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COVID-19 Testing Numbers and Capacity Increase

Screenshot of woman speaking next to presentation
Virginia is in phase two of the testing timeline, explained Dr. Karen Remley, who heads up a testing taskforce. (Screenshot: VPM News)

Gov. Ralph Northam announced a rapid increase in COVID-19 testing capacity today, and said the success of social distancing had Virginia on the road to reopening.

“We stayed 6 feet apart and we waited to see if it worked, and it has worked. These actions have flattened that curve as we have often talked about. Our hospitals have not been overwhelmed. Hospitals have continued to have the ICU beds and the ventilators that they so desperately needed,” Northam said. “We have slowed the spread but we are not out of the woods yet. We must continue to move forward carefully. Testing is key to that.”

There was some confusion about total testing capacity, although Dr. Karen Remley, who heads the testing taskforce, announced a major increase in daily capacity. “By the end of the day we will have contracted with two Virginia labs and a North Carolina lab to be able to increase our tests to up to 3,000 additional tests a day,” Remley said.

Testing numbers have increased rapidly over the past week, after 8 weeks where Virginia seemingly lagged behind the nation in COVID-19 testing. But as health officials explained today, some of that gap may have been due to different methodologies used by states in counting tests. Virginia was measuring people tested, not total tests administered.

Still, Northam referred to testing by numbers of people tested. “On Wednesday we tested more than 5,000 people, our highest one day number ever. Yesterday we grew that number to another new record, testing more than 5,800 people. That’s around a 15 percent increase in one day,” Northam said.

Later in the briefing, Dr. Norman Oliver explained the new methodology in more depth. When Virginia measured testing by individuals, an individual who would be tested two, three, or four times throughout their illness would count only once. Now, the health department is counting total tests administered, which likely accounts for part of the rapid increase in tests reported, although an exact breakdown was not available today.

Regardless of what accounts for the recent rapid increase, Remley said the state has enough tests for widespread testing. “If you think you are sick, call your doctor,” she said, encouraging everyone to get tested if they have symptoms.

This is “phase two” of the testing timeline, which is different from the reopening phases. The state is not yet in phase one of reopening, but is moving steadily along the testing timeline. The current timeline establishes five phases of testing, with a requirement of hitting 10,000 tests a day before entering an “ongoing monitoring” phase where COVID-19 outbreaks are minimal and contact tracing is used to isolate cases and prevent wide-scale spread.

Until today, it’s been unclear what Virginia’s capacity was for contact tracing. This is partially because the state has no central roster of contact tracers; Oliver told reporters that it’s handled by local health districts, which have reassigned staff to help their regular, full-time contact tracers. He used Richmond city as an example: “They had a normal force of about five people that do that kind of work around sexually-transmitted infections. In the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, they ramped that up to about 20,” Oliver said. And, that happened at all 35 health districts across the state. “I don’t know the exact number, but it’s in the hundreds.” He said they are developing a plan to have 1,500 contact tracers statewide as part of COVID-19 containment.

To keep medical protective equipment supplies high, Northam said federal assistance would help Virginia open three sites to disinfect and decontaminate protective gear next week. “PPE can be decontaminated and reused 20 times without degrading performance. This will be a big help to our medical facilities and our first responders,” Northam said. “Once all three units are operational we’ll have the ability to decontaminate up to 240,000 masks in the commonwealth per day.”

Administration officials also described plans to help small businesses across the state. They said revenues generated by “grey games,” a form of gambling, is going into a COVID-19 relief fund that will be available to help businesses across the state.

As Northam wrapped up the briefing, he said he’d have more guidance for businesses and schools on Monday. He also described the commonwealth as more open than other states which have announced imminent reopening plans.

“Everyone wants to know what comes next. We’ll talk more about that on Monday, but here are a few things to keep in mind,” he said. “When other states talk about going to their phase one re-opening, look closely at what that means. You’ll find their phase one looks a lot like where Virginia is right now. For example, some state’s phase one opens beaches to exercise. We’ve had that from the start and when other state’s talk about how their phase one includes elective surgeries, we’re doing that starting today.”