Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on Wednesday urged the commonwealth’s residents to stick with “what we know works” as COVID-19 case numbers continue to rise and a vaccine is in the works.
“Almost every region in the state has sustained community spread,” Northam said at a news briefing.
Though Virginia stands at a case rate of 28 per 100,000 people, better than 45 states, the rates in neighboring West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina are all higher, in some cases double.
“What happens in these other states affects us in Virginia,” Northam said, pointing to a current test positivity rate of 8.3% (up from around 5% a few weeks ago), and 15,000 Virginians currently in hospitals.
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Northam continued to emphasize the importance of proven mitigation techniques such as mask wearing and social distancing, saying that gatherings such as Thanksgiving celebrations were primary drivers of the spread.
“What [the events] have in common is that people gather indoors, in small groups, where they think they are safe, and they let their guard down,” the governor said. “It’s just selfish. Rights are important, but we also need to emphasize responsibility.”
Though vaccines by the drug companies Pfizer and Moderna could start rolling out in a couple of weeks, Northam explained how many people, in which situations, would get them first, and took time in a period of distrust of vaccines to emphasize their safety.
The governor said that the first doses could be coming out in mid-December, and, following guidelines form the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, would be reserved for health care workers and nursing home residents.
After that, priority would be given to essential workers and those with health conditions that would put them at greater risk.
He said that Virginia expects about 70,000 doses of vaccine in the first wave, adding that even before final approval, “companies are manufacturing these doses, even as we speak.”
“We fully expect to have enough vaccine for everybody,” Northam said, “but it will take time.”
He repeated his prediction that all Virginians would be able to get the vaccine around the late spring or early summer.
State epidemiologist Dr. Lilian Peake said that there are about 500,000 people who fit the description of those who should get the first wave of vaccines, and that “We do have a process in place” for which of those people should be getting the first round. A decisions would be announced by the end of the week, she said.
“We have every reason to believe that these vaccinations are safe,” Northam said. “This vaccine does not use a live or attenuated virus. You will not get COVID from this vaccine. As a doctor, I am confident that … no corners have been cut.”
Northam acknowledged the problems that communities of color have had with trusting public health measures, saying, “We are certainly aware of [the history]” and comparing it to concerns the state faced regarding COVID-19 testing.
He said that talking and working with faith and community leaders was instrumental in getting testing rates up in communities of color, recalling how a video of faith leaders getting tested themselves helped boost attendance at a testing site in Hampton Roads by hundreds.
“Trust is a big part of this,” Northam said, adding that a similar push would happen with vaccines if it was necessary.
Northam and Dr. Daniel Carey, Virginia’s director of health and human services, said that the main concern in areas where case numbers are exploding, such as the southwestern part of the state, is not so much a shortage of hospital beds – while Ballad Health is moving patients around among its hospitals, no one is being taken outside their system – or personal protective equipment as much as staff.
Carey said that Virginia’s Medical Reserve Corps was addressing the problem, and that the state was also looking into training pre-hospital workers such as EMTs into hospital jobs.
But steps such as mask wearing and keeping physical distance are “the root of the root” of fixing the problems, Carey said.
‘Light at the end of the tunnel’
Northam spoke briefly about officials in Campbell County, just south of Lynchburg, who voted against enforcing public health measures, saying, “I expect that law enforcement will enforce the regulations” and adding, “We are not the enemy … the enemy is the virus.”
Of wearing masks and social distancing, the two main public health measures that have drawn cries of tyranny, Northam said, “This is not rocket science; this is not brain surgery.”
The governor said that people who want children to return to classrooms and to resume normal work and recreational activities, “There’s only one way to get there: Wear a mask and social distance now, and get the vaccine when it’s available.”
He called the response to the coronavirus “the biggest class project we’ve ever participated in.”
Northam concluded by saying, “There’s definitely light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s going to be a few months.”