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Northam to consider regional plan for lifting restrictions as testing begins to ramp up

Gov. Ralph Northam said Monday that he is open to a regional approach for lifting restrictions on businesses as part of the state’s COVID-19 recovery plan.

Northam said the idea has been a topic of discussion among business leaders the state convened to help advise on the plan for the first phase of the state’s reopening, which has not begun.

“How can we do this? Is being able to open certain regions of Virginia possible? I’m open minded to all of that, and I’d say, stay tuned,” Northam said Monday during a briefing with reporters.

Calls for Northam to consider lifting restrictions in less-affected parts of the state have been ongoing for weeks — even amid a lack of widespread testing — given that fewer COVID-19 cases have been reported in Virginia’s rural south and southwest.

Senate Republican leaders on Monday urged Northam to consider restrictions by region and locality, chiding the reopening “blueprint” Northam outlined Friday, which does not include such an approach.

“By again applying a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, the governor’s plan will make the people and businesses of Bristol and Lynchburg dependent upon the progress made in Arlington and Alexandria,” Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, said in a statement, joined by other GOP leaders. “It is long overdue for Governor Northam to recognize our geographic diversity.”

Phase One, state officials said Friday, will involve keeping some businesses closed, while others reopen under “strict safety restrictions.” It will also include “continued social distancing, continued teleworking [and] face coverings recommended in public,” according to an outline of the plan made public Friday.

Northam said Monday that work on the “Phase One” plans is ongoing, but cautioned that Virginia is not yet ready to lift COVID-19 restrictions, even as the state has seen signs of progress.

COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have continued to climb as Virginia has ramped up its testing in the past week, bringing it closer to the target daily tests that experts say would be needed to begin to reopen the state.

The Virginia Department of Health reported 13,535 cumulative positive cases — both confirmed and probable — on Monday, an increase of 565 from the last reporting period, and 458 deaths — 454 confirmed and four probable — which is 10 more than the last report, according to state Health Commissioner Norman Oliver.

Fairfax County, the most populous in the state, has seen the most deaths, topping 100 as of Monday. Henrico County reported the second most at 89.

There are 1,686 cases in the Richmond area: 817 in Henrico, 457 in Chesterfield County, 304 in Richmond and 108 in Hanover County.

The Richmond area has 128 COVID-19 deaths: 89 in Henrico, 18 in Chesterfield, 14 in Richmond and 7 in Hanover.

State health officials have said there’s a lag in the reporting of statewide numbers on the VDH website. Figures on the website might not include cases or deaths reported by localities or local health districts.

There were 1,455 people hospitalized for COVID-19 as of Monday, 56 more than the number reported Friday, according to the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association.


Last week, from Sunday to Saturday, Virginia averaged 2,892 new tests per day, up from an average of 1,990 the week before.

“We’ve come a long way,” Northam said at a Monday briefing, crediting the testing task force he had announced the previous week for ramping up the volume of tests.

But, according to an analysis by the Harvard Global Health Institute for Stat News, Virginia would need to average 4,791 daily tests as of May 1 to be able to safely begin reopening the state.

Northam’s stay-at-home order is in place until June, giving the state more time to ramp up its testing.

The World Health Organization has said that places with adequate testing should see about 10% of their tests coming back positive. Cumulatively, about 17% of Virginia’s tests have been positive, according to data from VDH.

Virginia reported about 4,000 new tests on both Sunday and Monday, but was still one of the 31 states, along with the District of Columbia, that the Harvard researchers determined had not reached the number of daily tests necessary to begin relaxing restrictions in May, Stat News reported.

New York needed to ramp up testing the most, from about 20,000 to more than 130,500 per day.

With wider testing, states can better identify and quarantine people who are infected in order to prevent the spread of the virus, as opposed to requiring everyone to stay at home. Experts say that easing restrictions before testing capacity is adequate could result in a spike in new COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths.

Northam and other public officials highlighted community testing in two Richmond low-income housing developments last week, which they said served as pilots for wider community testing.

“We know communities of color across the state are being hit really hard by COVID-19, and we want to scale up testing in those communities,” State Health Commissioner Norman Oliver said

Northam also announced Monday the arrival of protective personal equipment orders to the state, which will be supplied to state agencies, like the social services and corrections departments, localities and medical facilities, “in accordance with prioritization and need.”

The administration announced that since Friday, the state has received: 3.8 million gloves, 100,000 N95 masks, 800,000 surgical masks, and 80,000 isolation gowns.

Poultry plants

Northam also announced that the state is seeking federal help to combat the spread of COVID-19 at meat packing facilities, where COVID-19 is spreading among workers working in close contact.

“I am very concerned about the continued rise in cases,” Northam said on Monday. He said that he joined the governors of Maryland and Delaware to ask for national guidance related to meat packing safety standards, protective equipment for workers, and resources to help the state boost testing and monitoring in the industry.

Northam said about 3,000 people work in two poultry plants on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. He said many do not speak English as their first language and that the “close quarters” of their housing makes isolation and social distancing more difficult.

The governor said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is sending a team to the Eastern Shore that will include epidemiologists and contact tracers and language specialists who speak Haitian Creole, which Northam said is the language spoken by many workers in the plants. The CDC team will do an assessment, including wider testing, to help determine the scope of the outbreak on the Eastern Shore.

Also Monday, Northam said Virginia has received a $2 million grant from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to begin to address the behavioral health impacts of COVID-19.

Among other things the Northam administration said the grant will help Community Service Boards provide care for substance abuse via telehealth and support health care workers who are dealing with stress and substance use.

Publix employee has virus

An employee at the Publix grocery store in the White Oak Village shopping center off Laburnum Avenue in eastern Henrico County tested positive for the coronavirus, the chain confirmed Monday.

Publix did not identify the employee or the person’s job at the store or say when the person tested positive.

At least seven Richmond-area grocery workers now have now tested positive for the coronavirus in the past month.

That includes two other Publix employees — at its store at The Shops at Stratford Hills on Forest Hill Avenue in South Richmond and at the Colonial Square Shopping Center in Colonial Heights, the chain has said.

Workers at three Kroger stores in Henrico — on Eastridge Road, at Willow Lawn shopping center and on Staples Mill Road — also have tested positive for COVID-19, Kroger has said. An employee at the Whole Foods Market store in West Broad Village in western Henrico also tested positive, the company said.

The number of area store clerks testing positive for the virus could be higher as some retailers, such as Walmart, have declined to confirm cases.

Gun range

A Lynchburg Circuit judge ruled Monday that a Lynchburg gun range must be allowed to open to customers despite a statewide executive order requiring nonessential businesses to close to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The order issued by Lynchburg Circuit Judge F. Patrick Yeatts says federal and state protections on the right to bear arms outweigh any emergency authority held by Northam to order the gun range closed.

The SafeSide Tactical gun range in Lynchburg filed the lawsuit challenging the governor’s executive order, along with Gun Owners of America, the Virginia Citizens Defense League and the Association of Virginia Gun Ranges.

The VCDL called it a “partial victory” because the injunction applies to just the gun range in Lynchburg.

Northam said the state will review its options.

“The decisions that we are making are to promote and provide safety for Virginians,” he said.


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