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Virginia Health Officials Report First Death Caused By COVID-19

A scientist at the state public health lab running COVID-19 testing looks at a specimen.
A scientist at the state public health lab running COVID-19 testing. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM)

Update: Sunday, March 15, 2020

Governor Ralph Northam banned gatherings of more than 100 people statewide to slow the spread of COVID-19, following the first death from the disease in the Commonwealth. Gatherings of more than 50 people on Virginia’s peninsula are prohibited. Northam also announced that all local government buildings in that region are closed to the public for two weeks.

The Peninsula Health District identified at least eight cases in the region Sunday, which health officials are calling a “cluster”. That means the cases are the result of community transmission between individuals locally, not some other source, like international travel. Health officials say the man who died was in his 70's and was from James City County. 

Virginia Health Commissioner Norman Oliver says health officials have been unable to determine how the man who died contracted the virus. 

“And it’s that case that makes us concerned for the likelihood of community spread in the peninsula," Oliver said in a press conference Sunday. 

As of Sunday, there were 45 known cases of COVID-19 in Virginia. 

On Saturday, the Virginia Department of Health and the Peninsula Health District reported the death of a patient who previously tested positive for the coronavirus. 

They say the cause of death was respiratory failure as a result of COVID-19. The patient was a male in his 70s. Health officials declined to provide additional details about where the victim was located, but the Peninsula Health District serves Newport News, Poquoson, Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Officials say it’s unclear how he contracted the virus.  

Health officials said they’re working to contain the outbreak by reaching out to anyone who may have been in contact with the victim. As of 7:30 pm Saturday, the state reported 41 presumed positive cases of COVID-19 across Virginia

“On behalf of the entire Commonwealth, we express our deepest sympathy for the family and loved ones of the patient who died, as well as the families of everyone who has been affected by this outbreak,” said State Health Commissioner Norman Oliver. “The health of our residents and the community is our top priority, and we will continue working together to care for the patients, protect the safety of health care workers, and protect the people in our Commonwealth.”

Virginia is currently under a state of emergency. Governor Ralph Northam ordered all K-12 schools closed for at least two weeks. He banned all out of state travel by state employees and implemented a telework policy. Northam also banned major events for the next 30 days. 

“Again, I urge Virginians: take this seriously,” Northam said. Take basic health precautions, avoid large gatherings, telework if possible, and stay home if you are sick. That will stop the virus from spreading.

Northam will meet with local officials on the Peninsula Sunday and will address the public at noon about additional measures the state will take to combat COVID-19.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
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