COVID 1 year later: Va. Gov. Northam’s ‘difficult decisions,’ positive diagnosis — and persistent lack of smell

It has been nearly six months since Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam tested positive for COVID-19 and he still has no sense of smell.

Northam revealed that personal information during a wide-ranging interview with WTOP related to the one-year mark since the first coronavirus case was confirmed in Virginia.

“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” said Northam, referring to when he received the news that he had COVID-19.

Northam was diagnosed in September and initially had no symptoms at all.

That changed six days later when he lost his ability to smell.

“I look forward to the day when I have my sense of smell back,” said Northam. “I can’t smell anything. Peanut butter, toothpaste, peppermint chewing gum — nothing.”

Northam’s wife Pam tested positive for COVID-19 too, but she has since fully recovered.

“We’re just fortunate that we had mild cases,” he said.

Lack of resources caused chaos

Virginia’s first coronavirus case came on March 7, 2020, and Northam said the initial lack of resources in the state and the country led to a chaotic situation.

“This was unrelenting,” he said. “We were asked to fight a biological war without any supplies and without any guidance.”

One of the most frustrating problems at the beginning, according to Northam, had to do with testing. The few tests available had to be sent off to Atlanta, so they could be analyzed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Turnaround times on the test results were sometimes up to two weeks, and a national shortage of personal protective equipment led to governors literally competing with each other to get critical supplies to their states.

“I knew we were in for a long haul,” Northam said.

Northam ordered all schools to shut down, a decision that now runs contrary to his current push to get students back in classrooms as soon as possible.

“Schools are some of the safest places to be,” said Northam, who is a pediatric neurologist.

Northam said there were too many “unknowns” at the start of the pandemic to fully understand what decisions should be made regarding school buildings,

“We used science and data,” Northam said. “The decisions were the right thing to do at that time and I think they saved lives, but it was difficult for Virginia.”


More Coronavirus News

Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.


Scandal complicates pandemic response

The pandemic had, and continues to have, a disproportionately negative impact on communities of color.

“Access to education and health care — COVID-19 has really brought those inequities into much stronger focus,” Northam said.

However, Northam faced challenges being a leader on issues of race due to his racist yearbook photo scandal that has haunted him throughout his time as governor.

In 2019, a racist photo surfaced from his 1984 medical school yearbook showing one man in blackface and another in a KKK robe.

There were widespread calls for Northam to resign, including from the current Vice President Kamala Harris.

“That was a difficult time,” Northam said, adding that a listening/apology tour he held around the state with African American leaders helped him.

“I traveled around Virginia and listened to a lot of individuals,” he said. “When I listen, I learn. And the more I know, the more I can do.”

Nick Iannelli

Nick Iannelli can be heard covering developing and breaking news stories on WTOP.

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