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Politifact VA: Virginia Reopening Despite Lacking Some Requirements

Graph showing VA testing levels
Although positive results are on a downward trend, testing capacity isn't high enough to meet requirements for reopening. (Source: Va. Dept. of Health)

Gov. Ralph Northam plans to take the first steps on May 15 to reopen businesses shut down by the coronavirus, even though Virginia has not met all his conditions for starting action.

Restaurants, churches, hair salons and gyms will be allowed to operate in very limited ways in all of the state except Northern Virginia.

Northam has been saying for three weeks that he would begin the first phase when Virginia met five conditions:

  • A 14-day downward trend in COVID-19 hospitalizations;
  • Increased COVID-19 testing and tracing;
  • A 14-day downward trend in the percentage of positive COVID-19 tests;
  • Ample hospital bed and intensive care capacity; and
  • Sustainably increasing the supply of personal protective equipment.

 

Let’s take a look at Virginia’s performance.

Hospitalizations

The number of COVID-19 hospitalizations has not tracked down for 14 days, as the governor originally required. Depending on the measure, it’s remained fairly steady or gone up, according to Virginia Department of Health statistics.

Chart showing hospitalization levels
COVID-19 hospitalizations have not declined over the last 14 days. (Source: Va. Dept. of Health)

On April 30, 1,550 coronavirus patients were hospitalized in Virginia. That rose to 1,625 on May 8 and dropped to 1,526 on May 13 - the day of this writing.

The seven-day average of hospitalizations has risen from 1,474 two weeks ago to 1,564 on May 13.

Northam was recently asked if he had changed his standard of diminishing COVID-19 hospitalizations.  He said he’s considering the numbers in combination with other hospitalization data and is encouraged that the number of coronavirus patients in intensive care, and the number of respirators in use, have remained steady.

Testing and tracing

Virginia has consistently ranked near the bottom of states in the number of COVID-19 tests conducted per capita, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Research Center. Testing is increasing, however.

Northam has not set a specific number of the tests Virginia must conduct to reach Phase 1. He’s said that ultimately, Virginia needs to test at least 10,000 people a day to return to normal business.

The state tested 3,668 people on April 24, the date Northam set his first-step requirements for reopening. Virginia hit a highwater mark of 8,997 on May 6 and has since hovered around 7,500, according to Department of Health records.

Testing levels in Virginia
Virginia has not yet met the needed 10,000 tests a day to return to normal business. (Source: Va. Dept. of Health)

There’s a problem with the numbers, however. Some of the tests - the state says it doesn't know how many - were not done by nasal cotton swabbing, but were less-reliable antibody tests done by drawing blood. The Health Department says it will separate those numbers.

The Northam administration plans to hire 1,000 people to trace contacts coronavirus patients have had with other individuals. As of now, the state’s hired about 350.

Positive tests

Northam has said the state must have a two-week “downward trend” in its percentage of positive COVID-19 tests to begin Phase 1. Daily numbers fluctuate, but have been trending down. The seven-day average of positive tests has been dropping - from 20% at the end of April to 15% on May 11.

Hospital bed capacity

Virginia has about 18,500 licensed hospital beds, according to Julian Walker, vice president of communications for the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association. On May 13, 11,930 of the beds - or 64% - were occupied, according to the state Health Department. These figures have been fairly steady this spring.

Northam has authorized health facilities to use an additional 3,300 temporary beds if the virus surges.

PPE

Northam’s measurement of an “increasing and sustainable” PPE supply largely comes from the VHHA, which each day polls hospitals on whether they’re having trouble getting enough protective gear for the next 72 hours. In mid-April, six or seven hospitals a day reported difficulty. None have reported problems since May 3.

Mask availability graph
PPE supplies have stabilized in Virginia hospitals, though masks remain scarce. (Source: Va. Dept. of Health)

But Northern Virginia officials say this is an incomplete measure because it “continues to be a challenge” getting PPE for outpatient facilities in their region.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency recently gave Virginia three decontamination systems that can each sanitize 80,000 N95 face masks a day for reuse.

Sources

Gov. Ralph Northam, Forward Virginia plan, slide 10, April 24, 2020.

Virginia Department of Health, Key measures, accessed May 13.

Northam, news conference, May 8, 2020 (40:00 mark).

Johns Hopkins University, Coronavirus Research Center, accessed May 13, 2020.

Richmond Times-Dispatch, “Virginia will separate antibody testing from total testing,” May 11, 2020.

Phone interviews with Julian Walker, vice president of communications for the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association, May 8, 2020.

Email from Alena Yarmosky, Northam press secretary, May 7, 2020.

Northern Virginia local officials, letter to Northam, May 10, 2020.