Gov. Ralph Northam COVID presser

Gov. Ralph Northam speaks at a media briefing on the coronavirus outbreak earlier this month.

Depending on various COVID-19 measures, Gov. Ralph Northam says the state still plans to reopen shuttered businesses and ease some pandemic restrictions by Friday, May 15. But the governor also said areas hit harder by the pandemic can keep certain limits in place if they decide their local numbers are still too high. 

During his thrice-weekly afternoon press conference Wednesday, May 6, Northam called the state’s decisions about lifting restrictions “the floor” when it comes to resuming activity amid the ongoing health crisis. 

The governor further said localities would be permitted to “raise the floor” depending on the circumstances in their areas.

“I know that across Virginia, our localities are being affected in very different ways,” Northam said. “I want everybody to understand [that] when we do detail what phase one’s restrictions look like, we regard that as the floor. 

“If local governments, based on the situation in their own localities, feel that they need to maintain additional restrictions on gatherings or business operations, we will allow that and we will work with the localities,” he said.

Northam’s shift toward allowing regional differences in the state’s move toward a phased reopening plan appeared to be a departure from earlier statements in which he said the state would move forward together.

When asked by a reporter how differences of opinion within certain regions would be settled, Northam said he would have “the final say.” 

Northam then noted he will hold a teleconference tomorrow, Thursday, May 7, with leaders in Northern Virginia localities to further discuss the region’s status.

Northam also said he would further detail at Friday’s press conference what exactly “phase one” of the state’s reopening plan will look like. 

Last Friday, Northam said the restriction on social gatherings of 10 or more would continue and that ongoing teleworking would be encouraged. But the state planned to allow businesses such as hair salons and restaurants to reopen if they follow certain requirements for social distancing and conduct extra cleanings.

Last week, Northam laid out the broad outlines of a three-phase reopening plan and said phase one could last for two to four weeks.

COVID-19 in Northern Virginia

Among Virginia’s localities, populous Northern Virginia has been the hardest hit by the COVID-19 epidemic. Fairfax County, which has a population of about 1.2 million, has so far reported more than 4,800 COVID-19 cases and more than 200 deaths.

Together, Northern Virginia localities have reported more than 11,300 cases and more than 350 deaths, according to data reported by the Virginia Department of Health as of Tuesday, May 6. The VDH coronavirus website had yet to be updated with the most recent data Wednesday due to a technical glitch, said Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver.

Northam said state officials are continuing to closely monitor COVID-19  cases, hospitalizations and deaths as they decide whether to lift restrictions and proceed toward reopening.

Northam again listed the parameters that would be considered, which include the percent of COVID-19 tests that are positive; COVID-19 hospitalizations; bed and ventilator capacity at the state’s hospitals, and whether there is an “increasing and sustainable supply of PPE.”

“And finally, we want to have an increasing ability to test and trace,” Northam added. “We’re significantly increasing our testing and we plan to hire over 1,000 contact tracers. Health is and will continue to be our first priority.”

Northam said the state is already seeing a downward trend in the percent of positive cases and that hospitalizations are “stable.” 

Calling in the National Guard to test

National Guard troops have joined the effort to assist with COVID-19 testing, which has been an ongoing challenge in the state. Virginia ranks near the bottom of U.S. states in per capita testing, according to data collected and analyzed by Johns Hopkins University.

On Wednesday, state officials said National Guard troops would conduct community testing events this weekend on the Eastern Shore, where there have been outbreaks at two meat-packing plants. Also, the guard has begun testing at long-term care facilities that request it for their residents and staff, Northam said.

The guard plans to administer tests at 100 long-term care facilities and congregate-living locations around the state at a rate of two to three a day. 

The tests will be voluntary and will be administered at the request of long-term care facilities, said Dr. Karen Remley, a former Virginia health commissioner who Northam tasked with leading a state task force on testing.

“It’s up to the facility,” Remley said. “It’s up to the people who run the facility to decide how they want to be tested and when they want to be tested.”

Long-term care facilities, including nursing homes and assisted living centers, have been hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. As of Tuesday, May 6, the state reported that 143 of its 244 outbreaks – or 58% -- had occurred in long-term care facilities. They have resulted in 2,902 COVID-19 cases and 405 deaths.

Facilities that want to request help from the National Guard should do so through their localities’ emergency management officials, Remley said.

Regarding contact tracers, Oliver said the state currently has only about 200 to 300 contract tracers but hopes to hire 1,500 more in the coming weeks. The number is based on a Harvard University study that recommends 15 to 30 contract tracers for every 100,000 people, Oliver said.

Whether that turns out to be enough contract tracers, Oliver said, will be borne out by the growth in COVID-19 cases as time goes on.

“Boxing in the spread of the disease is the whole purpose of the contact tracing, and if we’re not boxing it in, then we need to do more,” Oliver said.

Reach Jill Palermo at jpalermo@fauquier.com

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