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Northam: Pandemic highlights other long-term public health emergencies

Mike Still • May 21, 2020 at 8:00 AM

RICHMOND — The COVID-19 pandemic is not the only health emergency facing Virginians, Gov. Ralph Northam said Wednesday.

Northam, during his regular Wednesday update on the outbreak, said many Virginians lack health insurance and access to many health care services even with COVID-19 dominating state public health efforts.

Addiction and recovery from substance abuse are still major problems for some areas of Virginia, Northam said, citing a fatal overdose rate between January and May in Roanoke County alone that is double the total number of overdoses there in 2019. He said similar challenges face other communities across the state, highlighting the need for addiction recovery help that social isolation caused by the pandemic is making more difficult.

Northam said the state’s Medicaid expansion in 2019 has helped improve health care access for more than 421,000 low-income Virginians, and that access has become more important in helping treat conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, asthma and COPD that can make people more vulnerable to COVID-19 infections. Since the pandemic began in early March, another 30,000 adults and 23,000 children have enrolled in Medicaid, he said, highlighting social disparities in health care.

Northam said the federal Affordable Care Act has been undermined since Congress passed it in 2010, but it is still critical in helping deal with pandemic health care.

“We can’t lose sight of ongoing public health emergencies,” Northam said, adding that efforts to expand telemedicine to addiction and recovery services is one way to tackle those emergencies along with improving the quality of health insurance whether it is Medicaid or private insurance coverage.

Northam said Tuesday’s local elections demonstrated the success of expanded absentee ballot voting.

“I’m pleased to report they went smoothly,” Northam said, adding that more than 55,000 Virginians voted via absentee ballot compared to fewer than 1,700 absentee ballots submitted in the 2016 local elections.

With congressional primary elections across the state set for June 23, Northam said voters have until 5 p.m. on June 16 to request absentee primary ballots.

Unemployment benefits for workers concerned about COVID-19 if they return to their jobs remains an issue between states and the Trump administration, which is mandating that workers go back to work or lose unemployment benefits. State Director of Workforce Development Meagan Healy said that workers with health concerns or who cannot return to work due to a pandemic-related shortage of child care services can file appeals with the Virginia Employment Commission.

Northam later said that a Phase 2 for expanding the reopening of businesses and public facilities would not happen sooner than May 29, and that he has not set a date or specific provisions for a second phase yet.

“People right now are on edge,” Northam said about the overall pandemic situation. “People are testy. Remember the Virginia way. … We can all agree to disagree, but at the end of the day we have to work together.”

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