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The Day that Virginia Shut Down

Man speaks at microphone
State Health Commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver, gestures during a COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Richmond, Va, Wednesday Nov 18, 2020. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

On Saturday, March 14, 2020, Virginia DMV commissioner Richard Holcomb was on edge.

The coronavirus had been trickling into his work throughout that month. A DMV customer in Altavista became “agitated” after a person of Asian descent coughed, according to emails obtained in a VPM public records request. A customer in Arlington said the agency needed to institute temperature checks at the door. Another was upset about seeing employees in masks.

Employees were also worried. Was it still safe to visit nursing homes to help seniors get IDs? What about in-car driving tests or driving lessons?

The official guidance Holcomb received from State Health Commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver and  Emily Elliott, the state’s top human resources official, reflected the public health mood at the time: take precautions but keep working.

“Virginia is still open for business and you still have to run operations,” Elliot wrote on March 12, in response to Holcomb’s question about road tests. “For employees, I would continue to stress personal hygiene measures that have been communicated.”

Holcomb was still wary. Infections continued rising across the state. On Saturday March 14, the state marked its first COVID-19 death. Sitting at home, Holcomb asked a few offices to send him photos of their lobbies. They were packed.

“When I saw them, I said ‘This can't continue,’” Holcomb said in an interview. “And we were able to convince the governor to close us down.”

On Tuesday, March 17, 2020, Gov. Ralph Northam ordered DMV customer service centers and courts closed. Gatherings and many businesses were limited to ten people. Virginia had entered a lockdown.

Virginia health officials had been preparing for years for a pandemic. The state first developed its own influenza response plan in 2002, with regular updates since then. The Virginia Department of Health and its partners had just finished a large exercise anticipating a hypothetical pandemic that killed tens of millions of Americans when the novel coronavirus arrived in the U.S.

“I don't know so much that we were caught unawares or surprised,” Oliver said in an interview. “I think what we found was that we were really hampered by the lack of resources.”

Critics have laid blame on Northam, Oliver and other state health officials for delays in testing and vaccine rollouts. But Oliver said his department was hamstrung by an uncoordinated federal response to the pandemic by the Trump administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

First, tests were in short supply. Then the state had trouble securing enough swabs or viral medium to return tests.

“We needed to have done much more massive testing earlier, all across the country and here in the commonwealth,” he said.

Some of the emails VPM obtained from early March hint at the crisis ahead. Daily emails from the CDC warn of new cases, disruptions to global trade, and low supplies of N-95 masks. Regional health leaders debate criteria to be eligible for what were then scarce tests. Clark Mercer, Northam’s chief of staff, asks what supplies the state should ask its congressional delegation for help securing (N-95 masks and test kits, Oliver says).

One year later, Oliver pointed to metrics showing Virginia has done comparatively well despite logging over 10,000 COVID-19 deaths. Virginia has the 42nd highest rate of infection and 38th highest rate death from COVID-19 among the 50 states, Washington, and Puerto Rico, according to an analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

“As bad as it is, it's not nearly as bad as it could have been,” Oliver said.

Still, Oliver said he’d taken away some lessons for the next pandemic.

“I think that if I had to do it over again, heaven forbid, I think we could have moved sooner, faster and bigger,” Oliver said. He pointed to the delayed initial rollout of the National Guard for testing as one example where the state could have acted with more haste.

For Holcomb, the shutdown on March 17, 2020 led the DMV to reconsider its entire operations before a staggered reopening that began in May. Many of those changes were for the best, Holcomb said, and may outlast the pandemic. More of its operations have been digitized; the DMV processed over 200,000 transactions online last week, up roughly 80,000 from pre-pandemic levels. Drivers who visit a customer service center need appointments. New drivers will continue to take a parking lot “skills test” rather than getting into a car with a DMV grader.

Holcomb said the DMV had contingency plans, but not one that covered all offices being closed for two months.

“Bottom line, we didn't know until we knew,” Holcomb said.

Oliver said he’s gotten “some nasty emails and letters” but said he has not faced the same level of harassment that’s led many health officials to quit. Still, he said the department is tired after a “relentless” year.

“Our spirits have picked up now because of the vaccines,” Oliver said. “But I wouldn't be telling the truth if I didn't say that people are really tired and stressed.”

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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