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Governor: ‘We were caught flatfooted; we weren’t ready’ for pandemic

Gov. Ralph Northam said Wednesday he is comfortable with the progress the state is making as it prepares for Phase I of his reopening plan to take effect Friday.

Northam said testing totals continue to climb, but even though he has stated a goal of ramping up to at least 10,000 such tests per day, there has been just one day since testing began that the state has tested more than 10,000 people. He said more testing was being done at long-term care facilities around the state, with the goal of testing everyone at all of the state’s 260 long-term care facilities “as quickly as we can.”

He said pharmacies and drug stores are doing more testing also, and he expects to have news about Walmart and its testing efforts soon.

Phase I of Northam’s plan will not begin for Northern Virginia localities until May 29.

“Our health metrics show that the majority of Virginia’s positive cases are in the Northern Virginia region,” Northam said. “And while that region’s percentage of positive tests is trending downward, it still has a higher percent of positive cases and people hospitalized with a positive or pending test.”

The officials in the counties of Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William; the cities of Alexandria, Fairfax, Falls Church, Manassas and Manassas Park; and the towns of Dumfries, Herndon, Leesburg, and Vienna requested and received permission to remain in “Phase Zero.”

Northam addressed the potential for increased positive COVID-19 cases as the state gradually reopens.

“We’re in a position to enter Phase I because we have the hospital capacity, because we have PPE (personal protective equipment), because we have the testing capabilities,” Northam said. “And so all of these parameters will continue to be followed, and, we talk about if there are more cases in the next few weeks, we’re ready for that.”

But he also said the state has to think about, and be prepared for, what will happen with COVID-19 this fall and winter, especially if there is no vaccination or other treatment for it. He said the state and country were not prepared for the current coronavirus pandemic, and that it is still learning about how it affects different populations.

“We were caught flat-footed by this pandemic,” Northam said. “We weren’t ready. We didn’t have the testing capability, we didn’t have the PPE and we’ve learned a significant lesson. I know we have here in Virginia. We’ll be ready if there are increased cases this month, if there are increased cases this fall or next year. We’re planning ahead for that.”

The first phase will allow non-essential retail businesses to reopen at 50 percent capacity, and restaurants will be allowed to offer limited outdoor seating.

State Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said the state is processing about 3,000 applications for contact tracers. He said the state would hire about 700 more contact tracers to augment the 604 contact tracers in place now.

No other localities in the state have, as of Wednesday, asked for a delay of Phase I.

However, the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, which includes Delegate Clinton Jenkins and state Sen. Louise Lucas, has called for Northam to delay the start of Phase I.

In a letter to Northam, they said that while they “understand the valid concerns that non-essential business closure and stay-at-home orders have taken a substantial toll on our Commonwealth’s economy, these concerns must be weighed with the substantial negative impacts on many Virginians, especially Black Virginians and Virginians of Color.”

“It is currently unclear that the proper metrics have been met to satisfy what the medical community and (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidance indicates as a safe standard for beginning to reopen an economy,” the letter states.

It also said the Phase I guidance is “confusing and contradictory,” citing churches with large congregations where opening at 50 percent capacity would lead to “massive gatherings of people.” Moving forward with the first phase would cause more economic harm for many in the state, especially for black Virginians and Virginians of color due to a lack of childcare services.

The Virginia Department of Health reported 26,746 positive cases of COVID-19 Wednesday morning, with 3,520 total hospitalizations and 927 deaths. The Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Administration said there are 1,526 hospital patients who have tested positive for COVID-19, or are awaiting test results, while 3,554 people have been hospitalized and discharged.

Suffolk continues to lead the Western Tidewater and South Hampton Roads regions in deaths, with 21 people in the city who have died from COVID-19, according to the state health department.

Among localities in the Western Tidewater Health District, Suffolk has had 221 positive COVID-19 cases, while Southampton has had 132, Isle of Wight 113 and Franklin 25. Twenty-seven people in the health district have died from COVID-19.

Northam announced that 11 Department of Motor Vehicles locations in seven of the state’s eight regions would reopen Monday, by appointment only, for services normally conducted in person. None of those locations are in Suffolk or the Western Tidewater region, though DMV will open locations in Hampton and Virginia Beach from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Northam warned that Phase I is just the beginning, but state residents must stay vigilant.

“This virus has not gone away, and everyone needs to act accordingly,” Northam said. “Continue to stay six feet from others, wear face coverings, not just to protect yourself, but to protect other people. You will be safer at home unless you need to go out.

“Moving forward requires us all to act responsibly. We cannot act as if things are back to normal, because they are clearly not.”