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Non-Essential Medical Procedures Resuming Friday

Man at podium next to ASL interpreter
In the governor's briefing, he announced that elective surgeries, dental procedures, and veterinary work could resume this Friday with the expiration of an earlier order. Social distancing, implemented to slow the spread of coronavirus, has prevented a New York or Italy style outbreak, and kept hospitals from being overwhelmed. (Screenshot: VPM News)

Elective surgeries, dental procedures, and veterinary work can all resume this Friday, Gov. Ralph Northam said in today’s briefing. Five weeks ago, the governor halted all “non-essential procedures,” which includes knee and hip replacements and some cancer treatments, as part of the effort to save medical supplies in case social distancing failed and the coronavirus overwhelmed hospitals.

“I want everyone to remember where we were six to eight weeks ago,” Northam said, talking through the timeline. “Our case counts and hospitalization rates were rising. We were worried that our hospitals would be overwhelmed by a surge in cases, like we were seeing in Italy and in NY.”

Instead, he said we’ve been successful at slowing the spread of COVID-19, preventing worst-case scenarios. He said, “Our hospitals are not overwhelmed. We have been able to get more PPE, and developed ways to decontaminate masks and gowns. Hospitals have ramped up testing with a much quicker turnaround time.”

Dr. Elizabeth Reynolds encouraged the public to schedule dental work with their providers, many of which will reopen this Friday, May 1. “We all recognize that the longer dental practices remain closed to preventive and non emergent treatment, the more likely that our patients’ untreated dental diseases will progress, increasing the complexity and cost for treatment,” Reynolds said.

Policies and practices have changed to ensure patient and provider safety, Reynolds said. Patients will need to wear masks to their appointments and undergo COVID-19 screening among other changes.

Northam also announced a multi-state initiative to help students with education loans. The Federal CARES act excludes some 200,000 Virginia students who will benefit from the new effort. “Lenders will provide a minimum of 90 days forbearance on loans, and waive late payment fees, among other actions,” Northam said.

President Donald Trump ordered meat packing plants to remain open through the pandemic yesterday, just days after Northam requested federal help to limit the spread of the coronavirus in Virginia’s 120 facilities. “Yesterday President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to require meat processing facilities to stay open to maintain our food supply chain,” Northam said. But, the governor says the safety of people who work in the plants trumps the supply chain. “The majority of these workers have low incomes and are from communities of color,” Northam said. “These factors place them at a higher risk. I am very concerned for them.”

The Centers for Disease Control are currently reviewing plants throughout the state, and Northam said he hoped the president would follow up on his order by offering more assistance to workers in the industry. “If we declare that workers at meat processing plants are essential, then it is imperative that we continue to support their health and well being,” the governor said.

Before taking questions, the governor and Dr. Norman Oliver, Deputy Commissioner for Population Health with the Virginia Department of Health, announced that COVID-19 data would be coming at the zip code level soon. They’ve resisted releasing this data in the past, citing patient confidentiality, so it is unclear what has changed or what level of granularity will be provided. Cartography experts note that zip codes don't really track to geographic areas, but instead provide route guidance for postal carriers, so it's unclear what zip code level data will provide that health district information didn't represent.

And, although the governor announced a doubling of weekly testing last week, how they’ve determined that - and if that number is sustainable - remain open questions. Northam said Dr. Karen Remley, who was recently appointed to lead a testing task force, will give a full update on the status of testing in Virginia at the Friday briefing.