By U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith
As we continue to address the coronavirus outbreak, it is important also to plan for what comes next.
To slow the spread of the virus, states, including Virginia, imposed restrictions on gatherings, shuttered non-essential businesses, ordered citizens to stay at home, and generally curtailed many activities that make up our daily lives.
The intent behind these orders was to “flatten the curve,” meaning to prevent a rapid spike in cases. While it is of course desirable to prevent as many infections as possible, the goal of flattening the curve was primarily to prevent a high number of cases overwhelming hospitals and doctors, as happened in Italy.
In much of the country, and in our region of Virginia, this goal has been achieved. The health system has been able to handle the influx of coronavirus patients.
Dr. Daniel G. Murphy, an emergency physician at St. Barnabas Hospital in New York City, has been on the front lines of responding to the coronavirus. He recently wrote an op-ed for the New York Post calling for an end to lockdowns and a return to work. Even in the hard-hit, vulnerable community he serves, Dr. Murphy reports, the wave has crested.
As I have talked to health care providers in the Ninth Congressional District, in fact, I have been hearing anecdotally that more deaths may have taken place due to individuals not seeking treatment for non-coronavirus medical problems. They were concerned about becoming infected if they went to the hospital, so they put off calling the doctor for serious complaints such as chest pains or, for diabetics, improper sugar levels.
Dr. Murphy makes this same point in his op-ed:
While the inpatient units remain busy with sick COVID-19 patients, our ER has been quiet for more than a week. We usually average 240 patients a day. For the last week, we averaged fewer than 100. That means our patients in this diverse, low-income community are afraid to come to the ER for non-COVID care . . . Everyone seems to be avoiding the health system — an important and unfortunate consequence of the stay-at-home strategy.
Data from the Virginia Department of Health is revealing. Among the 29 jurisdictions I represent, there have been a total of 376 coronavirus cases, 1.93 percent of the Commonwealth’s total, 52 hospitalizations, also 1.93 percent of the total, and 8 deaths, or 1.17 percent of the total, as of May 4. By comparison, at the last census, the Ninth District had around 9 percent of the Commonwealth’s population.
In three of these jurisdictions – Dickenson County, Bland County, and the City of Covington – there have been no cases at all, let alone hospitalizations or deaths.
In light of these facts, I have been urging Governor Northam to reopen Virginia on a regional basis. He has refused.
I understand that for some parts of Virginia, reopening does not make sense at this point. Fairfax County, for example, continues to see a high count of cases. But the numbers in our area do not justify the same restrictions that Fairfax County requires to slow the spread.
Further, Southwest Virginia borders West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina, and a Roanoke Times editorial recently noted that all of them have moved to reopen sooner than our Commonwealth. Virginians who live near these states could cross the borders to patronize their businesses and amenities, which would be an added blow to our economy.
According to a story in the Washington Examiner, the Burger Bar (which serves a great burger) in Bristol, Virginia, has to watch as customers go in to grab a bite at its competitor across the way in Tennessee while its own offerings remain restricted.
It is important that we be guided by data in reopening, but data interpreted correctly. As testing is done more broadly, the number of cases will likely go up, but if hospitalizations and deaths remain low, a rise in cases should not be cited to prevent reopening.
The Roanoke Times editorial previously mentioned made the case for reopening by region, noting that other states have chosen this path and detailing the criteria they used. If the standards being used in Pennsylvania were applied here, the editorial observed, all but three counties in the Ninth District would be reopened.
I urge the governor to reopen by region, as it would be in the interests of our health, our economy, and our society.