CHARLESTON – After a second county court employee tested positive for Coronavirus, the Kanawha County Judicial Annex has been ordered closed.
And now, after a fourth Judicial Annex employee has tested positive, at least a few other employees who work in the building and some visitors are not happy about what they call a delay in notifying them about possible contamination.
A Kanawha County Commissioner, however, says officials worked diligently to notify people as quickly as they could.
The Kanawha County Commission, at the direction of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, ordered the closure of the Judicial Annex on March 24, effective 8 a.m. March 25.
Kanawha County Magistrate Court temporarily has been moved to City Center East in Kanawha City.
The fourth employee who tested positive was in the building through March 20, resulting in the Judicial Annex now being closed until at least April 6, which also is the date when Judicial Annex employees are supposed to end self-quarantines. That fourth positive test was revealed March 26. Three of the four worked on the same floor, officials said.
“Entry to the building shall only be allowed by the Sheriff of Kanawha County under the direction of Chief Health Officer of the County,” the notice stated.
“After consultation with our elected officials, our judges, our magistrates, (Charleston) Mayor (Amy Shuler) Goodwin, and Dr. Sherri Young (Chief Health Officer), we’ve decided out of an abundance of caution to totally close the building to the public effective tomorrow morning” Kanawha County Commissioner Kent Carper said in a press release.
Fellow Commissioner Ben Salango agreed.
“This is the right decision for our employees and the public, and I support it 100 percent,” he said.
Young also encouraged Judicial Annex employees self-isolate and monitor for symptoms, which include fever, cough and difficulty in breathing. Those with questions were told to contact their health care providers or the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department 24/7 hotline at (304) 348-1088.
Some Judicial Annex employees, however, say they were told too little too late.
“I was watching Saturday (March 21) when Commissioner Salango and Mayor Goodwin were giving their announcement on TV,” said one judicial worker who wished to remain anonymous. “He (Salango) said they had known this person, the first one who tested positive, had a high probability of having the virus, but he wanted to know for sure before making an announcement.
“I about fell out of my chair. I had been there at the judicial building working. Why didn’t they let us know about this earlier?”
The employee said it still bothers him.
“The more I thought about it, the madder I got,” he said. “We all ride the same elevators. We use the same parking garage. We handle the same files. I could’ve handled a file one of these people touched. Or the people I work with could have and spread it to me.
“Why didn’t they tell us that we might have been exposed? I bet the second person who tested positive would have liked to have known about it. Who knows who all they’ve been in contact with. But, it seems for at least two days, someone knew and did nothing.
“Secrecy has endangered a lot of people. I’m outraged by this. Officials said they had reached out to the family and offered assistance. Well, they didn’t reach out to co-workers and others in the building.”
A second Judicial Annex employee agreed.
“What I understand is that they had previous knowledge that someone was ill and had shown symptoms and had been tested,” she said. “But, the employees were told nothing.”
She said she had sent her children to stay with her parents.
“I worked through Friday (March 20) and had no knowledge of a co-worker possibly having symptoms or being tested,” the second worker said. “I allowed my children to come back home, and now they’ve possibly been exposed to it through me because I didn’t know the circumstances.”
But, she said she understands that officials might not have wanted to create fear.
“As far as who knew and when, I can’t answer that,” she said. “I know this is something that none of us has ever had to deal with. But, I see it as the lack of somebody with the Supreme Court stepping up and taking control and providing leadership with this. The Supreme Court operates the judiciary, not the Kanawha County Commission.
“It was lax on their part. I don’t know if the Supreme Court was aware someone had been tested. Maybe they didn’t want to incite panic. I don’t know. It’s as if nobody stepped in and took the lead. Courts still were conducting hearings late last week.
“We all share the same parking garage, the same doors, the same paperwork, the same steps, the same elevators.”
A third Judicial Annex employee said she she is upset that she learned about the positive results from the news rather than officials from work.
“I was sitting in that building Tuesday (March 24) as they announced the third positive test,” she told The Record on March 26. “We not only had to hear it from the news first, but they did not relieve me of my duties until midnight. So, I had to set there.
“We complained – a group of us – since Sunday (March 22) about how that building was not cleaned correctly, and they kept ignoring us and told us we had to still go to work.
“We knew since Saturday (March 21) the Kanawha County Commission was calling the shots, not the Supreme Court. They forced us to work, knowing multiple people were being tested. In fact, we have two coworkers I work directly with still waiting for test results. Now I've come home to my family and have been told to self-quarantine.”
She said it was wrong that she and others were put in danger.
“I have a heart condition and, if I get it, I'm screwed,” she said. “But I also have to have a paycheck. Now apparently this Saturday, Servepro will be in the building. But our leaders in the building are not doing their job. They keep things away from the Supreme Court. They always have, but this is wrong.
“They continued to put our lives at risk while they sat at home. The Supreme Court should have been notified immediately and everyone in that building should have been put in quarantine.”
A woman who had business with the court March 12 said she is worried because she has underlying health issues.
“I was there, all over that building that day,” she told The Record. “The office I was in was spotless, but I took the steps a couple of times that day instead of the elevator. I was all over the second and third floors.
“I wish they would release the more specific departments where these people who have tested positive work. I've been around my grandbabies. I'm worried. I get that names can’t be released, but this is crazy.”
Salango, in an interview with The West Virginia Record, said he and other Kanawha County officials worked as quickly as they could to get the word out to everyone.
“We found out late Friday, around 8:30 p.m. that an employee may have Coronavirus,” said Salango, who also is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor. “Remember, most people who work at the Judicial Annex are employees of the West Virginia Supreme Court and not the county. We were told this first person had traveled and had a fever and was hospitalized in Putnam County.
“Carper immediately notified the West Virginia Supreme Court that there was a potential exposure.”
Salango said officials were told the test results would be ready at 9 a.m. Saturday. They weren’t. They weren’t ready at 10 a.m. either. Then, they learned the state lab was closing at 11 a.m. The test results weren’t ready by then.
“So when 11 a.m. came and went, we decided to restrict access to the Judicial Annex,” Salango said. That order was entered at 1:30 p.m. Saturday. The Kanawha-Charleston Health Department starting doing contact trace information then even though we didn’t have a positive test yet. They did it in case the person came back positive. And remember, an overwhelming majority of tests are coming back negative, but we had a high degree of suspicion the first person would come back positive.”
Salango said he and Goodwin had the press conference March 21 to demand the state lab stay open around the clock.
“But, we already had restricted access to the Judicial Annex, and we had a cleaning crew in there sanitizing everything even before we had the first positive result back,” he said. “Shortly after the press conference, we received word they had processed the test and the result was positive. So then, the health department started notifying individuals the person had been in contact with.”
He said county officials did as much as they could to help despite the employee being a Supreme Court employee, which meant there were HIPAA issues.
“We were doing everything we could as a county commission and the mayor to get test results back,” Salango said. “But, we had notified the West Virginia Supreme Court and all of the judges in the building there was a high likelihood of a positive result.”
Salango, whose wife is a Kanawha Circuit Court judge, said early Sunday morning is when officials learned a second Judicial Annex employee was displaying symptoms.
“I immediately contacted the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department and had Dr. Young reach out to the individual to talk about quarantine and testing,” Salango said. “The patient was tested at 11 a.m. and contact trace information was investigated by the health department. The patient already had self-quarantined. We received those results 4 p.m. Monday, and that’s when the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department started notifying people who might have had contact.”
Salango said the third Judicial Annex employee to test positive spurred officials to close down the building.
“We received a call that another person in Kanawha County had tested positive,” he said. “We didn’t know until we received the call that it was another Judicial Annex individual. The person was tested, and the test came back positive. Once the third patient tested positive, the health department began contacting people based on contact trace information.
“We immediately notified the West Virginia Supreme court, set up a conference call late Tuesday night at 8:30 p.m. and made the decision to close the Judicial Annex.
The Kanawha County Commission has tried to be diligent. We have worked with the West Virginia Supreme Court and the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department to make sure we follow the CDC guidelines and also are in compliance with HIPAA.”
Salango said the Supreme Court could overrule the county order regarding the closure of the building, but he doesn’t think that will happen.
“The county owns the building, but the West Virginia Supreme Court is running the operation,” Salango said. “You have magistrates and family courts, for example, that require timely proceedings under statutory mandates. And those will happen. But, these are extraordinary times.”
State Supreme Court Chief Justice Tim Armstead said March 26 the court has waived some rules allowing the county to do more proceedings remotely with technology. Those include some criminal proceedings, domestic violence proceedings, and abuse/neglect proceedings relating to children.
“Through a collaborative effort between the Supreme Court’s staff, judicial officials and staff in Kanawha County, and the Kanawha County Commission, we are keeping the vital functions of courts available to the public,” Armstead said.
Kanawha County Magistrate Court has been temporarily relocated to Supreme Court offices at City Center East in Kanawha City and will be staffed by senior status magistrates so current magistrates and staffs can self-isolate at the direction of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department. The public is not allowed in the building in Kanawha City. All hearings are being done by telephone or video conferencing.
The Kanawha County Magistrate Day Court number has been transferred to a phone at the Kanawha City location. Non-emergency Magistrate Court hearings have been postponed.
The Circuit Clerk’s Office and the Magistrate Clerk’s Office have been relocated to the historic Kanawha County Courthouse across Virginia Street from the Judicial Annex. Both offices have transferred their phones to the phones at the temporary location. Non-emergency Family Court hearings have been postponed. Circuit Judges can continue to work remotely as needed on emergency matters as defined by the Court’s March 22 Administrative Order.
Anyone in Kanawha County who is seeking a domestic violence petition after hours or on weekends can contact a Victim’s Advocate at 304-610-1575, 304-421-5673 or 304-549-6282. For law enforcement contact the Kanawha County Sheriff at any time at 304-357-0169 or contact a municipal law enforcement office directly.
Kanawha County Sheriff Mike Rutherford said during the March 26 press conference that three deputies will begin two weeks of self-isolation this weekend, saying they had been in “areas we are concerned about.” He also said a few other deputies could begin self-isolation soon.
“It’s a precautionary matter,” he said. “We are just being on the safe side to protect them and their families.”