FAIRMONT, WV (WBOY) — As explained in the first installment of 12 News’ investigation into a COVID-19 outbreak in north central West Virginia, a gathering in Monongalia County of members of several area African American churches led to at least two deaths and many more positive coronavirus tests.
12 News spoke with several community leaders who said they were looking for guidance on how to respond to their growing numbers of illnesses, but said they initially found none from state and local officials. That’s when those leaders said they stepped up on their own.
“I was contacted by Minister Laverna Horton and her family to make an announcement to the public, the African American community Facebook page, that there were a community spread, and we were falling ill from these two church events,” Romelia Hodges said. That day, March 20, Hodges contacted Marion County Health Department Administrator Lloyd White with her concerns.
White said he told Hodges that for contact tracing and epidemiology to work, he needed community cooperation and communication. White also explained that the process takes time and often requires multiple phone calls until a person can be reached, he said.
This was not what Hodges wanted to hear. “There was no one stepping up to help us. I went to them for answers, and they did not have answers that I needed,” she said. Frustrated, Hodges said she contacted other local and state officials.
Morning Star Baptist Pastor Wesley Dobbs looks at the situation differently. White reached out to Dobbs on March 22, a week after the church events, to compile a list of people who may need to be tested. The Marion County Health Department was “outstanding in all ways,” Dobbs said.
Meanwhile, a team formed by Hodges had already started tracing, using a photo she took during the celebration at Friendship Baptist Church, she said. “So, what I did was I drew a map of where everyone was sitting. I had about a third of the church I could not see. I started writing down the names of individuals that I knew that was in that church, and I started asking other people to identify the people that I did not know,” according to Hodges.
A member of Hodges’ team, West Virginia University employee Tiffany Walker-Samuels, helped connect the group with the state’s coronavirus “czar,” Dr. Clay Marsh. “I saw how Clay stepped in for Sundale Nursing Home, so, I thought, well for sure I can bring our community to Clay and that Clay would also intervene on our behalf,” Walker-Samuels said.
Next came a phone call between officials and the church community, where Hodges voiced her concerns: “My community had been quarantining for almost 40 days and that we get them some resources. So, these people could eat, so they can clean their homes, so they can have toilet paper, the essentials that they need.”
Another member of Hodges’ team, West Virginia House of Delegates member Danielle Walker, D- Monongalia County, told 12 News that nothing was done until fellow Del. Barbara Evans Fleischauer, D-Monongalia County, began investigating the situation.
That led to a letter to state officials, authored by Fleischauer and signed by seven other area delegates, requesting testing for those people affected by the outbreak and asking that the state return demographic data to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resource’s coronavirus website.
One of the delegates who signed the letter, Del. Michael Angelucci, D-Marion County, told 12 News that officials kept quiet about the outbreak to prevent stigma from developing around the church community involved, while trying to secure testing at the same time. Around the same time, officials in Monongalia County were speaking out about mistreatment of Sundale Nursing Home employees, after the outbreak there became public knowledge.
Many of the people affected did eventually receive free testing, Hodges told 12 News. Whether that testing came as fast as it should have is left to debate.
“By the time testing opened up, it was 18 days later. Most of us were testing positive 18 to 26 days later after initial contact,” Hodges said.
“By the time Mrs. Hodges put it on her Facebook, our people had been tested,” Dobbs said.
12 News will have further installments of this investigation in the coming days.