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Covid roars back
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Hospitals running at capacity

46 Hampshire cases in 1 week

Virus follows out-of-state vacations

The Hampshire County Health Department sent out the notice early Tuesday afternoon when a Hampshire resident had to be sent 140 miles to Mount Vernon Hospital in Fairfax, Va., just outside Washington, D.C.

“The situation is changing minute by minute,” Health Department Director Tamitha Wilkins said.

Winchester Medical Center and UPMC-Western Maryland were accepting patients Tuesday afternoon. The Health Department said WVU in Morgantown, UVA in Charlottesville and Inova-Fairfax are all refusing Covid-19 patients.

“Please continue to wear mask and vaccinate,” the department urged. “It could save you or a loved one’s life.”

Tuesday’s hospitalization was the 7th Hampshire County resident this week — all unvaccinated.

New cases here jumped to 46 in the last week, the highest weekly total in 6 months, up sharply from 19 the previous week and no cases 2 weeks before that.

“Right now our community is being hit hard,” Wilkins said Tuesday morning.

Of the 46, 39 were unvaccinated people.

“This unvaccinated population is what’s really affecting things,” Wilkins said, “whether they want to hear that or not.”

Wilkins said the resurgence has 2 threads.

A lot of positive results are being found in people who are coming back from vacations, such as at the beach.

And, she said, the virus is spreading through families.

“It’s hitting the child 1st and then mom or dad, or vice versa,” she said.

Six of Hampshire’s County cases listed on DHHR’s Covid-19 tracker are under 20 years old. Only 3 are among people over 60.

Hampshire County remains Orange status on the state’s 5-color tracking map —red on the infection rate (cases per 100,000 population) but better on the percentage of people testing positive over 7 days. About 350 people were tested here for Covid last week.

The county had the highest infection rate for Covid-19 in West Virginia Saturday and Sunday.

Vaccinations remain well below the state and national averages.

Only 37.7% or Hampshire residents 12 or older are fully vaccinated. That’s the 5th-lowest rate in West Virginia. Only Morgan, Gilmer, Calhoun and Tyler rank worse.

A few points more (41.4%) are at least partially vaccinated. 

Wilkins said she has no doubt the Delta variant is spreading through Hampshire County.

“We know that it’s here,” she said. “We knew that in June.”

She’s working with the schools for the start of classes Monday. She said decisions on sports are being dictated by the WVSSAC’s guidelines.

Eastern West Virginia Community and Technical College told staff and students this week that they must submit to testing if they cannot prove they are vaccinated.

The test is self-administered and takes 15 to 20 minutes for results.

The state’s public health bureau said booster shots are now available for people with some specific health issues who have already been vaccinated.

The extra doses can go to people being treated for malignant tumors, or with organ transplants, stem cell transplants, primary immune deficiencies, advanced HIV or under treatment with medications that suppress immunity.

Teen’s murder case drags on
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ROMNEY — A routine status hearing in the 1st-degree murder charge against young Austin Holmes-Evans turned up new details in the year-old killing.

Holmes-Evans, 17, is accused of murdering his cousin, Johnny Adams, in July 2020 at Hanging Rocks.

The slender youth appeared in court in person for the 1st time Tuesday morning as attorneys updated Judge Carter Williams on the progress of the case. Previous appearances have been via Zoom from the Potomac Highlands Regional Jail or Chick Buckbee Center.

Williams continued proceedings until 2 p.m. Oct. 1 because forensic results are still not back from the state crime lab. Miller said the lab was testing ballistics and DNA on some items recovered from the crime scene.

Fourteen-year-old Johnny Adams’ body was discovered July 18, 2020, almost a week after he disappeared from the home in Hanging Rocks Subdivision where he had been staying since March.

He died of a gunshot to the head, the medical examiner’s office ruled.

Holmes-Evans was arrested at the time on a burglary charge. His identity was not revealed because of his age until a grand jury handed up 5 counts against him in May — 1st-degree murder, burglary, kidnapping, use of a firearms in a felony and concealing human remains.

Tuesday, Judge Williams urged Prosecutor Rebecca Miller to push the state crime lab for the test results before continuing the case to the next term.

Defense Attorney Craig Manford of Martinsburg noted that the ballistics tests may include shell casings found at other places than the crime scene.

He confirmed that Miller has given him all the prosecution’s discovery — the legal term for the reports, interviews and evidence of a case. He said that what Miller gave him included more than what then-Prosecutor Betsy K. Plumer gave him last year.

Williams said the Oct. 1 court date could be a pre-trial hearing if the state crime lab evidence is back, with either a trial date to be set or a plea agreement to be entered.

Miller said no plea agreement has been discussed because her office and law enforcement officers here first want to meet face to face with Johnny’s guardians, Angel and Janis Jaquez of West Hartford, Conn.

“I haven’t given a plea offer due to that,” Miller told Williams.

Jaquez, appearing at the hearing via Zoom, said he should know shortly when the family could come to West Virginia for a meeting.

“We want to be there,” he said.

Dante: Masks optional in schools, buses
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This summer was fairly quiet on the Covid-19 front: zero to 3 cases a week, maybe.

Now, with school starting back up Monday, numbers have jumped (leaped, really), placing Hampshire back in the orange zone.

Even with these numbers rising rapidly, Lead Nurse Rhonda Dante’s advice has not wavered: stay the course.

Dante spoke to the school board at their Monday night meeting, providing a voice of logic, reason and, well, reality, citing vacations as a possible cause for the increase in Covid cases here.

“I think vacations occurred, and we started trending the other way last week,” Dante explained. “The individuals currently in the hospital are unvaccinated.”

When it comes to the health and safety of students and school staff, Dante said that a good number of the staff are vaccinated, which will help prevent serious illness associated with the contraction of the virus.

And at the high school level, she estimated that over 300 students are vaccinated as well.

While some folks in the community may see the higher numbers and be wary about the start of school Monday, Dante explained the county’s position in simple terms.

“The cases we’ve had this past week, they’re related to returning vacationers, not school,” she pointed out. “We haven’t been in school.”

The return to school is marked with 3 big questions:

What about the Delta variant?

Are masks going to be required?

What will happen to athletics?

Dante addressed all 3 questions Monday, explaining that the Delta variant has been present here in the county since June, but not all positive Covid cases are tested for the variant. She cautioned that the variant is more contagious than the original strain, like chicken pox, and that folks should protect themselves in the way that they feel is best for them.

Which led her to cover the next topic: masks.

“Masks are optional, but recommended,” she said. “That can change at any time, of course, but (Gov. Jim Justice) is letting the counties decide as of right now.”

Board vice president Ed Morgan mentioned that having a solid mask mandate at this time would likely alienate parts of the student body and lead to even more stress and anxiety, and Superintendent Jeff Pancione agreed.

“If masks were required, when after school students went to play sports together or hung out with friends without masks, it wouldn’t make sense,” he added.

As of right now, the “optional mask” rule will be in place on school buses as well as in the building, as cleaning and ventilation practices on buses will continue to be upheld.

As far as athletics?

“The athletes have been together all summer, and they’ve done really well,” praised Dante. “They’ve been together for months, and it’s hard to put something in place without knowing how we do (when school starts).”

She said the school system would be deferring to the WVSSAC for guidelines on away game travel and other guidelines for athletics.

“It’s going to be difficult,” she warned.

School begins Monday, Aug. 23, and Pancione affirmed that the situation is “fluid,” and that flexibility is a must for all families, students and school staff.

“We just have to take it as it comes,” he said. “And take it week by week.”

Lawyer sued for harassment
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ROMNEY — A paralegal is suing the Lawrence Sherman law firm and Sherman himself, claiming pervasive and reprehensible sexual harassment.

“I completely and wholeheartedly deny the accusations,” Lawrence Sherman Jr. told the Review last Friday. “I never sexually harassed anybody in my entire life.”

Devan Caldwell of Keyser filed her civil suit Aug. 10 in Hampshire County Circuit Court, claiming harassment that pushed her to get a personal safety order on July 30 and to block Sherman’s number on her cellphone.

Court documents show Caldwell claimed that Brian Vance, the other attorney in the Sherman law office, “turned a blind eye” to Sherman’s behavior.

Caldwell’s complaint included 2 texts and a video from Sherman.

The complaint asks for a jury trial on 4 counts — defamation, the tort of outrage and 2 counts of hostile work environment, with 1 regarding the sexual harassment and the other regarding what she termed constructive termination.

Sherman’s attorney, Jared Moore of Morgantown, has yet to file a response to the claim.

Both circuit judges, Charles Carl and Carter Williams, have asked to be recused because they know the parties involved. The state’s Chief Justice, Evan Jenkins, will appoint a judge to hear the case.

Caldwell said she endured what she called a “campaign of sexual harassment” from January on to keep her job.

The complaint said she left the law office the day after Sherman sent her a video of himself describing sex acts and fantasies.

She said in the complaint that after she blocked his number on her cellphone, he sent her more than a dozen texts from another number.

And, she said in support of the defamation claim, Sherman has talked about her since she left the firm, including telling another member of the State Bar that he had been paying her to have sex with him.

Caldwell said she has suffered damage to her ability to earn future wages, emotional damage, mental anguish, embarrassment, psychological damage, humiliation, future medical bills and other injuries. She wants compensatory damages, punitive damages, attorney fees, court costs and other relief from a jury trial.

Caldwell is represented by Dante diTrapano and Christopher Hedges of Calwell Luce diTrapano in Charleston.

‘Room to improve’
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County test scores place schools here right below state average

Last year, the U.S. Department of Education waived statewide assessments for everyone, but this year, more than 91 percent of public school students enrolled in the tested grades (3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th and 11th) took the state summative assessments.

So, how did Hampshire fare?

Countywide, Hampshire saw 25% proficiency in math, 38% proficiency in ELA (English and language arts) and 27% proficiency in science.

Compared to the state average, Hampshire was only a couple points behind in both ELA and math, and right on target with their science scores.

“There’s certainly room to improve,” said Superintendent Jeff Pancione. “There’s always room to improve.”

Pancione pointed out that having Hampshire’s scores hit at right about the state average puts the schools in a good position to bridge some of the gaps that last school year brought.

As in, the pandemic and the challenges it brought to not just Hampshire, but every school system nationwide.

“Without a doubt, we know that factors such as participation rates, learning modes and learning disruptions over the past 18 months varied by school and likely affected student performance,” explained State Superintendent Clayton Burch last Wednesday. “Our goal now is to use the results to focus on Covid-19 recovery efforts and address individual student needs.”

Compared to the assessment results from 2 years ago, proficiency rates in the 3 subjects dipped, but in a year where virtual learning was the norm for many, paired with anxiety-inducing outside factors, it’s no surprise.

At the high school level, students are tested in 11th grade. Two years ago, HHS saw a 14% math proficiency rate, and this year that rate dropped to just under 8%.

Alternatively, the science proficiency rate at HHS climbed a bit, from 18% in 2019 to 22% this year.

Some schools saw larger drops in proficiency, like Romney Elementary’s dip from a whopping 59% math proficiency in 2019 to 18% this year. John J. Cornwell also saw a decrease in proficiency in all 3 subjects, from 60% math proficiency 2 years ago to 25% this year, and 67% science proficiency to this year’s 17%.

Small pockets of improvement dot the county results, however, such as Capon Bridge Middle’s rise from 38 to 41% ELA proficiency, or Springfield-Green Spring’s significant jump from 2019’s 36% proficiency in science to this year’s impressive 50%.

This year, reaching academic goals and improving within the classrooms is key in bridging some of the gaps that last year’s tumult brought, but Pancione and the school board have been focused on factors other than just academics within Hampshire schools.

For example, the school system here will have a full staff of social workers and community in-school liaisons, prepared to help students with their social and emotional needs while instructors do what they do best: teach the students of Hampshire County.

Pancione said that he’s looking forward to the growth within the schools, both academic and emotional, and he’s ready to see Hampshire County advance.

“Are we satisfied with where we are? No,” Pancione commented. “But we fared well in a Covid year. There’s room for improvement here.”

Low water strands out of-town tubers in Trough
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THE TROUGH — Some visitors from Harpers Ferry learned the hard way what locals know.

You can’t float the South Branch in early August — especially when the weather has been as dry as it has this year.

Nine people set out on tubes from Moorefield Saturday afternoon — 3 or 4 o’clock — headed north.

The 911 call came from 1 of them shortly before midnight.

“They weren’t sure where they were after they got stranded,” said Romney Assistant Fire Chief Matt Dillinger, who led the rescue effort.

That set off a 2-pronged search. The combined Romney-Springfield Valley swift water headed south and Dillinger called in Moorefield’s Fire Company to search north along what Hampshire County calls River Road and Hardy County calls Trough Road.

Moorefield made use of 1 member’s expertise and employment to get a rail truck going through the Trough. And a 911 dispatcher got a ping off a cell tower to help hone in on the location.

“When they say the Trough area for a rescue, they’re talking several miles of terrain we can’t really reach easily,” Dillinger said.

The floaters told their rescuers they figured to reach their destination by 8, a trip that might only take 3 hours on a good day, Dillinger said.

“They had no clue.” 

Meanwhile, fans of the Eastern Panhandle Working Fires Facebook page were commenting on the low-water rescue.

“Stand up and walk,” one observer quipped.

The adventurers were located on an island 2 miles or so south of the Trough General Store.

“All their tubes busted,” Dillinger said.

The swift water team used its hovercraft to shuttle the floaters to shore, with everyone cleared by 1:45 a.m. Nobody was seriously injured, Dillinger said.

He and fellow 1st responder Jason Crites had advice for river lovers.

“Stay off the river,” Crites posted on Facebook. “It’s too low to float.”