Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on Monday declared a 30-day state of emergency as hospitalizations in the commonwealth, driven by the spike in COVID-19 cases, are at record highs.
“We’re taking action to help our hospitals,” Northam said at his last news conference as governor Monday afternoon.
The order will give hospitals the power to expand bed capacity without new licensing processes, and increases the use of telehealth. It also recognizes the licenses of out-of-state health professionals and expands the number of health workers who can give vaccines.
He added that Virginia health officials forecast that the surge in cases, led by the omicron variant, will peak in early February.
You can read Northam’s order on his website.
Northam said he and his administration had “several very productive conversations” with the team of Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin, but didn’t directly say whether Youngkin, who will be inaugurated Saturday, had signed off on Monday’s executive order.
Northam said that the census in Virginia hospitals last Friday was the highest it’s been since the pandemic began, and that it’s taking a toll on workers.
“It’s causing a real strain on the people who work in hospitals; doctors and nurses have worked tirelessly for 22 months to care for people who have gotten sick,” Northam said. “I say ‘tirelessly,’ but it’s not really the right word. Because they are tired, they’re exhausted, and they’re burned out. That’s why it’s so important for all of us to help them.”
He continued to stress the importance of getting vaccinated, pointing out that even when vaccinated people are infected with the omicron variant, the problems are less severe. Northam pointed to southwest Virginia, where 97% of COVID-19 patients on ventilators in hospitals are unvaccinated.
Virginia broke a pandemic record for hospitalizations on Friday, and reported nearly 3,500 patients hospitalized with the virus statewide. The number needing intensive care has doubled since December 1st, and the overwhelming majority were not vaccinated.
The governor thanked his health team, including Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver, state epidemiologist Dr. Lilian Peake and vaccination coordinator Dr. Danny Avula, who left his job Sunday.
“I am proud of this team, and everyone who has worked so hard on our COVID response,” Northam said. “For 22 months, we have consistently followed the science, and our approach has saved thousands of lives.”
The I-95 snarl
Northam said a report was being prepared on what went wrong during last week’s snowstorm, which stranded people on I-95 for up to 24 hours.
“I regret that,” Northam said.
The governor pointed out that in many areas, rain preceded the snow, making it impossible to pre-treat roads and resulting in a sheet of ice. He praised the work of the state police and Virginia Department of Transportation authorities, adding, “I think we all are fortunate that nobody lost their lives.”
Northam said the preparation of such a report on what went right and wrong was traditional, and he hoped it would be made public.
‘I say thank you’
Northam used the news conference, his last as governor, as a kind of valedictory.
Since the first COVID-19 case was diagnosed in Virginia in March 2020, “We’ve been worried, we’ve been scared, angry, sad, and a lot more sometimes, all at once,” Northam said. “It has been a roller coaster, and we’re not built for this kind of uncertainty for this long.”
He said the pandemic has sometimes “brought out the worst in people. It’s been heartbreaking to watch people lash out and hurt each other. That is very painful to see. But more often, these times have also brought out the best in people.” He especially cited the efforts of health care workers, adding, “It reminds me why I chose medicine as a career, and has been heartwarming to see. On behalf of a very grateful Virginia, to all of you, I say thank you.”
He went on to talk about other aspects of his time in office.
“Every day, I have felt so proud and grateful for you, Virginia. I’ve seen your strength. I’ve seen your resilience, your kindness, and your generosity.”
Northam added that “We’re leaving this Commonwealth better than it was when we came into office. Today our Commonwealth does a better job of treating people right. It’s more welcoming, more open, more fair, and more equitable. Today, we help people who need it, whether they need health care or cleaner water, or to keep a roof over their head during a global pandemic.”
“Today we recognize the wrongs of the past and we work to reckon with and rectify them. And today, in Virginia, everyone has greater access to opportunity, the opportunity to get what you need to build the life you want to live where you want to live it. … I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve gotten done.”
Of Youngkin, Northam said, “I think that the governor-elect and his administration have a wonderful opportunity ahead of them. We are turning over an economy a record surplus, a Commonwealth that’s in as good a shape as it’s ever been. So they have an opportunity to continue that progress.”
“And also think they have a responsibility, because a lot of what we’ve listened to and learned and been able to accomplish through action has been the result of what Virginians have asked for.”
Northam, a pediatrician, added, “I’ll be back in my practice on Monday.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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