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Governor urges caution on coronavirus

Gov. Ralph Northam said Tuesday the state is keeping a close eye on the increasing number of positive coronavirus test results in Virginia and urged people to follow guidance from state and federal health officials.

Northam, speaking ahead of Amazon’s announcement that it is building a fulfillment center in Suffolk and a processing center nearby in Chesapeake, said state officials have been preparing for the possible spread of the illness in the state.

“Our top priority, my top priority, as your governor and also as a doctor is to keep Virginians safe,” Northam said, “And there are a lot of people that are working very diligently as we speak. It’s a very fluid situation. It changes literally minute-by-minute.”

Northam advised people to follow guidance from the Virginia Department of Health.

“I just want to make sure that all Virginians know that we are working hard on this,” Northam said. “We are taking this very seriously, and it is our commitment to keep Virginians safe.”

Northam’s comments came the same day the Virginia Department of Health reported two presumptive positive tests for coronavirus from a couple in Virginia Beach, which marked the first two reported cases in Hampton Roads.

All eight of the reported cases in Virginia have been travel-related, and the VDH said there is no evidence of community transmission of COVID-19, which spreads primarily through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. All but the two cases in Virginia Beach have come from the northern part of the state — one in Spotsylvania County, one in Quantico, two in Fairfax, one in Arlington and one in Loudoun County.

A “community spread” occurs when they can’t trace a coronavirus case back to its source.

No one in the Western Tidewater Health District, which includes the cities of Suffolk and Franklin along with Isle of Wight and Southampton counties, has tested positive for COVID-19.

State epidemiologist Dr. Lilian Peake said Tuesday that the risk in the U.S. is still low, and that the state population is still more at risk for flu than COVID-19.

The two patients from Virginia Beach — a man in his 60s and a woman in her 50s — traveled on a Nile River cruise and returned to the United States March 5, according to the VDH. Their test results are considered presumptive, pending confirmation by the Centers for Disease Control.

“We do expect to see more cases in the United States, but continued, strong public health measures will blunt and slow the impact of the virus in the United States,” Peake said.

Suffolk Mayor Linda T. Johnson said residents should follow guidance from health officials.

“We just need to know and be cautious,” Johnson said, “and watch for everything and make decisions appropriately as it happens. … I think we need to be vigilant but not panic.”

The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 can cause mild to more severe respiratory illness, with symptoms including fever, cough and difficulty breathing, according to the VDH, and in a small number of people who are older or who have chronic medical conditions, it can cause complications, including death.

The state health agency said symptoms appear within 14 days of being exposed to an infectious person.

Peake noted there is still no vaccine or specific antiviral medication, but that people with severe cases of COVID-19 would be admitted to a hospital and then provided with support for their breathing or for problems with kidneys or other organs.

Dr. Denise Toney, the director of the Department of General Service’s Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services, said they have two test kits in-house that can test between 150 to 200 people for the coronavirus depending on the number of specimen types it receives from each person.

Toney said she expected to receive an additional test kit Tuesday with half the capacity of the other test kits, with other orders in the queue with the CDC, depending on the demand and availability of kits nationally.

Peake said there is also increasing capacity of kits from private labs, and that VDH has contingency plans “for whatever might happen in Virginia,” emphasizing that it would work with community partners and health care providers, and that the response might be different in different regions of the state.