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Northam: Protective gear shortage, elections, census complicate Virginia's pandemic response

Mike Still • Apr 1, 2020 at 8:15 PM

RICHMOND — A third shipment to Virginia of protective gear for health care workers battling the COVID-19 pandemic is not enough, said Gov. Ralph Northam.

Upcoming May local elections and residents filling out their census forms also pose challenges during the COVID-19 emergency.

Northam, during Wednesday’s regular update on the pandemic, said federal authorities this week have delivered a third shipment of masks, face shields, disposable protective gowns and gloves that does not meet the numbers required by doctors, nurses and other health professionals caring for infected patients.

“We need as much as we can get, bottom line,” Northam said when asked what quantities of equipment are needed. “We’re competing with other states and other countries.”

A typical COVID-19 patient may require doctors and workers to use as many as 240 sets of personal protective equipment in a day, Northam said, adding that the federal government needs to organize a central supply chain for all states.

The equipment shortage comes as Virginia can expect a surge in COVID-19 cases sometime between late April and late May, Northam said. State emergency officials and the Army Corps of Engineers have been discussing the setup of alternative care sites, he said, and 41 potential sites across the state have been identified for possible emergency hospital construction.

Three priority sites in the northern, Tidewater and central regions have been designated, Northam said. An Exxon Mobil facility in Northern Virginia located near a hospital is one site, he said, while the Hampton Convention Center near another hospital and an unspecified site in Richmond would help handle the major concentrations of COVID-19 cases in urban areas.

State Secretary of Health and Human Services Daniel Carey said that opening extra space to treat COVID-19 patients depends, though, on getting needed protective gear.

“We can’t protect existing health care workers, let alone additional volunteers,” Carey said of the current supplies.

Health care workers are especially vulnerable to contamination when intubating COVID-19 patients needing ventilators, Carey said, unless they have proper protective equipment.

When asked what the state was doing to assess sites in Western Virginia, Northam said emergency officials will be looking at the Charlottesville and Roanoke areas in coming days.

State Commissioner of Health Norman Oliver said that 1,484 confirmed COVID-19 cases have been reported in Virginia, with 234 of those reported since Tuesday. As of Wednesday, 34 deaths have been reported and 208 patients hospitalized. Of 8.54 million state residents, 15,344 have been tested.

April 1 was Census Day, when U.S. residents were supposed to mail in or submit online their responses to the census. Deputy Secretary of the Commonwealth Tracy DeShazor asked all residents who had not filed their questionnaires to go to 2020census.gov to do so.

“We cannot afford for Virginians not to be counted,” DeShazor said. Allocation of federal funding and determination of congressional representation depend on an accurate census count, she said.

Northam said the approaching May 5 elections for many local governments and the June 9 congressional primaries across the state have been complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. He said voters should try to vote by absentee ballot where possible, and he acknowledged that candidates are hampered by health concerns and emergency orders prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people.

Saying that he had never faced a similar situation in six elections in his political career, Northam said, “I don’t really have any advice for those individuals right now.”

Northam said that many state residents are concerned about religious observances with several holidays and observances in April. He said that residents can still attend observances subject to the emergency 10-person maximum gathering rule, but that other options are available such as online services or drive-in services where individuals and families can still social distance. More on religious gatherings will be discussed at Friday’s pandemic update, he said.

Updates are shown Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 2 p.m. at The Governor of Virginia’s Facebook page: www.facebook.com/GovernorVA/.

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