Milvet knew he needed the churches to close. He had to sound the alarm about an infectious disease that, like so many topics in the country, was viewed across a partisan divide.
His hospital sits at the heart of a politically conservative community, even by West Virginia standards, in a county where President Trump won nearly 90 percent of the 2016 vote. For weeks, people here listened as Trump and conservative media dismissed the virus as a hoax.
The price of politicizing the pandemic was coming due.
Many residents accused the state’s Republican governor, Jim Justice, of overreacting when he closed the schools. “I think it’s all B.S.,” one local said. Soon the state’s restaurants and bars followed. West Virginia was the last state to report a confirmed coronavirus case, allowing the fear that gripped other parts of the nation to feel far away.
It was up to a band of local health officials to protect Grant County, even if many residents remained unconvinced they needed saving.
“They know me. They know Bob is a Republican,” Milvet said, referring to himself. “And so maybe they’ll listen.”
Other health officials pointed out the urgency of getting residents to take action.
“We’ve got to be able to stand alone,” said Sandy Glasscock, a registered nurse who runs the local health office.
“We’re on our own,” Caroline Armstrong, an internist and the hospital’s chief of staff, said.
Milvet understood why so many of the 12,000 people in Grant County, just 2½ hours from Washington, viewed the dire predictions about the coronavirus as another partisan attack, like the Russian hacking of the 2016 election and Trump’s impeachment.
“It sounded like just something else we don’t have to believe in,” Milvet said.
But this was a public health emergency, he continued. “And that’s where we step into the equation.”
Grant Memorial Hospital is the sole hospital for three counties in West Virginia’s eastern panhandle.
It’s not part of a national chain; decisions are left to locals.
Any attention to the coronavirus from federal and even state leaders seemed directed at big cities and large hospitals, Milvet said. No one expressed interest in a small, rural hospital. He said he only recently heard from West Virginia’s congressional delegation when a staffer called to ask, “Have you guys done anything yet?”
“I wanted to jump through the phone,” Milvet said. “You should’ve called three weeks ago!"
That’s when Grant Memorial and local health and safety officials started work on their own coronavirus plans — back when Trump was still comparing this new pathogen to the old flu.
They sealed all hospital entrances except for one, funneling visitors and staff past an infection control desk, where a nurse quizzes them and offers hand sanitizer.
Hospital staff stepped up disinfection efforts, targeting things like doorknobs and wheelchairs. Pens at the hospital sign-in desk are wiped down between use.
Elective surgeries have been postponed to allow for the expected waves of Covid-19 patients. No more knee replacements or hysterectomies.
The 25-bed hospital has three negative-pressure rooms for infected patients. A surgery recovery room could be used for a few more.
The hospital does have four ventilators, which are in short supply nationwide, and an emergency ventilation unit. Five new ventilators should be delivered in a few weeks, Milvet said.
The hospital even started offering curbside coronavirus tests more than a week ago, processed by a private lab. Four tests were completed so far, Milvet said. All negative.
“But you know that’s going to change,” said Glasscock, with the local health department. “You just don’t know when.”
At a nearby hardware store, manager Jim Musser said he’s heard more worry about all the changes in anticipation of the coronavirus — schools shutting down, local restaurants switching to carryout — than the disease itself.
“The feeling I get from talking to people is it could be a serious deal,” Musser said. “But it could look like the regular flu, too.”
Glasscock heard similar comments from doctors.
“What we needed to do was overreact,” she said, because “overreaction is probably what is called for.”
She and the hospital set up a weekly phone call with county leaders to talk about the coronavirus. They asked them to focus on the messages coming from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state Department of Health and Human Resources. Forget Fox News. Forget CNN. Forget what you saw posted on Facebook.
“We had to cut through the rhetoric,” Milvet said.
They met with the county school board. They met with the county commission. They went on the radio station. They handed out signs for doctors to post in their office waiting rooms. The hospital took out a full-page ad in the weekly newspaper to explain covid-19 symptoms and ways to prevent infection.
“It’s rare that we’re all saying the same thing at the same time,” Glasscock said.
“So people will think, this must be real,” said Diana Reel, the hospital’s infection control nurse.
But they still needed to get the churches on board.
Milvet didn’t want to be seen as forcing churches to close, so he and Glasscock went to the commissioners to explain why social distancing was critical to stopping the coronavirus’ spread. Church services were especially risky because of the older congregants.
It wasn’t about a lack of faith, Glasscock told them. God works through us, she said. And we’re asking you to close for only two weeks — for now.
The commission turned to Craig Howard, the pastor at Brake Church of the Brethren and the leader of the local ministerial association.
Getting him to agree to the health officials’ plan would be key.
Howard listened. He resisted. He thought it over.
He recorded his thoughts in a message aired on the radio and in a video posted online.
Howard looks into the camera and explains he is acting at the request of the county commission, the local health department and the 911 center to ask that churches stop holding services for two weeks.
“I am sorry for this inconvenience,” he said. But if one person in the pews got the virus, the entire congregation would face a 14-day quarantine.
There wouldn’t be “any church police” forcing doors to close, he said.
“For those of you saying, ‘we’re trusting God,’ I understand that sentiment,” Howard said. “But part of God providing for us and taking care of us is giving us information and giving our officials information to guard against making decisions that could have a negative impact.”
Later that day, Howard stopped by the weekly newspaper. His wife is the editor, and she noted that coronavirus news was about the only thing to write about after all local sports and arts activities had been canceled. Howard checked to see how many people watched the video he’d posted a few hours earlier.
“We got 698 views,” Howard said to his wife. “That’s pretty good for around here.”
Howard didn’t know how many churches would close their pews Sunday. But he’d be closing his church for the next two weeks. He said some pastors probably would be relieved to close. They were worried about the coronavirus but didn’t want to make the decision alone.
“It’s hard to know what’s the right call,” Howard said.
Milvet was relieved as word rolled in that at least a dozen churches were canceling services. Cornerstone Family Fellowship and South Branch Baptist planned to offer drive-in services instead.
This would help slow the spread of the coronavirus, he said, “and that’s what I’m worried about. What’s in the best interests of the community.”
It was not necessarily a popular request, even with some on the county commission.
“We’re making all these changes for something we can’t see, can’t touch,” Commissioner Scotty Miley said.
The schools were shut, he said. So were Little League sports and the Boy Scouts. The local production of Shrek had been postponed indefinitely.
“All this scare is hyped by the media,” Miley said.
And now local health officials wanted to close the churches.
“There’s never a better time to put your faith in God than now,” Miley said.