Editorial Roundup: West Virginia

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Oct. 25, 2021.

Editorial: Learning from W.Va. neonatal drug rules

According to a recent Post-Gazette investigation, roughly 1 in 10 babies born to mothers from the rural southwest corner of Pennsylvania is exposed to drugs during gestation. It’s a shocking statistic that shows how despair is being passed down through the generations, literally in the blood that is shared between mother and child.

But we could only know this because most moms from Greene and Fayette counties give birth in Morgantown, W.Va. (The last obstetrics unit in those counties, at Uniontown Hospital, was shuttered in 2019.) Pennsylvania hospitals don’t test for, and the Department of Health doesn’t track, neonatal drug exposure — but West Virginia does.

Harrisburg should follow Charleston’s lead here. Pennsylvania’s hospitals and public health authorities should have the best and most accurate information possible to track, to understand and ultimately to tackle the maternal drug crisis.

The situation in Pennsylvania with regard to testing and tracking neonatal drug exposure is embarrassing: If it weren’t for cross-border births, we’d be almost completely in the dark. In fact, we know more about the health of rural Pennsylvania babies from West Virginia databases than we do from the commonwealth’s.

For instance, it is only from data collected in Morgantown that we can identify a 60% increase in the rate of neonatal drug exposure in Greene and Fayette counties from 2017 to 2021. Meanwhile, according to Pennsylvania’s incomplete and obsolete data — the most recent numbers come from 2019 — maternal drug abuse in the rural southwest is actually decreasing. We can’t address a problem we can’t see, and Harrisburg is blind as a bat.

The main difference is this: Morgantown’s Ruby Memorial Hospital, following state guidelines, tests the umbilical cord tissue of every mother for eight potentially harmful substances, from alcohol to opioids and methamphetamines.

But Pennsylvania hospitals, following this state’s requirements, only look for the (often subjective and ambiguous) signs of acute opioid withdrawal in newborns — high-pitched crying, poor feeding, trembling and so on.

Further, while West Virginia’s testing is completed and reported within a day or two, Pennsylvania’s neonatal opioid withdrawal data takes weeks or months to percolate through the system.

The phrase “deaths of despair” describes the recent rise in deaths from suicide and addiction that led, for the first time in a century, to a multiyear decline in American life expectancy. As with its sibling hate, despair emerges from a void of meaning, from the feeling that one’s life not only is not valuable now but also has no foreseeable chance of becoming valuable — to society, to some higher power, to oneself.

How much more, then, does drug abuse during pregnancy speak to despair? It says that not only is one’s own life worthless but, in poisoning one’s child, that the next generation’s lives will be worthless, too.

It passes down despair psychologically and physiologically. It’s a symptom of a profound social illness that, left unchecked, will affect more and more people.

For the sake of public health and the public good more generally, it’s time for Pennsylvania to catch up with our neighbor to the south and west: Test and track neonatal drug exposure like West Virginia does.

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Charleston Gazette-Mail. Oct. 21, 2021.

Editorial: Vaccine exemptions signal trouble on horizon

When Gov. Jim Justice inevitably signs the bill providing medical and religious exemptions from employer mandates regarding the COVID-19 vaccine, it’s going to open another can of worms in an already messy situation.

Justice asked the Legislature to take the bill up during its special session on redistricting. In a Senate controlled by a GOP supermajority, the bill barely passed, 17-16. Sen. Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, was absent. The vote in the House of Delegates, also under a Republican supermajority, wasn’t as close, with 66 in favor, 24 opposed and 10 absent.

It’s an unfortunate political display that might end up costing some West Virginians their jobs, if not their health or their lives. Although it’s en vogue for far-right Republicans to trash the research on the vaccines and their benefits, while making a misguided stab at arguing for individual freedom, COVID-19 is going to continue putting West Virginians in the hospital and killing them until state vaccination rates are out of the basement. That’s the truth of the issue.

It’s also a bit misleading to call rules businesses have put in place vaccine “mandates.” In most cases, employees where such a rule is in place have a choice: They can get vaccinated or get tested weekly. Some, like the Gazette-Mail’s parent company, HD Media, require those who go the testing route to wear a mask indoors, to minimize the health risk they pose to their co-workers. So, there’s still some personal freedom involved.

There was concern from legislators, Republican and Democrat alike, that Justice’s bill is too broad, and might end up making exemptions too easy to maintain, with intentions that aren’t sincere. This also will become more complicated, once federal rules on the COVID-19 vaccines are implemented.

What this all portends is complicated, drawn-out legal action, once someone loses their job or can’t get an exemption. It also will hinder West Virginia’s effort, paltry as it has been, to reach vaccination levels that will stave off future surges, especially as colder weather approaches.

Members of Justice’s public health team have warned that another surge is coming, if the state doesn’t hit an 80% vaccination rate by winter. Right now, according to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, barely more than 50% of the state’s population is fully vaccinated. That number doesn’t go up much — 58% — when looking at the total population eligible for the vaccine (age 12 and up).

That Justice wanted the bill passed shows his indecisive nature and poor leadership in recent months. The governor consistently tells West Virginians that vaccination is the only way out of this continual cycle of surges, hospitalizations and deaths, but also caves to political pressure from the far right, coming up with a bill that more than a few Republicans in the Legislature have labeled as garbage.

No one wins when trying to score political points against a lethal microbe, but that’s a lesson some state officials seem determined to ignore.

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The (Huntington) Herald-Dispatch. Oct. 24, 2021.

Editorial: Moving counties between states is a long process for good reason

Same story, different target, long process.

Last year, the West Virginia Senate adopted a resolution encouraging Frederick County, Virginia, to become part of West Virginia. Gov. Jim Justice took it a step further and other Virginia counties to move over to the Mountain State. That went nowhere, as apparently people in that part of Virginia preferred remaining part of that state.

Now the roles have reversed. Four legislators from Garrett, Allegany and Washington counties in the westernmost part of Maryland have asked West Virginia to consider annexing them.

“We believe this arrangement may be mutually beneficial for both states and for our local constituencies,” the Maryland lawmakers, all Republicans, wrote in letters to West Virginia House of Delegates Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, and Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, as first reported by The Baltimore Sun.

Combined, the three counties have more than 250,000 people, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

West Virginia Delegate Gary Howell, R-Mineral, said he first heard from Western Maryland representatives expressing interest in seceding their counties from Maryland about three months ago, according to HD Media reporter Lacie Pierson.

“From the general population perspective, these are very conservative counties,” Howell said. “These counties have more in common with West Virginia than they do with the rest of Maryland.”

About a month ago, Howell, Hanshaw and Blair met with the Maryland lawmakers in Charleston, where there was a four-hour presentation about everything from tax structure and how Maryland licenses would be incorporated into West Virginia’s systems to how state of Maryland employees would transition to state of West Virginia employees.

“We’d have to work out a lot of this in detail,” Howell told Pierson on Thursday. “We gave the presentation. They took it back, and they said, ‘Hey, we’re going to send you a letter formally requesting to explore the idea,’ and they did. It was all initiated by them.”

Moving counties from one state to another is a long process involving the legislatures of both states and Congress. The process is so long there’s a good chance it would outlast the terms in office of the people initiating it, meaning it would need significant public support to be anything more than a diversion.

If the 250,000 people of western Maryland weigh the costs and benefits of switching states and truly want to join West Virginia, then it could be done. That part of Maryland is more conservative and voters feel dominated by the progressive majority in their state’s legislature. West Virginia might be a better fit for it now, but things can change in a generation or two. Moving counties from one state to another is a drastic step that should not be taken lightly, which is why the people who wrote the Constitution were wise to make it so complicated. The alternative would be a map of state boundaries that changes as chaotic as the map of Europe was in the 20th century.

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Bluefield Daily Telegraph. Oct. 24, 2021.

Editorial: Christmas City: Welcomed designation a win for Bluefield

As difficult as it may be to believe, the holiday shopping season isn’t that far away. Stores are already rolling out holiday decorations and area towns and cities are busy making plans for Christmas parades.

Planning also is underway for the 2021 edition of the Holiday of Lights at Bluefield’s Lotito Park. It’s the largest light display in the region. This popular holiday attraction has grown in recent years to 40 acres in size with more than two millions lights on display. It attracts thousands of visitors to Bluefield each year.

Now, in a nice recognition for the area, the city of Bluefield has been designated as West Virginia’s official “Christmas City.”

The announcement was made by City Attorney Colin Cline at a recent meeting of the Bluefield Board of Directors.

“We are officially West Virginia’s Christmas City,” Cline told the city board, adding that Bluefield now has the state and federal trademark for the Christmas City designation.

The idea of seeking a Christmas City designation surfaced last year as an extension of the Holiday of Lights.

That expansion also included a new website, westvirginiaschristmascity.com.

The city also last year added a new attraction to the downtown area on Princeton Avenue — a 40-foot Christmas tree, which plays music coordinated with the changing light displays on the tree.

But Bluefield has even more holiday plans on tap for this year. More lights will be installed downtown and the first Hometown Christmas Week will be held from Dec. 11 to Dec. 17 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. each night with different themed events that will take place at Chicory Square in downtown Bluefield.

Face painting, crafts, contests, Santa Claus and a trolley all will be at the green space around the giant Christmas tree, along with a Christmas market this year complete with vendors. Furthermore, pictures with Santa will take place each evening in the tree area, and even the Grinch will be on hand for photographs.

It sounds like Bluefield is going all out for Christmas this year, which makes sense given the welcomed “Christmas City” designation that has been bestowed upon the city by the Mountain State.

All of the added attractions this year will help in bringing even more visitors to the city, including the historic downtown district.

We congratulate Bluefield on its welcomed Christmas City designation, and concede that all of this talk about Christmas is starting to get us in the holiday spirit as well.

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