3,600 West Virginians file for jobless aid amid coronavirus

FILE - In this March 12, 2020, file photo, Gov. Jim Justice speaks during a press conference at the State Capitol in Charleston. Justice said June 22, that coronavirus cases are climbing across the state though he declined to strengthen restrictions as his reopening plan continues. The active caseload has increased by 28% over the past two weeks as outbreaks emerged at churches and after a number of West Virginians traveled to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — About 3,600 West Virginians filed for unemployment benefits last week as the state continues to lift coronavirus restrictions, federal data showed Thursday.

The state's weekly jobless aid claims have been falling slightly as businesses have reopened but are still historically high.

More than 250,000 unemployment claims have been processed in West Virginia since the pandemic forced widespread shutdowns in March. Figures released last week show the state’s unemployment rate fell about 2 percentage points to 12.9% in May. Nationally, 1.48 million people applied for jobless aid last week.

Republican Gov. Jim Justice has already eased most virus restrictions, allowing restaurants and other businesses to reopen. This month he allowed sporting events with spectators to resume and has set July 1 as the date when fairs and festivals can be held.

The governor has based his strategy on having the state's cumulative positive test rate remain below 3%, backing off a previous goal of having the number of cases decline for two weeks.

At least 92 people have died from the virus in West Virginia and around 2,700 have tested positive, according to state health data. Outbreaks have recently emerged, with at least 72 cases in 11 counties linked to travel to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and roughly 70 cases connected to church services in three counties.

Justice on Wednesday forced out a top health official, Cathy Slemp, who was a state health officer and commissioner of the public health bureau, after the governor publicly vented that the state's active virus caseload may have been overstated.

In Slemp's resignation letter, which was provided by the state health department, she urged officials to listen to science.

“I encourage all to stay true to the science, to further work to engage and empower communities to address such an unprecedented situation collectively, to meet people where they are and to move forward together,” she wrote. “It is with mutual respect, support, a willingness to look at and understand both the science and the factors that drive them, and a dedication to moving forward together that will get the state through this together.”

A statement from high-ranking officials at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, where Slemp graduated, said they were “stunned and troubled” by the forced resignation.

“We need more than ever the work of dedicated public health officials speaking honestly about what is happening — and what all of us can do together to save lives,” the statement read.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up within weeks. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the virus can cause severe symptoms and be fatal. The vast majority of people recover.

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