Virginia will begin to lift public restrictions once the percentages of positive tests per day and hospitalizations show sustained decline over 14 consecutive days, state officials said Friday.
The guidelines are part of the state’s plan for emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic, outlined by Gov. Ralph Northam amid calls for a return to normalcy by some in the business community and the GOP.
Northam said that while the spread of COVID-19 in Virginia is slowing down, cases are continuing to grow, meaning that the 14-day countdown has not begun.
Along with a decline in cases and hospitalizations, Northam said the state must expand its health care capacity and increase its supply of protective equipment.
“We cannot and will not lift restrictions like one turns on a light switch,” Northam said of moving onto the first phase of recovery, which he called “Phase One.”
“Easing too much too soon could jeopardize public health and consumer confidence,” he said.
Phase One, state officials said Friday, will still involve keeping some businesses closed, while others reopen under “strict safety restrictions.”
Phase One will also involve “continued social distancing, continued teleworking [and] face coverings recommended in public,” according to an outline of the plan made public Friday.
How long that phase will last is unclear, but State Health Commissioner Norman Oliver said he expected it to be in effect until “medical countermeasures” like a treatment or vaccine are rolled out broadly.
“I, personally, think Phase One will be a two-year affair,” Oliver said. “There are a lot of people working on this, and I hope they prove me wrong, but I don’t see it happening in less than two years.”
Northam said on Friday that building out the details of Phase One will involve state health officials, local government officials, representatives of the business community and faith leaders. On Friday, Northam announced a task force made up of business owners and leaders that will help guide plans for reopening businesses under the pandemic.
Northam said the plans will include overarching rules for all businesses, and specific guidance for different industries, like restaurants and barbershops.
This week, several states — including Georgia, Oklahoma and Alaska — have announced plans to start reopening businesses in the coming days despite warnings from experts that this could lead to a spike in COVID-19 cases.
Moving toward recovering, Virginia officials said, will also include boosting COVID-19 testing in the state, as well as contact tracing — the identification of anyone who has come into contact with a positive COVID-19 case.
“We will get back to work by greatly increasing our testing, then tracing the contacts of people who test positive and isolating these individuals, not everyone in Virginia,” Northam said. “That is the key to moving forward.”
Last week, Virginia saw its testing lag amid unused capacity. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported Sunday that about 2,500 fewer Virginians were tested for COVID-19 last week compared with the week prior, according to an analysis by The Times-Dispatch based on data published by the Virginia Department of Health.
Last week, the agency reported 13,932 new tests, a 15% dip from the 16,447 tests the week before.
Testing has increased over the current week, with a total of 20,018 tests since Sunday, according to data released by VDH and analyzed by The Times-Dispatch.
On Monday, Northam announced the creation of a testing task force that would help troubleshoot the state’s testing troubles. That task force is being chaired by former Virginia Health Commissioner Karen Remley.
Remley said Friday that the state hoped to increase its testing numbers from about 2,600 per day currently to 10,000 per day when the economy fully reopens.
Right now, she said, the state is moving toward its next phase in testing, which will average 5,000 tests per day and include “strike teams” in suspected hot spots and help from the National Guard.
The state also plans to expand contact tracing, a “labor intensive” effort, Oliver said. That will involve enlisting volunteers from the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps, as well as furloughed or underused health care professionals at public hospitals and private practices.
The state is also looking at using mobile apps that will help assess an individual’s risk of carrying COVID-19. State Health Secretary Dan Carey said the state is exploring applications under development by Google and Apple that individual citizens could opt in for.
Carey and Oliver said representatives of the state’s health agency were participating in a call Friday afternoon with Apple about its product, which the company expects to roll out next month.
“There are several interesting possibilities,” Carey said. “This is an emerging field and we are looking broadly to see what are the right tools for Virginia.”
Dr. Laurie Forlano, deputy commissioner for population health for the VDH, said Friday before Northam’s news conference that the state is following different projection models and anticipates Virginia will reach its peak for the first wave of COVID-19 in the coming weeks. Officials don’t know exactly when it will happen, she added.
“We’re consistently seeing that the models are showing that the social distancing is working,” Forlano said.
The state is also looking ahead to plan for a potential second wave of COVID-19 later this year.
“We definitely think of the future while managing the crisis at hand,” Forlano said. “I do think people will have to adjust to the new normal.”
Va. cases rise by 542; deaths increase by 37
The Virginia Department of Health reported Friday that there are 11,169 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state — an increase of 542 from the 10,627 reported Thursday.
Also, there are 407 confirmed deaths reported by the VDH. That is an increase of 37 from the 370 reported the previous day.
The VDH said 69,015 people have been tested for the virus in Virginia, and 1,837 have been hospitalized, including eight probable cases.
This week, the VDH started reporting probable COVID-19 cases and probable deaths from the virus. As of Friday, there are 425 probable cases and three probable deaths. Those figures bring overall cases and deaths in the state to 11,594 and 410, respectively.
Probable cases are people who are symptomatic with a known exposure to COVID-19 but whose cases have not been confirmed with a positive test.
According to VDH data, there are 1,519 cases total in the Richmond area: 729 in Henrico County, 423 in Chesterfield County, 267 in Richmond and 100 in Hanover County. Also, the Richmond area has 124 COVID-19 deaths: 86 in Henrico, 17 in Chesterfield, 14 in Richmond and seven in Hanover.
Fairfax County, the state’s most populous locality with more than 1.1 million people, has the most cases with 2,534. The county has 85 deaths.
There are cases in 128 of Virginia’s 133 cities and counties. Only five localities — Bath County, Bland County, Dickenson County, Grayson County and Martinsville — don’t have cases.
State health officials have said there’s a lag in the reporting of statewide numbers on the VDH website.
Figures on the website might not include cases or deaths reported by localities or local health districts.
Municipal elections to be pushed back
Northam announced Friday that he will push back the state’s municipal elections from May 5 to May 19, after the legislature rejected his plan to postpone them until November.
Northam said the two-week delay was the limit of his powers under the state constitution, even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which is expected to continue into June.
“I strongly encourage you to vote absentee by mail. For people who do come out, we will make it as safe as possible,” Northam said.
The state, he said, will provide additional polling place volunteers through the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps, and will roll out additional safety measures.
The state will also provide “an adequate supply” of personal protective equipment for poll workers, Northam said.
On Wednesday, lawmakers in the Virginia Senate rejected a proposal by Northam to delay the May 5 elections to Nov. 3 and extend the terms of any elected officials involved.
Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, encouraged lawmakers not to “make decisions based on hysteria” and urged holding a special session to consider different legislative approaches.
In the House, lawmakers narrowly approved the plan to delay the elections.
“I am greatly disappointed in the Senate for failing to take this action to protect our fellow Virginians,” Northam said.
In the greater Richmond area, the town of Ashland is electing three council members May 5, as is the town of Louisa.