Northam, during his regular update on the COVID-19 outbreak, said that 306,143 unemployment claims have been filed with the Virginia Employment Commission since the pandemic and statewide emergency measures helped force Virginia workers off the job.
Regarding another 147,000 claims filed this week, Northam said that number was more than for the same weeks over the previous three years combined. The state has already mailed about 191,000 unemployment payments totaling $57 million, he added.
Northam encouraged the unemployed to start filling out additional state unemployment forms to receive federal stimulus unemployment payments. That program will guarantee another $600 per week in benefits on top of any state unemployment benefits.
The VEC is hiring additional workers to process claims as well as opening an additional call center and upgrading its website to handle claims, Northam said.
“The health crisis has caused the economic crisis,” Northam said. “We need to fix the health crisis first, then fix the economic crisis.”
Northam said that Virginia Commonwealth University researchers have found a way to decontaminate and extend the life of N95 protective masks by exposing them to ultraviolet radiation.
“This could be a game-changer,” Northam said of the limited supply of personal protective equipment for medical workers. “I hope other hospitals will reach out to VCU.”
Asked about reports of other state’s shipments of personal protective gear and ventilators being confiscated by federal authorities, Northam said he had spoken with hospital and health care CEOs and had not found it to be a problem to date.
The Los Angeles Times recently reported that some states had reported seizures of medical equipment by federal authorities without explanation of where the shipments went.
With the General Assembly set to return to Richmond on April 22 for its veto session, Northam said the two legislative houses have made arrangements to meet outside the Capitol for health and safety reasons. The House of Delegates will meet under a tent on the Capitol grounds, and the Senate will meet at the Science Museum of Virginia.
Northam said he will also ask legislators to approve an emergency measure to allow the Department of Corrections to release inmates with less than a year remaining on their sentence. He said the measure would apply only to prisoners serving time for nonviolent offenses and who pose no threat to the community.
Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran said the measure, if approved, could apply to fewer than 2,000 inmates. Part of any release would involve ensuring they have a place to go upon release and that they have a three-month supply of any needed prescription medications.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Dan Carey said the need still exists for improved COVID-19 testing capacity in hospitals, nursing homes and among the public to get a better idea of the infection rate and spread.
While 15 testing units have arrived in-state to process tests, Carey said supplies for the machines are still insufficient.