FAIRMONT, W.Va. – On Wednesday, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and state health officials announced that a COVID-19 advisory task force is being formed for public outreach and education for the state’s African American communities.

“We are looking at these communities and doing the prudent work that will enable us to ensure that we won’t have critical problems in those communities as well,” Justice said.

Increasing coronavirus testing for African Americans in certain areas of the state is a part of the initiative, officials with the WV Department of Health and Human Resources said. The initial counties where this focus will be placed are: Berkeley and Jefferson counties in the eastern panhandle, Marion and Monongalia counties in north central West Virginia and Raleigh County, in the southern part of the state, according to officials. More areas may be added, DHHR Sec. Bill Crouch said.

“We look forward to working with the task force and the results of our efforts to address the needs of the African American population,” Crouch said.

For weeks, news reporters have been asking Justice and his coronavirus team about how the state was addressing the pandemic, as it relates to West Virginia’s black population. So, readers may wonder what led to the task force’s creation now? To at least partially answer that question, one has to look at a letter sent in late April to Justice’s General Counsel, Brian Abraham, and the state’s coronavirus “czar,” Dr. Clay Marsh, by eight Democrat House of Delegates members from Marion and Monongalia counties. The letter focused on a series of events that happened in those counties starting in mid March. The members were: Dels. Barbara Evans Fleischauer, Evan Hansen, Rodney Pyles, John Williams and Danielle Walker, all of Monongalia County, and Dels. Michael Angelucci, Mike Caputo and Linda Longstreth, all of Marion County.

Friendship Baptist Church in Everettville, Monongalia County

On March 15, two days before the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in West Virginia was announced, and eight days before the governor issued his “stay at home” order, members of seven predominantly African American churches got together for a celebration at the Friendship Baptist Church in the small Monongalia County community of Everettville, which is near the Marion County line. Friendship Baptist’s buildings are small, and the crowd numbered about 120 people, the letter described.

Morning Star Baptist Church

Of the crowd assembled at the church, a large number had attended a service together earlier in the day at Morning Star Baptist Church in Fairmont, the letter said.

In the days following the celebration, some of the people who attended began to feel ill, requiring some to be hospitalized. On March 29, the DHHR announced that an 88-year-old woman was the state’s first death related to COVID-19. On April 14, another news release came from the DHHR announcing the death of a 62-year-old man from Marion County, the state’s 10th coronavirus death. Both were in attendance at the March 15 celebration, according to the delegates’ letter.

Romelia Hodges, who attended the celebration, contracted COVID-19 and believes she passed it on to four family members, identified the above victims as Viola Horton and Rick Hood.

In addition, two more deaths and 30 to 40 positive tests may be attributable to the celebration, the letter from the delegates said. Delegates were told by Marion County Health Department officials that 21 people who either attended the celebration or are family members of those who did tested positive. The delegates’ letter also said that one Monongalia County resident, two people from Harrison County and one person from Pennsylvania, who all attended the services, also tested positive.

Friendship Baptist Church in Everettville, Monongalia County

At the request of the Marion County Health Department, Hodges, Del. Walker and Tiffany Walker Samuels, a WVU Cancer Institute employee with access to Marsh, began compiling a list of people who were at the Friendship Baptist event, the letter said. The group was able to get in touch with 75 attendees, leaving potentially another 75 unaccounted for. The delegates’ letter approximates that between the Friendship and Morning Star services, a total of 150 people were exposed to one another.

The letter goes on to detail that many of the people who attended the services had difficultly getting tested for reasons ranging from a lack of symptoms to not having primary care physicians who could provide doctor’s orders for the tests.

The delegates’ letter also cites data comparing Marion County’s black population percentage to the number of county residents who have tested positive for coronavirus, placing the infection rate among blacks at more the 15 times what the expected rate would have been.

It goes on to mention that a level of distrust has grown among some members of north central West Virginia’s black community over what they see as a lack of response to a disproportionate percentage of its population being affected by the disease.

In the letter, the delegates suggested three possible actions:

“1) Statements from the Governor – One of the best things about the Governor’s briefings has been his sincere, daily expressions of his and the First Lady’s sorrow over the deaths of West Virginians. We believe it would help for him to also say that this includes, in our state like others, a disproportionate number of African Americans West Virginians. To publicly express his sadness over the disproportionate illnesses and deaths in our African American community might help ease the suffering of friends and family members.

2) Restore County Demographic Information – To help with the trust factor among African American West Virginians, we think demographic information (race, age, gender, etc.) from each county should be put back on the website, especially in counties that are considered hotspots or where the numbers are a little larger. People need transparency at the local level as well as at the state level.

3) Prioritize testing and contact tracing for African Americans statewide – We are big fans of the Governor’s decision to have all residents and staff at nursing homes tested. The extraordinary step of enlisting the aid of the National Guard has greatly reassured those who have family members and friends in nursing homes. It is wonderful that so far there have been very few positive test results from this huge effort at nursing homes. We are glad of recent announcements that testing can soon be more widespread. Given these changed circumstances, we believe a muscular effort, similar to what has happened in nursing homes, should be made to test and do contract tracing for African American West Virginians. Perhaps one of the new mobile Guard units could be sent to Marion County soon to ensure that everyone who may have been exposed during these incidents can be tested and possibly re-tested. It may make sense to consider whether African American communities in other counties might also benefit from sending a mobile unit.”

Delegates’ letter to Dr. Clay Marsh and General Counsel Brian Abraham

Of the suggested actions, during some of his virtual news briefings, Justice has made references to the importance of caring for the state’s African Americans. As of 7 p.m. on May 6, demographic information is not apparent on the DHHR’s coronavirus page. Wednesday’s announcement of the advisory task force is in line with the suggested third action in the letter.

In researching this story, 12 News has spoken with Romelia Hodges; Dels. Angelucci, Caputo, Fleischauer and Walker; Tiffany Walker Samuels; Marion County Health Department Administrator Lloyd White; Monongalia County Health Department Executive Director Dr. Lee Smith; and Morning Star Baptist Senior Pastor Wesley Dobbs. WBOY will be publishing additional coverage in the coming days that will include information and comments from that group.

12 News has also reached out to Del. Longstreth; U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin’s office; and a pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Clarksburg. We are either awaiting responses from those people, or they have declined comment.