Northam: Virginia’s Phase I plan ‘a floor’; localities can seek changes

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said Wednesday that while he’s still confident that the commonwealth can enter Phase I of lifting COVID-19-related safety restrictions May 15, he described the relaxed restrictions as “the floor,” and that if localities want to keep some restrictions, they might be able to.

Northam said at a briefing that the criteria for beginning to lift safety restrictions were so far being met: A two-week decline in cases was necessary, and “we are seeing that.”

He added that hospitals were showing the capacity to handle a surge, and that “for the last few days, no hospital has reported a difficulty in acquiring PPE.”

That said, the governor added, “We’re still a week and a half away, but as we get closer, if [cities and towns] want to raise that floor, we’ll work with them on that.”

Specifically addressing the D.C area, he said, “If the numbers rise more than we’re comfortable with in Northern Virginia, we’ll allow them to raise that floor.”

Still, he said, “I will have the final say” if localities want to do something different in terms of restrictions.

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Northam was responding to a question about whether he had coordinated his response with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. All three leaders have said in the past that any lifting of safety restrictions would have to be done in consultation.

“We have a great relationship” with Bowser and Hogan, Northam said. “We all have different situations; we all have unique challenges.”

He added, “As we move forward … there has to be flexibility.”

Northam said he has also asked President Donald Trump to extend the Title 32 declaration under which the federal government would reimburse Virginia for the activation of the National Guard.

Maj. Gen. Timothy Williams, Virginia’s adjutant general, said the National Guard had been providing support for testing at long-term care facilities and correctional facilities, delivering samples, supplies and more.

Carlos Hopkins, Virginia’s secretary of veterans and defense affairs, said if the extension wasn’t granted, the National Guard would still do their work, but the state would have to pay for it.

At several points during the briefing, the car horns of those protesting against the safety restrictions could be heard. Asked to respond to them, Northam said, “My message is, I want to thank on behalf of Virginia the people who are stepping up every day to be part of the solution.”

Testing in ‘a much better place’

Northam’s briefing came after a Virginia health official said that the commonwealth is in “a much better place” than a month ago regarding COVID-19 testing.

Michael Keatts, a regional emergency coordinator at the Virginia Department of Health, said at a briefing earlier Wednesday that testing capacity has “steadily increased” over the past month, so that the number of people tested has grown from between 2,000 and 3,000 tests per day to about 6,500.

While the capacity is booming, Keatts acknowledged that the availability of testing components, such as swabs, was “still limited.”

Even so, he said, Virginia is able to expand the criteria for testing to include people from high-risk groups who don’t have any symptoms of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

He added that two pharmacies in Virginia Beach and Colonial Heights are doing testing, and that more pharmacy sites could be ready to go as soon as next week.

Though Virginia hasn’t reached its stated goal of 10,000 tests a day, Keatts said, that number is “probably attainable very soon.”

Dr. Denise Toney, director of the Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services, said that “supply chain issues” with swabs and reagents were “early on, a limiting factor” to completing the desired number of tests, as well as other problems.

“The new supplies we are getting are sure to be helpful,” she said.

Similarly, the state lab received 15 Abbott ID NOW instruments, which can turn around results in less than 30 minutes, from the federal Department of Health and Human Services. But as for the other components of the tests, “Our orders are not being filled at the capacity we are ordering them, so there are some supply chain issues there,” Toney said.

Keatts added that the health department, with the help of the National Guard, is starting “point prevalence testing” at nursing homes and other places at risk — an aggressive regime that tests all residents and staff at a congregate location rather than simply those who are exhibiting symptoms.

Toney also said the virus was exhibiting different “genetic groupings,” which she explained were not as different as strains (which could require different treatments), but enough to create “cluster maps” that “allow us to determine where some of these viruses originated.”

She added, “We have had multiple introductions into the commonwealth,” from Southeast Asia, Europe and domestically.

Keatts said there’s a section on the VDH coronavirus website that allows Virginians to type in their ZIP codes and find the nearest testing site.

Northern Virginia leaders ask to be consulted before reopening decisions are made

Leaders from Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties are urging Gov. Northam to communicate with them before future decisions about reopening parts of the state are made.

In a letter, which is dated Tuesday, the officials wanted to communicate “our strong desire  to  be both briefed and consulted as your administration makes decisions about the reopening of the Commonwealth.”

Phyllis Randall from the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, Jeff McKay of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and Ann Wheeler from the Prince William Board of County Supervisors co-authored the letter.

In addition to being briefed on the status of reopening, the officials requested “a weekly phone call between a member of your team and our chiefs of staff.”

“This too will help with the flow of information and help better open lines of communication,” the group wrote. “In addition to the reopening, some of the topics our respective teams would like to cover include testing capacity, the acquisition of personal protective equipment, racial disparities, and the methodology used for the distribution of CARES Act funds.

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Rick Massimo

Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2013 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He's the author of "A Walking Tour of the Georgetown Set" and "I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival."

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