Virginia now has 114 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including several new cases in Henrico County and Richmond that have local public health officials concerned about community spread.
Four people, all 50 or older, at a Henrico rehabilitation facility and a young woman from Richmond have tested positive for COVID-19, a local health official said Friday.
This brings the totals to seven people with the coronavirus in Henrico and six in the city.
But what concerns Dr. Danny Avula, the public health director for both localities, more than the rising number of cases is the fact that some of those sick people had no known contact with the virus.
“This just confirms what we’ve been operating on for the last week or longer,” Avula said during a briefing at the Richmond City Health District Clinic at 1 p.m. Friday. “We have community spread going on here in central Virginia.”
These numbers differ from figures posted just an hour earlier on the Virginia Department of Health website. The VDH’s numbers indicate three cases in Henrico and five in Richmond, and do not account for the five new cases confirmed Friday.
On Thursday, state health officials said there’s a lag in the reporting of statewide numbers, and figures on the VDH website might not be the same as numbers reported by individual localities or local health districts. The state has a 5 p.m. cutoff for tabulating daily numbers, so the numbers reported on the website each day are 19 hours old.
Half of the confirmed cases in Henrico and Richmond were tested by LabCorp, a private company, which shows an expansion of testing that was first limited to the state lab, he said.
“People are still really struggling to get access to test kits,” Avula said
Statewide, in addition to the 114 positive cases, 35 are pending at the state lab and more from private labs.
That’s an increase of 20 positive cases since Thursday. Officials said Southwest Virginia has its first case. The Roanoke Times reported Thursday that a woman in her 80s from Botetourt County had tested positive.
Virginia Health Commissioner Norman Oliver said the state’s testing capacity was at more than 1,000 tests as of midday Friday. The figure represents the number of tests the state lab can conduct given a shortage of testing supplies.
A Richmond woman in her 20s tested positive for the virus around noon Friday, according to Avula. She had contact with three individuals who had recently traveled to Spain, he said, and expects to count some if not all of them among future cases, once tested.
Avula said an epidemiologist spent half the day Thursday at Canterbury Rehabilitation & Healthcare Center, which is a long-term rehab center in western Henrico — not to be confused with the Westminster Canterbury Richmond retirement community in Henrico near Richmond’s North Side where another positive test was reported earlier this week. The epidemiologist was deployed to the center after a woman in her 50s developed a fever and tested positive for the virus.
The health district official examined other residents with potential signs of the virus. Seven were tested, Avula said; three came back positive, two who were symptomatic tested negative, and results are pending in the other two cases.
Those who tested positive included a man in his 60s and two other women in their 60s and 70s.
The facility’s medical director, Dr. James Wright, was one of six doctors who sent a letter to state officials on Wednesday criticizing Virginia Department of Health rules delaying COVID-19 testing of those most vulnerable residents.
The doctors, who manage more than a dozen long-term care centers in the region, called for a change to a requirement that the flu and other respiratory infections be ruled out before a COVID-19 test is provided. The process takes up to a week.
On Friday, Oliver said the state planned to issue new guidance that might make it easier for nursing home residents to be tested. The announcement came as the state bolstered its testing capabilities.
Avula and Wright said the patients at Canterbury Rehab are isolated in a wing of the facility. Each is also in their own separate room.
The facility had suspended visitation even before the first symptoms began to show, Avula said. But it was unclear how these patients came into contact with the virus.
Another case in Henrico reported Friday involves a man in his 40s with no known exposure to the disease. All others can be traced to recent travel to already contaminated areas.
Avula said that’s evidence that there is community transmission occurring in the area, which is what some of the more extreme measures — like closing schools and limiting restaurants, theaters and gyms to just 10 patrons — taken by local and state officials were aimed at preventing.
“Those types of decisions are being done to limit social interaction,” he said. “Because more and more people are getting this without knowing who they’ve come into contact with or knowing where they may have contracted the virus.”
With temperatures in the 80s, crowds could be found on Belle Isle and other outdoor spaces enjoying the weather but disregarding social distancing recommendations.
“I wouldn’t say let’s not go outside, but I would say, let’s do it safely,” Avula said. “Where there are places where people are congregating in close groups and not spacing themselves 6 feet apart, that’s concerning and we’re going to advise against that.”
Based on how other similar respiratory viruses spread, Avula said being outside is better but doesn’t completely mitigate the risk.
Currently, the only confirmed case of the virus in the area that has required hospitalization is the man in his mid-80s who lives at Westminster Canterbury. He tested positive Tuesday after returning from Florida early last week.
All others are self-isolating at their respective homes, Avula said.
Gov. Ralph Northam thanked individuals and businesses complying with the statewide call for “social distancing.”
Still, he said the state was ready to enforce noncompliance.
“We’re hearing reports of some businesses being noncompliant. Our localities have the authority to enforce the 10-person limit at restaurants, theaters and fitness centers. I fully expect them to use it when needed,” Northam said.
“But, many people, many businesses are doing the right thing, and for that, we thank them.”
According to data posted to the VDH website, 2,325 people have been tested for the virus in Virginia and 20 people have been hospitalized.
There have been two deaths attributed to the virus.
Tests for nursing home residents
Virginia health officials will soon issue new guidance making it easier for nursing home residents to be tested for COVID-19.
Oliver, the state health commissioner, said patients with symptoms that align with COVID-19, and meet other risk factors, might be eligible for the test without undergoing testing for other respiratory illnesses.
“It’s very clear that our most vulnerable population is the elderly, particularly elderly people who live in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, assisted living facilities and so on,” Oliver said during a briefing with reporters. “We’ve always had, as part of our testing criteria, allowing for increased testing in those facilities, but we’re thinking about changing it so that it’s even less restrictive.”
Oliver said a slate of tests for respiratory illnesses can take up to a week to be completed. For ill, elderly patients in a long-term care facility, that might be too long to wait, he said.
The new guidance is bolstered by a slight increase in the state’s testing capacity. As of midday Friday, Virginia had the capacity to perform roughly 1,000 COVID-19 tests — higher capacity than the state has had in past weeks.
When testing might become widely available remains unclear. Right now, only people who have known contact with a positive case and showing symptoms are eligible to be tested, along with those in high-risk groups, like the elderly.
“While we have more than 1,000 tests, we don’t have enough to do mass testing,” Oliver said.
Virginia has two known cases of COVID-19 in nursing homes or assisted living facilities: the man in his mid-80s who lives at Westminster Canterbury and tested positive after returning from Florida last week; and a man at The Kensington Falls Church, an assisted living and memory care facility in Fairfax County, tested positive and has been in isolation since developing symptoms Saturday, officials announced Thursday.
Emergency child care
Richmond has partnered with the YMCA of Greater Richmond and The Community Foundation to establish emergency child care centers for medical workers and others as long as public schools remain closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“None of the essential workforce should have to choose between knowing their kids are safe and keeping our community running,” Mayor Levar Stoney said Friday in a news release announcing the initiative, which will serve elementary and middle school children, kindergarten through eighth grade.
The Downtown YMCA, at 2 W. Franklin St., will be the first of several sites. It opens Monday and will provide care for children of medical workers at VCU Health System. Depending on demand, the nonprofit will expand to other sites it operates around the region, said Tim Joyce, president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Richmond.
The centers will operate from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. Staff will follow the most recent state guidelines, including a child-staff ration of 9-1, frequent temperature checks and thorough cleanings with disinfectants approved by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Children experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 — or those living in a household with anyone having symptoms — will not be admitted.
“We must all do our part to ensure the safety of our community and to stem the tide of this virus,” Joyce said in a conference call with reporters.
Additionally, the city plans to establish centers at Richmond Public Schools buildings, pending approval from the state. Those will provide child care for other workers the city deems “essential,” including sanitation workers, bus drivers, grocery store clerks and pharmacists, Stoney said.
The Community Foundation, through its new Central Virginia COVID-19 Response Fund, has pledged money to support the launch and operation of the centers.
“My team will work with employers across the city to identify essential personnel with children,” Stoney said.
Sentara test sites
Sentara Healthcare is expanding its drive-thru screening program.
Sentara, the largest hospital system in Virginia, announced Friday it is opening two additional drive-thru screening and testing sites. One will be at Sentara CarePlex Hospital in Hampton and the other at Military Circle in Norfolk. The sites will be open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
The hospital system now has four testing sites after it reopened sites at Sentara Princess Anne Hospital in Virginia Beach and Sentara Williamsburg Regional Medical Center in York County on Thursday.
Sentara officials said only people who are over the age of 60 or have health conditions that make them vulnerable are eligible for testing. In addition, they must be experiencing two of three main symptoms for COVID-19 (fever of 100.4 degrees or higher, cough, shortness of breath) — and have either traveled internationally or been in contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case.
Anyone who does not meet the criteria but feels ill should stay home for 14 days, the news release said, unless in need of urgent medical attention.
The beer is still flowing at Richmond-area craft breweries, but the coronavirus has taken a chunk out of sales as taprooms have closed for on-site beverage consumption and some breweries have had to lay off employees.
Numerous breweries and cideries throughout the Richmond region are trying to keep afloat by shifting to online and pickup sales only, with some even offering delivery.
For instance, The Veil Brewing Co. on Tuesday switched to outdoor to-go sales only at its Scott’s Addition location in Richmond. The brewery also said it is set to start making deliveries within a 12-mile radius from orders placed on its website.
Triple Crossing Beer on South Foushee Street in downtown Richmond also shifted Monday to a to-go and delivery system.
Many other breweries and cideries have posted on their websites new hours for customers to stop by and pick up orders, along with ways to order online.
Center of the Universe Brewing Co. shifted on Thursday to curbside, pickup sales of beer at its brewery and taproom at 11293 Air Park Road in Hanover County.
“We are putting a table in front of our front door and people can come pick up what they want,” said co-founder Chris Ray. “We also have online gift cards if people want to support us that way.”
The brewery is still making beer, Ray said. However, the business has had to furlough some employees.
Tips from Center of the Universe’s “to go” sales are being collected for the brewery’s customer service staff who have been let go while the coronavirus-related restrictions last.
Ray declined to comment on how many have been laid off, but “it was substantial,” he said. “It was more than half our workforce.”
On a normal busy day, such as a Saturday, Ardent Craft Ales in Scott’s Addition could get hundreds or thousands of customers in its brewery taproom at 3200 W. Leigh St.
Thanks to the coronavirus, the number of taproom visitors has now gone to zero, said Tom Sullivan, the craft brewery’s co-founder and general manager.
Ardent has responded by offering pickup orders, and making some deliveries within a limited range in the Richmond region.
“We had to close our taproom, so we have full-time staff that are available to do this type of work,” Sullivan said. “We thought that would be a good way to keep them on staff. We did not know what to expect because it is a new and novel type of idea for Richmond.”
“I think we have been pleasantly surprised,” with delivery and pickup orders, he said. “Basically, we are doing the same sales that we would do, under normal circumstances, on a slow day.”
The brewery has had to furlough part-time staff, though, who normally would fill shifts on weekends. Sullivan said he hopes to bring those employees back when the crisis has passed.
“Right now, we are going to keep everybody on as long as we can,” he said. “As the situation changes, we are going to make adjustments so we can come out the other side. I just don’t know what it is going to look like.”
The coronavirus outbreak forced some changes for the grand opening of Bryant’s Cider, which has opened a new location in 2114 E. Main St. in Shockoe Bottom.
Instead, the craft cider maker marked its opening with a “curbside pickup” on Friday evening where customers bought cider but did not congregate at the new location. The curbside orders will continue at the same time on Fridays and Saturdays and on Sundays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.
“We have a ton of cider ready to go,” marketing manager Vanessa Gleiser said. “Our business could really use all the support we can get right now to help the five employees who work at Bryant’s,” including founder Jerry Thornton and his daughter.
“Every sale is super impactful for small businesses,” Gleiser said. “By buying a bottle of cider you really do help someone pay his or her bills. Without sales we can’t be paid and that’s really scary.”
Center of the Universe’s Ray said eight people are currently still working at the brewery.
“Fortunately, for us, we still supply grocery stores and off-premise sites, but that is all of our business currently,” he said. “Overall, we are seeing a 70% cut in revenue.”
Asked how long the brewery can sustain itself, Ray said, ‘We have got about 90 days if everything stays as it is.”
“We are anticipating more layoffs across other industries if this goes on longer,” he said. “If people see diminishing pay, they are going to have to make some hard decisions. Are they going to go for the more expensive craft beer?”
Richbrau Brewing in Shockoe Bottom has been limiting its customers to no more than 10 in its taproom at a time. It is also offering drive-up orders and working on setting up a delivery option within a day or two.
“We’re making the best of a bad situation,” said co-owner Matthew Mullett. He said sales so far have not dropped off as much as he feared. “People have really stepped up.”
Sullivan with Ardent Craft Ales said local, state and federal governments can help by offering whatever relief is possible for small businesses such as low-interest loans, and tax relief from excise taxes on breweries.
On its Facebook page, Center of the Universe has a simple message: “We could all use a beer. Thank you for your support during this time.”
Any restaurant in Virginia with a valid license to sell wine and beer on-premises can now sell wine and beer to go and for delivery without applying for additional permits.
Gov. Ralph Northam announced the change at a news conference Friday in response to his ban on public gatherings of more than 10 people, enacted Tuesday to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. The ban effectively shut down the dine-in business for restaurants across the state.
The regulatory change also applies to breweries and wineries and allows restaurants to have their wine and beer delivered through a third-party service, such as Uber Eats or Grubhub, and it will remain in effect as long as the state of emergency continues, according to the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority.
“If someone were to order a meal, they could also have the option of ordering beer or wine for either takeout or delivery,” Northam said. “Virginians want to do the right thing, so that we can get through this situation, together.”
The announcement is a dramatic change from ABC’s existing guidelines, which require a nonrefundable $195 application fee, an annual $300 license fee, multiple public postings and a 30-day waiting period for any restaurant with a valid license to sell wine and beer on-premises seeking to sell it to go. The change also streamlines the process to add delivery of wine and beer to existing “ABC-off” permit holders.
Nearly every full-service restaurant in Virginia that is still operating during the coronavirus emergency has suddenly shifted to a takeout-only model, but the shift has deprived the restaurants of their most lucrative product: booze sales.
“[Liquor sales] represent 30 or so percent of our sales with the highest profit margins of any category,” said Michelle Williams of Richmond Restaurant Group. As of Monday, she’d shifted four of her Richmond-area restaurants to takeout and delivery only. Four others have been closed since Monday.
While wine and beer are included in that 30%, spirits and cocktails are the most profitable — and that’s where many in the restaurant industry want to see ABC further loosen restrictions.
“We’ve asked them to consider dispensation for [restaurants],” said Thomas A. Lisk, a lobbyist for the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging and Travel Association.
Lisk was part of the conversations this week asking ABC to allow wine and beer to go. The association also wants the restaurant industry to be able to create and sell cocktails for takeout or delivery, as has been allowed in other states this week, including Texas and New York. Lisk said his group is also working with ABC to allow liquor delivery and other changes.
“We anticipate some ABC stores closing. One in Richmond closed this week,” Lisk said. “They’ve been evolving in their thinking.”
Lisk said that ABC has been receptive to making changes where it can, and he expects that there will be more changes to come.
“Right now, the state ABC stores have had a surge in sales, not surprisingly from people stocking up for their homes,” he said. “Pretty soon people will be afraid of going out to the store.”
ABC was poised on Thursday to release its sales figures for March 8-14, a period that would include when Virginians were asked to begin social distancing. But agency spokeswoman Taylor Thornberg said the release of the numbers will be delayed as the agency focuses on more immediate needs.
“That being said, our store employees have indicated to us that they have seen more customers than usual in their stores and it seems online ordering has picked up,” Thornberg said.
But at this time, there are no plans to add liquor or mixed beverages to go, Thornberg said.
Licensees can learn about the ABC changes at abc.virginia.gov/covid-19.
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Virginia’s state testing is likely to be canceled this year after the U.S. Department of Education said Friday that it would waive mandatory testing requirements.
Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane, the state’s K-12 leader, said in a statement Friday: “I thank USED for responding to the pleas of states — including Virginia — for relief during this time of national crisis and for providing a simple and expedited process for requesting waivers.
“I anticipate presenting our waiver application to the state Board of Education in early April and submitting it to Washington immediately upon approval by the board.”
Lane had said Tuesday that the Virginia Department of Education would seek “maximum flexibility” related to the annual Standards of Learning tests given in the spring. The future of the school year is uncertain as schools across the state remain shuttered to help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.
On Friday, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said the federal Education Department will give a waiver “to any state that is unable to assess its students due to the ongoing national emergency.
“Students need to be focused on staying healthy and continuing to learn. Teachers need to be able to focus on remote learning and other adaptations,” DeVos said in a statement. “Neither students nor teachers need to be focused on high-stakes tests during this difficult time. Students are simply too unlikely to be able to perform their best in this environment.”
Virginia Department of Education spokesman Charles Pyle said Lane has told agency staff members to prepare an application.
“I think probably a lot of the students will be extremely happy,” President Donald Trump said at a news conference Friday. “Some probably not. The ones who work hard, probably not.”
Emily Webb, the director of board relations for the Virginia department, said it’s “likely” that the state Board of Education would need to approve the state’s waiver before the testing is canceled.
Virginia isn’t alone in wanting to cancel the testing, with more than a dozen states having suspended or canceled the assessments, which teachers often criticize.
In a news release, the federal agency said that because testing — in third through eighth grades in reading and math and in science at least once during elementary, middle and high school — is required by the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal government’s primary K-12 education law, a state that receives a waiver can also get an exemption from using testing data in its statewide accountability system.
In Virginia, that system determines whether a school is accredited. The state tweaked its system in 2017, lessening the importance of standardized test scores, but the results are still the primary factor in a school’s rating.
While what to do about state testing is close to a resolution, the state’s education leaders must still decide how to handle graduation and student teaching requirements, among other things.
Students must pass a certain number of SOL tests and get enough credits to graduate, two things up in the air because of the pandemic.
During a meeting conducted via conference call, board members indicated Friday that they would support waiving certain requirements to ensure seniors are still able to graduate.
“We recognize that because this is such an extraordinary situation, the principle of flexibility, that we want students to be able to graduate, to be able to move on to next year, with the anticipation that this will pass eventually and we were well past the midmark of the school year, the presumption should be in favor of helping everyone move on successfully to their next step,” said board member Anne Holton.
The board must still vote on the actions, which could happen at a meeting next month.
Waiving the testing requirement was one of two major actions the U.S. Department of Education announced Friday.
The agency said it will also suspend federal student loan payments and waive interest that accumulates during the pandemic.
Federal borrowers will have their interest rates set to 0% for at least 60 days, the department said in a news release, and those borrowers will have the option of suspending their payments for at least two months “to allow them greater flexibility during the national emergency.”
“These are anxious times, particularly for students and families whose educations, careers, and lives have been disrupted,” DeVos said. “Right now, everyone should be focused on staying safe and healthy, not worrying about their student loan balance growing. I commend President Trump for his quick action on this issue, and I hope it provides meaningful help and peace of mind to those in need.”
Borrowers will still be able to make payments if they choose.
The chairman and chief executive officer for Henrico County-based Altria Group Inc., Howard A. Willard III, has been diagnosed as having the virus that causes COVID-19 and is temporarily stepping aside from his job.
Altria, one of the Richmond region’s largest employers, disclosed the news in a message to employees that was also posted on its website Friday.
It is the third confirmed coronavirus case among the company’s employees.
The tobacco giant and parent company of cigarette maker Philip Morris USA said William F. “Billy” Gifford Jr., the company’s vice chairman and chief financial officer, is taking over the CEO duties while Willard focuses on recovery.
The company said Willard, 56, “has been out of the office for several days, and we have notified those who were in close contact with Howard and asked them to self-quarantine for 14 days.”
“To ensure that the company is fully functioning at this critical time and to focus on his health, Howard has decided to take a temporary medical leave of absence,” the company said.
Altria had disclosed on Wednesday that one employee tested positive for the coronavirus. On Thursday, the company said it was halting production for two weeks at its massive cigarette factory in South Richmond after a second employee tested positive for the virus.
A spokesman for Altria said Friday that the company is not disclosing any other information than what was in the announcement to employees.
“We’re actively asking employees to report when they’re unwell, are being tested for COVID-19 or have been confirmed positive and, as we receive that information, we have a robust process in place to minimize impact to employees and business operations,” spokesman David Sutton said.
Altria has about 3,300 employees in the Richmond area, including at its cigarette factory just off Interstate 95, at its corporate headquarters on West Broad Street in Henrico County and at a downtown Richmond research center.
The company said this week that most of its office staff in the Richmond area had switched to remote working from home.
Willard became Altria’s chairman and CEO in May 2018 and has been leading the company as it tries to offset declines in cigarette consumption by introducing alternative nicotine products and investing in businesses outside the conventional cigarette market such as vaping products maker Juul Labs and cannabis company Cronos Group Inc.
Willard has worked for the company for more than 25 years, serving in such roles as chief operating officer, chief financial officer and executive vice president of strategy and business development.
Gifford, 49, has been the company’s vice chairman and chief financial officer since May 2018. He joined Philip Morris USA in 1994 and has served in various leadership roles, including as CEO of the Philip Morris USA subsidiary.
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