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COVID-19 infections in Virginia climb to 77, including four new cases in Richmond

The city of Richmond reported its first cases of the coronavirus on Wednesday as the number of positive cases statewide rose to at least 77 and the largest hospital system in Virginia suspended its drive-through screening and testing locations due to a shortage of tests.

The 77 cases in Virginia represents an increase of 10 from the 67 cases that were reported around the same time on Tuesday, although a shortage of tests means the real number of cases is higher. There are now 12 cases in the Richmond area.

Officials on Wednesday also reported the first case in Charles City County, a female who had close contact with a person diagnosed with COVID-19 in Virginia.

At a late-morning press conference at the State Capitol on Virginia’s response to the novel coronavirus, State Health Commissioner Norman Oliver said there are three ongoing outbreaks in the state, meaning clusters of cases traced back to a single positive case — one in James City County, and two in the Richmond area.

Gov. Ralph Northam also said the state budget will almost certainly be revised ahead of the April 22 veto session. "We’ll be making adjustments as needed depending on what the economy is doing with our budget," Northam said.

The Virginia Department of Health said Wednesday that 1,278 people in Virginia have been tested.

Four Richmond residents have tested positive for COVID-19, the first positive cases in the city limits.

All four – two men in their 20s and two in their 30s – had traveled outside of the state recently, three of whom were in a group, Mayor Levar Stoney said at a Wednesday press conference at City Hall. Those three are linked to a previously confirmed case in Henrico County. The group traveled to North Carolina earlier this month.

The fourth man traveled to New York and had contact with someone who tested positive. All four are in self-isolation at home. One had been hospitalized, Stoney said.

Three of the Richmond cases were discovered as a part of the investigation into the Henrico County case, said Danny Avula, head of the Richmond and Henrico health departments. The cases were confirmed Wednesday morning, he said.

Health officials are working to determine who else the men may have had contact with after being exposed.

Officials stressed the importance of social distancing and limiting large gatherings to prevent spread of the virus. Stoney said the city would enforce the state ban on crowds of more than 10 people.

“Now is the time to increase our diligence and keep each other accountable,” Stoney said. “We have to be vigilant, personally vigilant, in this combat versus COVID-19.”

One of the Richmond area residents who tested positive for COVID-19 is a Philip Morris USA employee, the company disclosed.

The Henrico County-based Altria Group Inc., one of the largest employers in the Richmond region, notified its employees in a message dated Tuesday that an employee of Philip Morris USA, Altria’s cigarette manufacturing subsidiary, "has been confirmed positive for COVID-19."

The company said in the message that the employee "is actively recovering and feeling well in self-quarantine at home."

Altria spokesman Steve Callahan confirmed the information on Wednesday.

Callahan declined to comment on where, specifically, the employee works. "Out of respect for their privacy, we are not going to disclose any other details," Callahan said.

Altria has about 3,300 employees in the Richmond area. Its operations in the region include its cigarette manufacturing plant just off Interstate 95 in South Richmond, its corporate headquarters on West Broad Street in Henrico and a research center in downtown Richmond.

"Like so many large employers, we’ve been planning for our first case," said the message to employees from Sheila Freeman, vice president of manufacturing. "Our COVID-19 task force has rigorous protocols in place to ensure both employee safety and the continuity of our work."

Callahan said Altria is following U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidelines.

"We have developed rigorous protocols to handle suspected cases," he said, including notifying other employees who may have come into contact with anyone who tests positive. "Those protocols worked well in this case."

He said other employees who were in contact with the individual who tested positive have been asked to stay home, with pay, for the next 14 days.

The company’s manufacturing plant is still operating but with access restricted to "essential employees," Callahan said.

"The vast majority of our employees are working remotely," including headquarters staff, he said.

The Catholic Diocese of Richmond is also taking precautions to safeguard against COVID-19.

The diocese, which covers most of the state outside of Northern Virginia, announced Wednesday that Bishop Barry Knestout is in self-quarantine “out of care and caution.” Knestout, according to the diocese, experienced symptoms of a minor cold last weekend after heavy travel over the past two weeks.

He visited an undisclosed healthcare facility Wednesday morning and self-quarantined based on a doctor’s recommendation, according to the diocese.

“Bishop Knestout stresses that he does not feel seriously ill but is taking this measure as a precaution and is eager to return to public ministry,” the diocese said in a news release. “Until then, he will wait until doctors advise him of the status of the COVID-19 test and he is cleared to proceed with his public ministry.”

The diocese on Monday announced that Sunday Masses would be canceled, among other things, but the church would do a livestream of Mass.

In another development, state officials on Wednesday said they are asking all parents who are not essential workers to care for their young children at home, citing lack of capacity in the state’s child care centers.

Roughly 1,200 of the state’s 7,800 childcare centers have closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, straining the number of slots available, said Duke Storen, the state’s commissioner for social services.

“We want to make sure that our children are safe, while also ensuring that essential personnel, medical professionals are able to go to work and know that their children are being cared for,” Northam said Wednesday.

Essential workers include health care professionals, first responders, workers at grocery stores and pharmacies, and workers in the manufacturing and food processing industries.

At the same time, the state is advising child care centers that remain open to limit the number of people in any one classroom to 10, including both children and adults — which would further strain capacity.

“We know that this will be a hardship for many providers to change their model, but we know that they are up to the task,” Storen said.

The directive was part of broader guidance issued Wednesday to the state’s child care providers. Centers were also asked to feed children in their classrooms instead of common areas, to stagger recess times. The guidance also includes suggestions on how to keep children six feet apart while still interacting.

Storen added that the state is currently surveying the healthcare industry to gauge unmet demand for childcare.

Meanwhile, Sentara Healthcare, the largest hospital system in Virginia, temporarily suspended its three drive-through COVID-19 screening and testing locations due to a shortage of tests, the health system announced Wednesday. The drive-through testing began on Monday.

The three drive-through locations, which are at Princess Anne Hospital in Virginia Beach, Williamsburg Regional Medical Center and Sentara Edinburgh in Chesapeake, shut down at 2 p.m. Wednesday until more testing supplies become available.

They are still able to test high-risk patients – defined as those who have two of three symptoms (cough, fever of 100.4 or higher, and shortness of breath), have either traveled internationally or to an area with a COVID-19 outbreak and are either 60 or older or have a serious health condition.

The health system asked that people who believe they meet the criteria call their hospital before coming in. People with symptoms younger than 60 with no underlying health conditions are advised to quarantine at home for two weeks.

“We know that COVID-19 is a critical concern for our communities, so we are actively working with state and federal officials to get more testing supplies,” Sentara said in a statement.

In a separate screening location, about 130 people drove through a “pop up testing site” for coronavirus on Wednesday at Dorey Park in eastern Henrico County in the first such attempt by regional health officials to test people who have mild symptoms and worry they have the virus.

People who were tested called the health department for an appointment on a call center phone number that opened Wednesday morning. They remained in their vehicles while trained health officials wearing protective gear took oral swabs. Tests will be analyzed by the private company LabCorp and will be ready in about four days.

A small contingent of deputy sheriffs told patients who arrived before noon to park and keep their car windows closed. Vehicles then formed a line to pull up to four large tents. Richmond police operated a drone during the testing.

Health officials hope to do more testing at different locations around the region, Avula said.

“One of the biggest needs in our community around our collective response to this disease has been more opportunities for individuals who have symptoms but not severe enough to be tested through the state lab,” he said. “So we’ve been trying to figure out, how do we set up community testing opportunities in the context of there not being enough places to go for people who just have mild symptoms.”

Those who want to be screened by phone for a possible appointment may call (804) 205-3501 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia issued a statement Wednesday that warned fraudsters are setting up websites, contacting people by phone and email, and posting disinformation on social media platforms in scams linked to COVID-19.

The schemes include scammers offering to sell fake cures, vaccines, and advice on unproven treatments for COVID-19; scammers creating fake shops, websites, social media accounts, and email addresses claiming to sell medical supplies currently in high demand, such as surgical masks; scammers contacting people by phone and email, pretending to be doctors and hospitals that have treated a friend or relative for COVID-19, and demanding payment for that treatment; and scammers soliciting donations for individuals, groups, and areas affected by COVID-19.

"Fraudsters frequently prey upon vulnerable individuals during difficult times,” G. Zachary Terwilliger, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said in a statement. "Today, as our communities take important steps to limit the spread of COVID-19, we are working closely with our law enforcement partners to guard against fraudulent pandemic profiteers, as well as to ensure the rule of law and public safety is not eroded during this critical time."


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