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Northam: Testing situation improving

Mike Still • Apr 28, 2020 at 12:00 PM

RICHMOND — Virginia has doubled its daily testing rate for the novel coronavirus in a week, but supplies, including medical-grade sample swabs, are still critical.

That was part of Monday’s message from Gov. Ralph Northam, who said state and federal health officials are dealing with growing outbreaks of COVID-19 infection in poultry plants in the Eastern Shore and Shenandoah Valley.

Northam, responding to an April 24 letter from Republican legislators in Southwest Virginia, also said his administration has been in contact with Tennessee and Kentucky state officials about coordinating efforts to ease business and lockdown measures.

Citing Bristol, Virginia, and Tennessee, Northam said administration officials are discussing the impact of opening some regions earlier than others.

“Is it fair for one side’s businesses to be open and the other’s not?” Northam said, adding that he was open to discussion on the issue. At the same time, he added, testing in rural regions as well as the whole state has not been enough because of supply shortages during the pandemic.

"This is exactly what we meant when our delegation sent the letter to the governor on Friday,” state Sen. Todd Pillion, R-40th, said Monday. “It’s encouraging to hear that he is now taking this into consideration and acknowledging the unique circumstances we’re in with our region surrounded by four other states. We all have an interest in coming up with a measured approach that keeps Virginians safe while getting back to business.”

Northam said Virginia has received another shipment from Northfield Medical Supply of 800,000 protective gloves and 300,000 surgical masks, along with 14,000 medical testing swabs from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Since last week, Northam said, a state COVID-19 testing work group has helped get Virginia’s testing rate from 2,000 a day last week to 4,000 a day in the last few days. That marks a 41% increase in novel coronavirus testing, and state health officials are now expanding tests in a pilot program for public housing residents.

Karen Remley, chair of the test work group, said Virginia has managed to avoid buying swabs that will not work with testing chemicals, unlike some other states. State Health and Human Services Secretary Dan Carey said another 200,000 swabs are on order.

Northam said the expanded test program will help assess infection rates among economically vulnerable residents.

Meat processing plants have become a health concern, Northam said, with two COVID-19 outbreaks at Eastern Shore poultry plants. State health officials are being joined this week by a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention team of epidemiologists and contact tracing specialists to help deal with those outbreaks, while other specialists are helping monitor poultry plants in the Shenandoah Valley area for COVID-19 cases among workers.

Northam, referring to his order Friday to delay local elections from May 5 to May 19, also encouraged voters to request absentee ballots to vote. While the General Assembly during Wednesday’s veto session in Richmond failed to approve a delay in those elections until November, Northam said the two-week delay will give election officials more time to put health and safety measures in place for poll workers and voters who do vote in person.

The deadline for requesting an absentee ballot from general registrars is May 12, Northam said, and ballots must be submitted by May 19.

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