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Northam Defends Testing Data, Gives Economic Update

Screenshot of man talking next to ASL interpreter
Gov. Northam presented slides today to separate two different types of COVID-19 testing data, and support his decision to reopen the state. (Screenshot: VPM News)

Gov. Ralph Northam says the state has lost $700 million in tax revenue over the past month, and expects that number to reach $1 billion by June. Today Northam also defended the state's data reporting practices, while promising necessary changes.

“From the beginning of this pandemic, the Virginia Department of Health has been including all tests in its tally,” Northam said. “There are two basic types of test. The antibody test, which is a blood test, or what we call a serologic test, and the PCR test, which is performed with a nasal swab.”

Antibody tests are not reliable, and many have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Northam said he first learned about the antibody tests inclusion on Monday, and directed the Virginia Department of Health to separate those numbers. “We can see now that antibody tests made up approximately 15,000 of the 184,000 total tests we’ve done since February - about nine percent,” he said.

Northam said state testing numbers are still going up, even with the antibody tests removed, and the trend in the positivity rate was moving in the right direction.

Revenues are down, leading to a roughly $700 million loss, and Northam predicts $1 billion by the end of June, he said. But, “Our primary concern throughout this situation has been public health. We also recognize that it has major implications on everyone who is not working and for our state budget.”

Aubrey Lane, the secretary of finance, gave updates on some increases in statewide revenues. “Economic activity in the commonwealth held up well,” Lane said, describing the pre-pandemic economy as strong. “Approximately 80 percent of our revenues come from payroll withholding, and that was up four percent for the month, meaning that we had quite a few businesses still operating and paying their employees.”

Virginia is home to many federal jobs and military positions, which Lane said accounted for part of the numbers. Sales tax revenues were even, which he said reflected a shift in consumer spending from restaurants to grocery stores, and support for local retailers transitioning to online shopping.

The state has also received over $6 billion in various stimulus money, Lane said. About $600 million of that money, which came through the Federal CARES Act, will be used by localities, and over $120 million will be used for additional testing and medical equipment.

The governor also said that with reopening, the state is on hand to investigate worker concerns about safety. “We know there will be employees who have concerns about how their workplaces are following guidelines. The health department, and other state agencies, regulate businesses, and they have the authority to investigate complaints and shut down a business that isn't compliant.”

He also reminded workers that the Department of Labor and Industry takes complaints about safety, and could be contacted via their website.

Many reporters had questions about exemptions for the phase one reopening. Travel from a closed area to an open area came up frequently, as did questions about further exemptions. The governor stressed that phase one wasn’t meant to be very different from “phase zero.”

“I want to again remind Virginians that an ease in restrictions does not mean we can behave as we used to. Everyone still needs to stay home as much as possible. As you know, we've gone from a stay at home to a safer at home,” Northam said, encouraging people to wash their hands, wear face coverings, and only leave home for essential trips.