No new restrictions, but Northam urges COVID-19 caution
Governor says medical workers, nursing home residents will be prioritized for vaccine
Gov. Ralph Northam warned Virginians about growing numbers of COVID-19 cases, especially in Southwest Virginia, which has seen higher rates for more than a month, in part because the region’s neighboring states also have seen spikes. At his Wednesday news conference, Northam stopped short of enforcing new restrictions, but encouraged people to follow physical distancing guidelines and avoid unnecessary social gatherings.
Northam also noted there is good news regarding potential vaccinations, which he said could be available to every Virginian by early summer.
Pfizer’s vaccine, which is furthest along in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval process, may be approved this month. The vaccinations will be administered in phases, Northam said, and Virginia is expected to receive 70,000 doses of Pfizer’s vaccine in the first wave.
Frontline medical workers and people in long-term care and nursing homes will be prioritized and essential workers, people with health vulnerabilities and people over the age of 65 will be next in line, said State Epidemiologist Dr. Lilian Peake. Virginia will follow protocol from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Peake and Northam said, although the state government is awaiting more guidance regarding high-risk populations in addition to medical providers and long-term care facility residents.
If Moderna’s and AstraZeneca’s vaccines are approved by the FDA in coming weeks, he said, there will be more vaccines available. Northam added that he and his family “will not hesitate” to get the vaccine when it is available and emphasized that the vaccines will be safe, despite some public concerns that the process was rushed.
It will likely take months to get enough doses of COVID-19 vaccines for the whole state, he added.
With more than 13.7 million COVID-19 cases nationwide — including 242,480 cases and 4,113 deaths statewide as of Wednesday — many public health officials are asking residents to wear masks, wash their hands frequently and avoid unnecessary travel. Currently, more than 1,850 people in Virginia are hospitalized with the virus, according to the Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association, and the state’s positivity rate is 8.3%. The Virginia Department of Health reports that 14,888 people in Virginia have been hospitalized with COVID-19 since March, and more than 100,000 virus patients were in hospitals across the nation Wednesday.
Northam gave incorrect hospitalization and death statistics at the news conference, but it was a case of misspeaking, a spokesperson said later.
Cases are surging in Southwest Virginia. Mount Rogers Health District, which includes Bland, Carroll, Grayson, Smyth, Washington and Wythe counties, as well as Bristol and Galax, has a positivity rate of 18.4%, and the Cumberland Plateau, covering Buchanan, Dickenson, Russell and Tazewell counties, has a rate of 17.5% as of Nov. 28, the most recent date available.
Social gatherings, family events and church services are particularly to blame in the spread in Southwest Virginia, the governor said, citing information from public health directors in the region, which also has fewer hospital beds than in other areas.
“Ballad Health is sounding the alarm bells and just announced today it will stop scheduling all elective surgeries,” Northam said. On Wednesday, the Tennessee-based health system, which serves Southwest Virginia, announced it would order a second refrigerator morgue truck for Kingsport, Tenn., in the Tri-Cities region, and that all elective surgeries will be suspended starting Dec. 7.
Northam put new restrictions in place Nov. 16, limiting gatherings to 25 people or fewer, requiring masks in public, indoor spaces for everyone ages 5 and up, and banning alcohol sales at restaurants and bars after 10 p.m. The state also began enforcing social distancing, mask wearing and cleaning at grocery stores, pharmacies and other essential retail businesses with possible Class 1 misdemeanor charges.