Nurses were taking their temperature three times a week. Health care workers were rationing and reusing masks meant for one-time use. Community members started sewing their own masks to supply local health care facilities.
Those are among the stories Paige Perriello, a pediatrician in Charlottesville, heard in the past week before sending a letter to the governor pleading for more protective gear for health care workers treating people who’ve fallen ill with the coronavirus.
As Virginia’s number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise — now at 152, with the state reporting its third death from the virus on Saturday — the personal protective equipment for health care workers, such as masks, gowns and gloves, continues to dwindle, leaving them especially vulnerable to contracting the virus.
The 152 positive cases is an increase of 38 over the 114 reported by the state Friday, which doesn’t include the first case confirmed in Louisa County on Saturday evening. It’s a figure that has doubled every few days in Virginia as more tests — but still not enough — become available. Doctors have said many more cases have likely gone unrecorded.
Saturday evening, the Fairfax County Health Department reported its first coronavirus death, a man in his 60s who died of respiratory failure.
In a news briefing Saturday, Gov. Ralph Northam said the state is loosening testing criteria to give priority to medical staff treating people with the virus. Health officials said they’re also focusing on testing those with respiratory illness and are relaxing criteria for people in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. Until Saturday, they had to first undergo a flu test and respiratory virus panel. Now, the panel isn’t required.
The state is distributing supplies from the national stockpile but is looking to industrial suppliers or local manufacturers for more protective equipment for front-line first responders and prisons, which operate with thousands in close quarters, said Health and Human Resources Secretary Daniel Carey.
“We are pursuing every opportunity and I think it’s also important to say that this is a national problem,” Carey said. “This will not be solved without a national solution.”
Perriello tweeted out the letter to Gov. Ralph Northam and Carey around 7 a.m. asking them to help solve Virginia’s personal protective equipment crisis. As of 6 p.m. Saturday, more than 300 health care workers from across the state signed on, including 32 from the Richmond area.
“I don’t think any of us think that this magical stockpile is coming,” Perriello said.
She said the letter wasn’t meant to be critical, but aspirational of what communities can do. The goal is to have the governor address Virginians and encourage them to contribute to the grassroots efforts already happening.
Distilleries have started making hand sanitizer. Dentists and schools are providing their own supplies to health care facilities since closing. Emily Little, a former emergency care nurse who is organizing efforts in Charlottesville, said it’s a national necessity.
“If we lose nurses and providers, we’re going to [have more than] a [protective equipment] shortage,” she said.
The letter outlined what’s immediately needed, such as personal protective equipment and testing kits, and said the governor could help by funneling supplies to the front lines, inventing solutions and creating open communication between medical professionals and the health department. With each day the state waits, “more medical providers will fall ill, which threatens the catastrophic collapse of our entire health care system,” the letter read.
Northam said the state is working to get more supplies like masks and gowns, and signed an executive order Friday night to allow hospitals and nursing homes to add more beds to deal with the pandemic. The governor also announced Saturday that a shipment of protective gear for health care workers was distributed Friday.
Public health officials said Virginia’s state lab has the ability to perform testing for over 1,000 patients. Private labs are also taking tests, but the state doesn’t have a precise count of their capacity. Bill Slavin, a chemist and founder of Richmond-based research facility Indie Lab, is looking to establish a lab that tests 10,000 people a day in the central Virginia region.
He estimates the large-scale rapid testing could be up and running within two weeks. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Saturday approved its first rapid diagnostic test that could detect the coronavirus in 45 minutes.
Slavin is working on writing grants to fulfill operating and staffing costs, upward of $1 million total, and obtaining a certified lab. His company is also working to provide sterilization for food and supplies and is 3-D printing masks.
“Supply chains are slowing down significantly because of the virus,” Slavin said. “Even if somebody is able to order masks, that doesn’t mean that they’re going to be able to get them. … If we don’t ensure there is a domestic production, we’re going to be in a lot of trouble.”
Tuesday, Northam gave law enforcement the ability to enforce the 10-person limit on gatherings, which applies to restaurants, fitness centers and theaters. Saturday morning, he added that with more than 10 patrons, businesses can lose their operating license on the spot and receive a misdemeanor. There haven’t been any issued yet, he said.
He said he hasn’t made a decision regarding enacting workforce limitations similar to New York, which has mandated reducing on-site nonessential personnel by 50% and work-from-home policies. He doesn’t have criteria for what would lead to that.
“I’m not here to answer ‘what if’s,’ ” Northam said. “I’m telling you where we are today and what we’re doing to keep Virginia safe.”
The governor also said the Virginia Department of Education is considering actions needed to provide relief to students on state-mandated SOLs, which is required to pass the school year, to ensure high school seniors across the commonwealth will graduate.
He referred to Attorney Gen. Mark Herring’s opinion released Friday that gives public bodies and local governments the ability to conduct meetings during the outbreak while maintaining accountability obligations and open government.
“That includes meetings to make decisions that must be made immediately and where failure to do so could result in irrevocable public harm,” Northam said.
Northam also clarified again that activating the Virginia National Guard does not mean it’s mobilized and forcing people to stay home. But they’re on call to help transport supplies needed in health care facilities, he said.
Little, the former emergency care nurse organizing efforts to add to these supplies, said they’re not getting to primary care physicians she’s spoken to. Perriello said she assumed the state is prioritizing hospitals but it won’t be enough, especially with independent clinics not having access to enough protective equipment.
“We need each other more than ever,” Little said.