Northam calls state of emergency to increase hospital staffing
30-day order would boost number of beds for COVID patients
With an all-time high number of Virginians hospitalized for COVID-19 on Friday, Gov. Ralph Northam issued a 30-day executive order Monday to expand the number of available hospital beds, increase staffing capacity at hospitals and nursing homes, and allow public health agencies greater flexibility.
“It is painful to see the number of COVID cases rising,” Northam said at what he promised to be his final COVID press conference before leaving office Saturday, after conducting more than 70 updates over the past two years.
Although the fast-moving omicron variant of COVID is widely viewed as a less-lethal variety, the vast majority of Virginians hospitalized with the coronavirus are not vaccinated, Northam said, citing current numbers from Ballad Health that 91% of current COVID patients in its hospitals and 97% of those on ventilators have not received shots. There are more positive cases among people who are vaccinated, but in general, their cases are not severe enough to require hospitalization. Northam urged anyone who can to get vaccinated.
Last week, the Virginia College of Emergency Physicians urged Northam to declare an emergency to open more testing sites run by the Virginia Department of Health; the governor said nine sites that will be adjacent to vaccination centers will offer PCR tests, and he said a federal plan to provide free rapid tests will help satisfy current demand.
“This virus has shown that it can mutate efficiently, but humans have shown we can fight back. We’re going to have to live with this disease,” Northam said. “Everyone who can needs to be vaccinated.” He said that the decision to declare a state of emergency was made over the weekend following Friday’s single-day high of 3,329 hospitalizations reported by the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association. In conversations with health systems around the state, the governor said that hospital administrators said they needed a loosening of state statutes regarding medical practice, allowing more people to be able to work in hospitals in Virginia. Many hospitals around the country are suffering from staff shortages, in part due to COVID and career burnout.
The emergency order directs the state health commissioner to waive normal bed licensing requirements, allows hospitals to increase their licensed bed capacity and mandates increased coordination between hospitals and local medical services agencies.
The order also directs actions intended to boost staff in hospitals and nursing homes. It allows providers with an active out-of-state license to practice in Virginia, authorizes physician assistants with two or more years of clinical experience to practice without a written supervisory agreement, increases provider-to-patient ratios and provides certain liability protections to health care workers acting in good faith.
Additionally, the order makes the transfer of patients to state-operated psychiatric hospitals more flexible.
Cynthia V. Bailey, counsel to the governor, noted that people with out-of-state medical licenses will be able to work in Virginia, for instance, under the state of emergency. Northam said that he has spoken to Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin, who takes office at noon Saturday. A Republican, Youngkin has said that he and Attorney General-elect Jason Miyares will challenge President Joe Biden’s COVID vaccination mandates on employers, but Youngkin has also promoted vaccination and getting booster shots six months after the first two doses.
Youngkin, Northam said Monday, “has communicated too with the hospitals. We want this [transition] process to be consistent and be on the same sheet of music.”