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Northam: No rollback on executive orders

Though Gov. Ralph Northam said Friday that social distancing is working across Virginia to slow the spread of COVID-19, the state is not ready to roll back those measures just yet.

Northam, who earlier in the week had extended an executive order keeping non-essential businesses closed and banning crowds of 10 or more people until May 8, noted the increase in total reported cases of COVID-19 to 7,491 statewide as of Friday morning according to the Virginia Department of Health. That total is up by 602 people from Thursday. The stay-at-home order the governor put into place March 30 continues until at least June 10.

New COVID-19 cases will continue and more people will die, he said, but everyone’s actions will continue to help keep case levels at a manageable level for hospitals.

“Even though we continue to see cases go up, it does not mean that social distancing is not working, because it is,” Northam said. “The point of social distancing is to slow the spread, not eliminate it entirely.”

In the Western Tidewater Health District, 155 people have tested positive — 70 in Suffolk, 69 in Isle of Wight County, nine in Franklin and seven in Southampton County, with 901 people in the district having been tested, according to state health department data.

Statewide, 231 people have died due to COVID-19. There are six total outbreaks reported in the health district — five involving long-term care facilities and another at a correctional facility, the Deerfield Correctional Center in Southampton County, where three employees have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Friday, according to the Virginia Department of Corrections.

At Western Tidewater Regional Jail, one inmate tested negative for COVID-19, according to jail superintendent William Smith, though he said none of the 180 staff members or 735 inmates at the jail were symptomatic.

Smith said new inmates coming to the jail are isolated in one area and everyone is medically screened for COVID-19, and its medical department performs random checks of inmate housing areas. Everyone coming into the building, he said, is tested for fevers.

Friends and family on-site visitations at the jail have been canceled, and there is no attorney contact visitation, Smith said, with the majority of court proceedings taking place on video.

Northam said Friday that local jail populations across the state have dropped 17 percent, while the number of people entering jail on misdemeanor charges has dropped 67 percent over a two week period — from about 10,000 to just over 4,000.

Northam said the state’s hospitals are at a level now where they can manage, but they continue to need more help.

According to the Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association, there are 809 confirmed positive COVID-19 patients in hospitals, and another 499 patients awaiting test results. Combined, there are 400 people in intensive care units among positive and pending groups, and 224 are on ventilators. Hospitals around the state are using 622 ventilators, or about 22 percent of the total supply.

Northam said he has been working with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper and District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser to coordinate regional plans, and said he had spoken to Hogan and Bowser about the White House’s guidelines for reopening the country, having spoken also with President Donald Trump Thursday.

That reopening, he said, would be in phases, with the first phase not being able to begin until positive COVID-19 cases drop for at least two weeks. Northam said the state is not close to that.

“As we prepare for when that day does come, we are making plans so we have screening, testing, tracking and isolation options,” Northam said. “We need resources – for testing supplies, for the workforce to do the tracking, apps to help with this work and more.”

Northam noted protests in Richmond Thursday that called for him to relax social distancing measures in the wake of increasing unemployment across the state. More than 410,000 unemployment claims in Virginia have been filed in the last month, according to U.S. Department of Labor data, with more than 20 million across the country.

He said the state has received $1.6 billion in federal stimulus money to use to respond to COVID-19 and help local governments. It has also received approval from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for hotel accommodations for first responders and other essential workers.

Northam also said the state had received its first shipment of personal protective equipment through its contract with Northfield, which included more than 24,000 N95 masks to be distributed to hospitals, along with gloves and gowns. More such shipments will come in the next few weeks, he said.

Ultimately, Northam said the state would need an adequate testing supply before it could roll back social distancing measures.

“We need to be able to test,” Northam said. “We need to be able to track and we need to be able to isolate individuals looking at hotspots — knowing the trend of this pandemic, and what this virus is doing. We are working to improve that on a daily basis. But one of the things … is that we have no national guidance on testing.”

Northam acknowledged the toll the state of emergency, social distancing and stay-at-home order has taken on the lives of people across the state. He urged patience in continuing to allow the measures in place to flatten the curve and reduce the number of positive COVID-19 cases.

“I assure you, I want to get back to a place where all businesses can be open,” Northam said. “And we will get there. But we have to do it with deliberation, using science, data and testing to make sure that we do it safely. Otherwise, cases will spike, we’ll be right back where we started, and all the sacrifices people have already made will be for nothing.”