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Northam outlines reopening plan, orders local elections delayed two weeks

Mike Still • Apr 25, 2020 at 12:00 PM

RICHMOND — A reopening of Virginia’s economy will not happen before May 8 as the state tries to increase COVID-19 testing and tracing efforts.

Gov. Ralph Northam on Friday announced a plan to try to ease business closings and his stay-at-home emergency order, but he said that plan still depends on meeting federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for health and safety.

Northam’s Forward Virginia plan draws on advice from state health officials and from a COVID-19 business task force to balance public health with business recovery, he said. Putting phase one of the plan into effect depends on four things:

— A 14-day decline of positive COVID-19 test results

— A 14-day drop in hospitalizations

— Maintaining enough hospital beds and intensive care unit capacity

— Increasing the supply of personal protective equipment to a sustainable level

Once those four goals are reached, Northam said, phase one would see some businesses reopening with tight safety restrictions. Social distancing and recommended face coverings would continue in public, with state workers still using teleworking from home.

“We hope to go into phase one as soon as May 8,” Northam said, “but definitely not before then.”

Northam said the state’s daily case count may have peaked Friday, adding that the time for case counts to double has gone from an every three days at the beginning of the pandemic in early March to every nine days now.

Hospitalization rates have flattened statewide, Northam said, and 1,600 patients have been treated successfully since the pandemic began.

Northam earlier in April had said he hoped the General Assembly on Wednesday would approve a delay of the scheduled May 5 local elections in Virginia. While saying he was pleased with the legislature’s approval of a small business fund from “games of skill” machine tax revenue, foreclosure/eviction protections and state minimum wage increases, he criticized the state Senate’s rejection of a delayed May election.

“I’m grateful to the House and disappointed in the Senate,” Northam said before announcing he would delay the May 5 elections until May 19 under provisions in the state constitution.

“I strongly encourage you to vote by mail,” Northam said, adding that he did not want to see a repeat of the Wisconsin Supreme Court election earlier in April, where voters and poll workers were forced to go to the polls despite the pandemic in that state.

Secretary of Administration Keyanna Connor said the deadlines for requesting and submitting absentee ballots for the May elections have been extended. Absentee ballots can be requested in person or by mail no later than 5 p.m. May 12. Absentee ballots for the election must be received by general registrars by 7 p.m. May 12.

Former state Health Commissioner Karen Remley, chair of the state’s testing work group, said progress has been made in numbers of people tested statewide and in shorter turnaround times to get those results. Testing is being expanded from the initial high-risk group of first responders, health care workers, long-term care facility residents and patients showing symptoms, she said. Now testing is including other high-risk groups such as chronic disease patients, pregnant women, babies born to COVID-19 patients and underinsured/uninsured persons.

The number of people tested has risen from about 400 a day three weeks ago to 4,000 a day in the past two days, Remley said. The next stages will include broader testing and contact tracing of people exposed to those with positive results, then large-scale testing with a reopened economy at about 10,000 tests per day. After COVID-19’s spread is lessened, she said, testing about 2,000 people daily will help monitor and control the virus’ presence.

Remley said one issue the work group is addressing is teaching medical personnel how to take a test sample. While some doctors are experienced in taking the nasal swab sample from general practices during flu season, other specialists such as cardiologists may not have as much experience, she said.

Northam said he had received a letter from the state Republican Party urging a faster economic reopening. He said that, despite “mixed messages” from the Trump administration about easing business restrictions, he was following the administration’s recommendations via the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for public health guidelines before reopening.

Northam said he was considering recommendations from the business task force along with health and safety considerations. He also said that, despite lower case rates in regions other than Northern Virginia, he would reopen businesses across the state together rather than a region-by-region approach.

“Our Southwest Virginia delegation has communicated with Gov. Northam urging his administration to develop phased plans to reopen our economy as safely and as quickly as possible,” state Sen. Todd Pillion, R-40th, said Friday. “These plans should include input from public health officials, local and state leaders, small businesses, and industry experts. Though each region of the commonwealth is different, the governor has so far stated his desire to take a statewide approach to reopening.”

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