The governor ‘tweaked’ a Harvard COVID map. Their experts say the state’s changes are flawed.

By Lucas Manfield and Gabriella Brown, Mountain State Spotlight

September 18, 2020

In August, Gov. Jim Justice introduced West Virginia’s parents, teachers and coaches to a new Saturday night ritual: refreshing a state website for updates to the color-coded map that would determine whether ballfields and schoolhouses would be open the following week. 

State officials modeled the map after one developed by the Harvard Global Health Institute, which places counties into one of four risk levels — green, yellow, orange or red — based on the number of COVID-19 cases per capita. 

The map developed by West Virginia’s Department of Health and Human Resources looks similar to the Harvard map, lending a veneer of academic rigor to the state’s school reopening plans.

But they are never the same. West Virginia officials have relied on outdated data, raised the cutoff that determines each county’s risk level and altered the methodology for determining the total number of cases. 

The pandemic has become more deadly as West Virginia leaders have downplayed the risks. In recent months, West Virginia’s death toll has risen faster and faster, hitting a record in August of 98 deaths. The state now has had one of the highest COVID “reproductive rates” – the number of people an infected person will spread the disease to, on average – in the nation.

Members of the Harvard team that developed the metric said West Virginia was misusing their work.

“That doesn’t follow the public health guidance,” said Dr. Thomas Tsai, a health policy researcher and surgeon at Harvard.