Northam: NoVa will not enter Phase One on Friday
9,801 tests were conducted Sunday, nearing the 10,000/day goal
Update, May 12: In a new executive order, Northern Virginia localities will delay Phase One by two weeks, allowing businesses to reopen on a limited basis May 29, Gov. Ralph Northam announced Tuesday. The rest of the state will enter Phase One on Friday as planned, the governor said in a statement.
Northern Virginia will not enter Phase One of the state’s reopening blueprint on Friday, Gov. Ralph Northam said at Monday’s coronavirus news conference, after local officials from Alexandria and Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties sent a letter Sunday saying that the region is not ready to reopen businesses due to continued high rates of COVID-19 cases.
Northam said he asked the localities’ elected officials to send him a letter showing that the region is unified in asking for a delay, which could be between one week to several weeks from now, depending on how the pandemic trends within the region. There will not be a ban on residents from Northern Virginia traveling to other regions to patronize businesses, the governor said, adding, however, “We would certainly encourage them not to.”
Although the governor said last week that he had rejected a regional reopening approach because he didn’t want people from hot spots traveling and bringing the virus with them, there’s less concern about Northern Virginia residents traveling because many restrictions will still be in place under the Phase One reopening plan Friday, including the 10-person gathering rule.
The percentage of positive cases is about 25% in Northern Virginia’s five localities, Northam said, compared with about 10% in the rest of the state. Also, the number of hospitalized patients in Northern Virginia is considerably higher than the remainder of the state. Directors of the five localities’ health districts and departments wrote in a memo to State Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver that they did not have enough data to assess whether the number of cases is declining in their region.
The state will continue working closely with officials in the region, Northam added, and will hire more contact tracers specifically for Northern Virginia over coming weeks. Currently the state has about 600 tracers who are documenting exposure to the virus, and the state government plans to hire 400 more contact tracers over the next two to four weeks, Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources Dr. Daniel Carey said. The state also expects to execute a contract with a third-party vendor this week to help hire tracers, added Clark Mercer, Northam’s chief of staff.
Northam said he expects Phase One to take effect as planned Friday in the rest of the state as long as the state’s metrics remain consistently good, noting that he’ll make a final decision Wednesday on whether to move forward.
Also in Monday’s conference, the governor said that 9,801 tests were conducted Sunday, close to the state’s 10,000 tests per day goal, which health officials said is enough to reliably assess the progress of the virus and prepare for reopening the state’s economy, although it is unclear whether the state will consistently test at that rate daily.
Virginia continues to rank near the bottom of the country in the number of tests administered per 100,000 residents, according to Johns Hopkins University, but Dr. Karen Remley, the former state health commissioner who is in charge of an effort to bring up the number of tests in the state, said JHU is comparing cumulative tests by state.
Given that Virginia lagged early on when there were concerns about personal protective equipment running out and creating a testing backlog at the state lab, “we will never catch up [with other states],” Remley said, “unless we inappropriately test everyone in the state.”
Questions also have arisen from the Virginia Department of Health’s adjustment in reporting the number of tests earlier in May, when it began reporting the total number of molecular and serological tests given in the state, without distinguishing the number of each type of test.
Serological tests — also known as antibody tests — are supposed to show whether a person has had the COVID-19 virus, but there have been concerns nationwide that some have shown false negatives after being performed incorrectly. On Monday, Abbott Laboratories announced that the Food and Drug Administration has granted its antibody tests emergency use authorization.
Mercer said that officials in Virginia have talked with “the Johns Hopkins and Harvards of the world” to make sure that Virginia was reporting testing numbers the same as other states, and “it became clear that other states are including serological testing.”
Commenting on a Sunday report in the Richmond Times-Dispatch that the state had still not hit its 10,000 test per day goal and that commercial antibody tests still were not considered reliable by Virginia health officials, Mercer said, “if you’re going to compare us to other states and be critical of the volume of tests that we’re doing, and you are not comparing apples to apples, I think that’s grossly unfair. You can’t win either way. We want to be consistent with other states.”
Carey said that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had not provided guidelines to states on how or whether to include antibody tests in their reported totals, and Virginia had started by not including the antibody tests until the change in reporting, which now includes the total number of tests conducted, in addition to the number of individuals tested.
“In retrospect, we may have chosen a different path,” Carey said of the decision to combine the numbers of antibody tests and molecular tests. “Going forward, we’ll look into how to untangle those.”