The Commonwealth has not met the guidelines for daily decreases in the number of new COVID-19 cases; nonetheless, the opening phase of Governor Northam’s plan to reopen Virginia is set to launch next week.
The novel coronavirus has burdened communities with stay-at-home orders for over a month, resulting in businesses closing and millions filing for unemployment. On April 24 at a press conference in Richmond, Gov. Ralph Northam released guidelines to incrementally reopen Virginia in a three-part process he is calling “Forward Virginia.”
The plan is reminiscent of reopening plans put forward by President Donald Trump and the Centers for Disease Control. President Trump promised to give authority to state governors to decide how to ease restrictions in their states, stating in a briefing, “America wants to be open and Americans want to be open,” he said. “A national shutdown is not a sustainable long-term solution.”
According to Governor Northam’s plan, before Phase One of the plan begins for the commonwealth, the numbers of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations per day should consistently subside for 14 days, while maintaining a certain number of available hospital beds and an increasing and sustainable supply of patient protective equipment.
Once Phase One of “Forward Virginia” to begin, businesses will be permitted to reopen, with strict safety restrictions tailored for specific industries. Though Northam’s Coronavirus Business Task Force delivered their recommendations for business guidelines last week, Virginia’s final guidelines have not been released as yet. Public health restrictions including social distancing, face coverings in public, and teleworking will continue under phase one.
“We cannot and will not lift restrictions the way you turn on a light switch,” Northam said at a press conference. “We will do it responsibly and deliberately, and it has to be grounded in data. We will move forward, but in a way that prioritizes public health and creates public confidence.”
Since that initial press conference, though, Northam announced on Monday, May 4 that the state would proceed to Phase One of the Forward Virginia plan on Friday, May 15. This is in spite of the fact that the 14-day decline in numbers for new COVID-19 cases and related hospitalizations have not yet been achieved, and Northam’s previously stated goal of 10,000 new COVID-19 tests per day has also not been met.
However, according to state health care officials, the situation is stable enough to proceed by the end of next week.
“You have to look at the whole picture,” Health Commissioner Norm Oliver told the Virginia Mercury. “The fact that our hospitals are in a situation where they could handle a surge means a lot. That we have enough PPE right now means a lot, too.”
The commonwealth has outlined a four-stage process, designed by former Commissioner of Health Karen Remley, to reach Northam’s goal of testing at least 10,000 individuals per day. Under the plan, contact tracers will support local health departments in identifying individuals who may be exposed to COVID-19, and helping them self-isolate.
Testing capacity will be one of the most crucial elements of reopening for states which could also be a shortcoming for Virginia. Virginia has one of the highest numbers of coronavirus cases, while being one of the worst for testing. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the commonwealth ranked 49th in tests administered per 1,000 people, but 14th in the share of confirmed cases of COVID-19.
The first case of coronavirus in Virginia was confirmed on March 7. Confirmed cases of coronavirus in Virginia stood as of May 5 at 20,256, while 2,773 hospitalizations and 713 deaths have occurred. Although daily confirmed cases are still growing in Virginia, growth rates have slowed and hospitalization rates have remained flat.
President Trump’s guidelines, called “Opening Up America Again,” give Governors final discretion on how states will resume operations. Under the plan, states can begin opening businesses, restaurants, and schools in various phases, following a decrease in confirmed cases and adequate hospital capacity.
After Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp encouraged businesses, including restaurants and movie theaters, to resume operations after the state’s stay-at-home order expired on April 30, the state surprisingly experienced a downturn in new COVID-19 cases over the past two weeks, after a gradual increase occurred during the prior two-week period.
However, some say the data Georgia is officially reporting is misleading due to a new way the state has begun to count confirmed cases. According to the Columbus, GA Ledger-Enquirer, the new method, which includes provisions for revision of daily numbers at a later date, is showing a decline experts believe is unlikely to be accurate.
“They shouldn’t even put (the last two weeks) on the graph or publish them,” TJ Muehleman, co-founder of a data company that assists groups like the World Health Organization with collecting and analyzing various health data, told the Ledger-Enquirer. “Any time you publish data that is subject to recasting at a later day, you are going to confuse people. That is a certainty. I’ve seen that with the state of Georgia. …People are confused by this data.”
Northam also announced a modification to his stay-at-home order Monday, calling the new version a “safer at home” order that will give residents more room to leave the house for non-vital errands. The new rules are intended to give Virginians the opportunity to patronize some non-essential businesses without removing safeguards entirely.
“It means you can go out to eat again, but restaurants will use less of their seating to spread people out,” Northam said at the Monday press conference. “Phase One means more retail establishments can be open, but they’ll have to operate at lower capacity.”
Northam expected Phase One to last for around three weeks, with the state moving into Phase Two and beginning to allow larger gatherings of up to 50 people expected to come after that time period. However, full reopening is not expected to come for at least two months, and may take three months or more, Northam said.
“This virus is still here. It has not gone away and it will not go away until we have a vaccination,” Northam said Monday. “All of our efforts have slowed its spread, but they have not cured the disease.”