Gov. Ralph Northam speaks during a Sept. 1 press conference in Richmond.

Gov. Ralph Northam gives an update on the state's battle against the coronavirus pandemic during a Sept. 1 press conference in Richmond.

The coronavirus is only “moderately contained” in Virginia, and the state must “double-down” on mitigation efforts such as hand-washing, mask-wearing and avoiding large groups to head off a possible surge after the Labor Day weekend, Gov. Ralph Northam said Tuesday.

In his first press conference about the ongoing pandemic since early August, Northam said he would not lift more stringent restrictions in the Hampton Roads area ahead of the holiday weekend and noted cases of COVID-19 have risen across the state over the past week, something he and other state officials are watching closely.

Regarding the upcoming holiday weekend, Northam said the state experienced surges of cases after both the Memorial Day and July 4th holidays and is hoping to ward off a similar increase.

“We don’t want to repeat that after the summer comes to a close,” Northam said. “To avoid these same surges after Labor Day will give us a huge running start going into the fall.”

On July 31, when Hampton Roads was reporting percent-positivity rates on COVID-19 tests above 10%, Northam issued an executive order restricting the sale of alcohol after 10 p.m., limiting restaurants to 50% capacity and prohibiting gatherings of more than 50 people, except for religious reasons.

In the rest of the state, which has been in Phase 3 since July 1, restaurants are permitted to operate at normal capacity as long as they maintain 6-foot social distancing. Also, group sizes of up to 250 are permitted.

Overall, Northam said, “Virginians are doing a good job of keeping the curve flat.” But he said rising cases in the Southwest Virginia are “especially concerning” due to a lack of hospitals and critical care capabilities in that more rural area of the state. New cases there had been averaging about 80 a day and are now averaging about 220 a day, Northam said.

Cases are also trending up in Northern Virginia, which is reporting an average of about 240 cases a day. 

Across the state, the percent-positivity rate on COVID-19 tests was 7.7% on Tuesday. In Northern Virginia, the rate was 6.3%, while in the Rappahannock-Rapidan Health District, it was 6.9%.

Northam called the current rates “in a more acceptable range… but still not where we need to be to ease restrictions.” He further said Virginians “should not let their guard down.”

“It’s in our hands, it really is. If we follow the guidelines, if we wear our masks when we’re around other people, if we wash our hands, keep our hands away from our faces and keep our social distancing, we can get this virus under control. It can be done,” Northam added. “But it’s going to take the cooperation of everybody.”

Northam said both Northern Virginia and the state’s college campuses have seen an uptick in cases among younger Virginians, particularly 20- to 29-year-olds. That has led to fewer severe cases and fewer hospitalizations, but the state is still reporting daily deaths due to COVID-19 as the virus continues to spread to more vulnerable people. On Tuesday, the Virginia Department of Health reported 32 deaths due to the virus.

“The message again is, if you’re young and invincible, think about the person who’s not in your situation,” Northam said of younger people congregating in risky settings such as bars and parties. “And that may be a health care worker, it may be someone in a nursing home, it may be someone in your family.”

Northam said there are “concerning numbers” of COVID-19 cases at Virginia colleges and universities “very early on as students have returned to campuses.”

“We’re watching this very closely,” he said, adding that he’s been in “almost daily contact” with Virginia college and university presidents. “They are continuing to take it seriously,” he said.

“We really want our scholars to be back on campus. We want them to be in the classroom, but we have to do it safely and responsibly, so we’ll continue to monitor it,” Northam said.

Northam said one challenge the state is facing is that fewer people are showing up for COVID-19 testing despite the many testing locations around the commonwealth. 

The governor said the state is continuing to emphasize the importance of testing despite a recent change in Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that now say people don’t need to be tested if they’ve been in contact with someone who tests positive for the disease if they themselves have no symptoms.

Northam also said Virginia would not follow a recent Trump administration reclassification of teachers as “critical infrastructure workers,” a designation that means they should be expected to continue working even if they have been exposed to COVID-19.

“That’s the wrong thing to do, so Virginia is taking a different approach. If you are a teacher and there is a high chance you’ve been exposed to COVID-19, you should get tested and stay home until you get the result, even if you don’t have symptoms,” he said.

“So let me be clear, despite recent changes in the CDC guidelines, Virginia will continue to encourage that those who need testing to get it,” Northam added. “That means if you have symptoms, if you think you’ve been exposed or you need a test to go back to work, you should consult your physician – period. And again, if you need a test, you should get a test.”

Reach Jill Palermo at jpalermo@fauquier.com

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