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Northam Hoping to Reopen State as Early as May 8

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The governor laid out testing criteria that would need to be met to reopen Virginia. (Screenshot: VPM News broadcast)

This story has been updated with full video of the briefing and statements from Dr. Karen Remley about the process to reopen the state.

Gov. Ralph Northam gave Virginians a glimpse at what life will look like in the commonwealth if COVID-19 cases trend downward. 

Northam says phase one would allow some businesses to re-open with strict safety restrictions though social distancing. Teleworking would continue and Virginians would still be encouraged to wear face coverings in public. 

“We need to see the percentage of positive tests and the number of hospitalizations both track downward over 14 days,” Northam said. And although the state has not yet met that criteria, from health experts and the White House, he said, “We are hopeful we have hit our peak.”

Northam also floated a possible reopening date: “If our numbers will continue ... I'd like to see us be able to go into phase one as soon as May 8, but certainly no sooner than that.”

The reopening process will be informed by a workgroup of small and large businesses, faith leaders, and healthcare experts, Northam said.

Unemployment filings have slowed, but many people are out of work. Northam said, “Last week more than 82,000 Virginians applied for unemployment. That means that almost half a million Virginians are now unemployed.” 

Northam also gave an update on COVID-19 recoveries: 1,600 patients with COVID-19 have been successfully treated and discharged. As of this morning, the state health department reported 1,837 total hospitalizations, and 410 deaths.

The governor said personal protective equipment for medical workers was “flowing,” supporting one of the criteria he was using to decide when to reopen. “We need to see the percentage of positive tests and the number of hospitalizations both track downward over 14 days,” Northam said. “We need to make sure we have enough capacity in our hospital beds and our intensive care units. And we need to sustain our PPE supply.” 

Once those steps are in place, widespread testing and contact tracing will be needed to keep the state open. Northam said, “We will get back to work by greatly increasing our testing, then tracing the contacts of people who test positive and isolating these individuals, not everyone in Virginia. That is the key to moving forward.” 

Dr. Karen Remley, a former state health commissioner, is helping to lead the reopen taskforce. She said we’ve reached the first milestone of 2,600 tests per day, and are moving into step two, which includes 5,000 tests per day. Today, the state tested 4,000 people.
Remley said, “What we’re really doing is moving from just testing that priority one group, which were healthcare workers and hospitalized people, to expanding to people that are high risk and that includes people with chronic disease, pregnant women, babies born to mothers with COVID, the uninsured and underinsured.”

In step three, they’ll test 7,500 people per day, with a wider net of who is tested. The final step, which will involve 10,000 people per day, will include asymptomatic people. She said at that point, “We’re really at that point where we can do large scale testing across the state That’ll include looking at people who are asymptomatic,” to get a full sense of how widespread COVID-19 is.

“And then we all can’t wait until we get to step 5, which is where we just kind of have an ongoing very small amount of disease that we can pretty quickly be able to identify and be able to isolate,” Remley said, finishing a description of the timeline her group will be working on.

When Northam concluded his briefing, he ended as usual - by thanking Virginians for what they’re doing, and stressing the importance of working together. “When you cover your face in public or stay six feet away from others, you aren’t just protecting yourself. You’re protecting other people and that is the most important part of these efforts,” he said. “None of us is in this alone. All of our decisions impact other people - other Virginians.”

VPM News is the staff byline for articles and podcasts written and produced by multiple reporters and editors.
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