By Callie Hietala
In his final COVID-19 briefing since the virus first appeared in Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam on Monday issued a 30-day emergency order to provide relief to hospitals and medical workers across the state dealing with rising numbers of COVID-positive patients.
The declaration came after record numbers of hospitalizations were reported last week, Northam said, and is intended to “ease the pressure on Virginia’s hospitals and their staff” by allowing hospitals to expand the number of available beds, increase staffing capacity, and allowing public health agencies greater flexibility in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Among other provisions, the order allows providers with an out-of-state license to practice in Virginia, authorizes experienced physician assistants to practice without a written supervisory agreement, and provides certain liability protections to healthcare workers who act in good faith to protect patients.
“It has been a long 22 months for all of us,” Northam said in the briefing, which was livestreamed. “It has been a roller coaster and we’re not built for this kind of uncertainty for this long.”
The pandemic has brought out both the worst and the best in people, Northam said. “I’ve watched people helping and caring for one another in big ways and small ways,” particularly the state’s healthcare workers.
The rapid spread of the highly transmissible omicron variant has led to an increase in the numbers of those needing hospitalization, Northam said, and more are expected because the current spike has yet to reach its peak.
“It’s causing a real strain on the people who work in hospitals,” Northam said. “Doctors and nurses have worked tirelessly for 22 months to care for people that have gotten sick. I say tirelessly, but it’s not really the right word, because they are tired. They’re exhausted, and they’re burned out. That’s why it’s so important for us to help them.”
He urged people to go the hospital for medical attention only if it is necessary.
“It is painful to see COVID case numbers rising once again,” he said, noting that case numbers are higher than they have ever been.
However, Northam said, the situation is different from what it was a year ago, before vaccines became widely available.
“Case numbers are high, and that’s a reason for concern, but not a reason for panic,” he said, adding that though case numbers have been one of the defining data points used throughout the pandemic, data should now be examined differently given the wide availability of vaccines.
Noting that “almost no one” had gotten a shot a year ago, Northam said more than 14 million doses have been administered statewide. Nearly 90 percent of the adult population has had at least one dose, and “only nine states have given more shots and they are all larger states than Virginia,” he said.
“Vaccinations are keeping people safer even as the omicron variant spreads,” Northam said. “Data from around the world for nearly a year now shows that if someone is vaccinated and they get COVID, the symptoms are likely to be minor.”
He noted data that indicates lower numbers of those vaccinated are hospitalized, and even fewer die from the virus.
“That is how vaccines are designed to work,” Northam said, and cited a statistic from Ballad Health, based in southwest Virginia, which reported last week that 97 percent of its COVID patients who are relying on ventilators are unvaccinated.
Northam acknowledged the increased demand for testing considering omicron’s rapid spread. He said that last week, the state averaged 50,000 tests daily, likely not accounting for the number of self-administered, at-home tests.
National demand for rapid tests is outpacing supply, he said, adding that PCR tests are still readily available.
Northam said the nine new testing sites recently announced would be able to process around 500 tests daily, with the three larger sites eventually able to handle about 1,000 tests each day. Additionally, he said the federal government is in the process of making 500 million free, at-home tests available later this month.