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Delay for Northern Virginia's COVID-19 Reopening Announced

Screenshot from gov's briefing
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Gov. Ralph Northam confirmed he’ll use a regional approach to reopening the state today, following feedback from leaders in Northern Virginia who say they aren’t ready. Although positive tests and confirmed cases are trending down statewide, new infections remain high in Northern Virginia.

“In the past 24 hours for example, Northern Virginia reported more than 700 cases. The rest of Virginia reported fewer than 300,” Northam said.

Northam said he expects to announce on Wednesday that the rest of the state can reopen this Friday, May 15. There is no projected date for Northern Virginia to reopen.

Northam reported 9,801 tests yesterday, nearly meeting the 10,000-test threshold he’s said is necessary for later phases of reopening. He fielded several questions from reporters who asked if the state is really doing enough in testing, citing state-by-state comparisons that routinely show Virginia at the bottom in overall tests.

“I make no excuses for Virginia, I think we're in a good place,” Northam said, while calling on various health officials to answer different questions on testing. One concerned the inclusion of antibody test results, which produce unreliable results, in total test numbers. Dr. Norman Oliver, the state health commissioner, said he would look into separating the more reliable test results, which are polymerase chain reaction tests, from the antibody tests in state numbers going forward.

Clark Mercer, Northam’s chief of staff, agreed with Oliver on separating the results, but said counting the antibody tests was the only way to ensure Virginia’s testing rates can be compared “apples to apples” to other states.

While talking to experts at Harvard and John Hopins, Mercer said, “It became clear that other states are including serological testing. So if you're going to compare us to other states, and be critical of the volume of tests that we're doing, and we are not actually comparing apples to apples, I think that's grossly unfair.”

Reporters also questioned if the state had enough contact tracers to reopen. Currently, the state has increased from just over 200 contact tracers to over 600, but set a goal of reaching 1,000. Mercer acknowledged they won’t have 1,000 by Friday, but said with Northern Virginia “out of the mix,” they would have enough.

“I think we're more than ready for the rest of the commonwealth to enter phase one,” Mercer said. “Where we're going to have to really ramp up some of our contact tracing is where we have the preponderance of positive tests, which is in Northern Virginia, so it stands to reason that if they are delayed by a week or two weeks or several weeks, then we do have a bit of a cushion to get the tracers in Northern Virginia ready when they are ready to enter phase one.”

Throughout the pandemic, disparate outcomes and unequal allocations of resources have come up across the nation. Janice Underwood, Northam’s chief diversity officer, said equity has been part of their focus since they began planning for the new coronavirus. She announced a pilot program in Richmond to get supplies to vulnerable communities.

“In order to mitigate the projected debilitating outcomes on the African-American community and these other communities who are at elevated risk, we’ve made 20,000 masks and 20,000 bottles of hand sanitizer available to Richmond city for distribution to its most under-resourced communities,” Underwood said.

Officials and Northam also addressed recent news that the City of Petersburg has 46 homes without water, which the city says it cut off before the current crisis. On Sunday, Oliver ordered the city to restore water service to all residents. Northam said clean water is necessary to fight COVID-19, and that “Restoring water service will help protect those households as well as the community.”

Polls will be open for the May town elections, but the governor encouraged Virginians to vote absentee: “Voting by mail is secure, and is the safest way to vote at this time.” The deadline to request an absentee ballot through mail is tomorrow, Tuesday, May 12, and requests must be received by the registrar by 5:00 p.m.