infectious, has a lower mortality rate than previous ones.
Federal infrastructure investments will also bring needed funding to the state’s roads, airports and broadband — as well as create more jobs.
But the state still faces many issues that it has since even before they were exacerbated by the emergence of COVID-19. The pandemic is likely to stress the state’s already struggling foster care system, and state officials have said they expect to see a new wave of children due to parental or caregiver deaths, families under financial distress and children out of school for long periods of time.
While Justice promised “to make education our centerpiece by investing in our greatest treasure — our children,” he offered no details on how. Meanwhile, the state still lags much of the rest of the country in educational attainment and quality.
While Justice noted his continued support of the state’s Jobs and Hope program, which connects West Virginians in recovery to job resources, he made no mention of the major challenge of combating the state’s record overdose deaths, exacerbated by the dual health crises of COVID-19 and the substance abuse epidemic. Overdose death rates increased in many other states as well. But West Virginia, a state that had already been rocked by an influx of opioids from pharmaceutical companies and is now battered by the synthetic opioid fentanyl, saw one of the nation’s largest spikes in overdose deaths during the first year of the pandemic.
After Justice’s remarks were read in the House chamber by Harrison, receiving a standing ovation, the governor’s office released an update about his health. Justice is experiencing moderate symptoms, and is responding well to the monoclonal antibody treatment, according to the update. The statement ended by assuring West Virginians that “Babydog is showing no signs of illness and maintains her healthy appetite.”
Reporters Amelia Ferrell Knisely, Douglas Soule, Emily Allen and Quenton King contributed to this story.