While the process wasn’t pretty, we think Gov. Ralph Northam (D-VA) and Northern Virginia’s leaders made the right call to delay phase one reopening in this region for at least two more weeks.
Northam’s announcement on May 4 that Virginia would likely begin phase one of reopening on May 15 seemed rushed and premature. Why did they announce a reopening almost two weeks away and say it was dependent on meeting certain data milestones? Why didn’t they wait until those milestones were met and then announce a reopening?
The governor’s office seemed not to take Northern Virginia into account at all, nor to have consulted our leaders, in making the original declaration of intent to reopen. In fact, his announcement seemed like a half-organized reaction to pressure to reopen, and an attempt to preempt the kind of protests that have happened in Michigan and other states.
Experts keep saying a key element of successfully reopening our country from the coronavirus, to prevent a spike in COVID-19 cases, is widespread and accurate testing. Other important facets to avoiding a second spike in cases – beyond frequent handwashing, physical distancing and mask-wearing – are extensive contact tracing and effective quarantining of asymptomatic people who test positive for COVID-19.
Virginia still seems unprepared on all fronts.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation website, Virginia ranks 47th out of the 51 states and D.C. in COVID-19 tests with results per 1,000 population. Virginia has conducted 18.2 tests with results per 1,000 population, compared with Maryland’s 28, D.C.’s 44 and the U.S. average of 29.4.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported this week that Virginia has been counting antigen testing – which reveals whether a person previously had COVID-19 but does not determine whether a person currently has the disease – in its testing totals. But the state has not been including positives from antigen testing in its positive test results. This means Virginia has overstated its number of COVID-19 tests conducted, despite ranking 47th, while under-reporting the percentage of positives to tests conducted.
And while Northam has announced that Virginia is hiring 1,000 people to trace contacts and quarantines of diagnosed COVID-19 cases, there’s no evidence that these people have been hired, let alone that they’re all trained and operational.
The state’s leadership on long-term care facilities is also lacking.
Fifty-nine percent of all Virginia COVID-19 deaths have occurred in long-term care facilities, compared with the nationwide average of 38 percent. In D.C. it’s 25 percent and in Maryland 53 percent, according to the KFF website.
D.C. is requiring workers in both nursing and assisted-living facilities to wear personal protective equipment, while Maryland requires PPE for nursing facilities and recommends it for assisted-living facilities. Virginia only recommends it for both and only when diagnosed COVID-19 cases are present, according to the KFF website.
Because of continued shortcomings in these vital areas, a strong case can be made that Virginia is not yet ready to implement phase one anywhere.
In fact, one thing Northam appears to have gotten right from the start was the initial June 10 date that his stay-at-home order was to expire. While the governor has taken heat from some wanting a quicker reopening, that date now seems prescient and about right not just for Northern Virginia but the state as a whole.
We are grateful that Northern Virginia’s leaders pushed back against prematurely opening on May 15, well before the region was ready.
We need to brace ourselves for the strong possibility that Alexandria, and the rest of Northern Virginia, may still not be ready to begin phase one on May 28. In fact, Fairfax County will likely determine the regional reopening timeline, because cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to climb there.
At this crucial juncture, when we long for an end to the sickness and restrictions, patience remains a virtue.