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WEDNESDAY COVID-19 NEWS: Infections in Virginia climb to 77, including four new cases in Richmond

The city of Richmond reported its first cases of the coronavirus on Wednesday as the number of positive cases statewide rose to at least 77 and the largest hospital system in Virginia suspended drive-thru screening and testing due to a shortage of tests.

The 77 cases in Virginia represent an increase of 10 from the 67 cases that were reported around the same time on Tuesday, although a shortage of tests likely means the real number of cases is higher. There are now at least 13 cases in the Richmond area.

Officials on Wednesday also reported the first case in Charles City County, a female who had close contact with a person diagnosed with COVID-19 in Virginia.

At a late-morning news conference at the state Capitol on Virginia’s response to the novel coronavirus, state Health Commissioner Norman Oliver said there are three ongoing outbreaks in the state, meaning clusters of cases traced back to a single positive case — one in James City County, and two in the Richmond area.

Gov. Ralph Northam also said the state budget will almost certainly be revised ahead of the April 22 veto session.

“We’ll be making adjustments as needed depending on what the economy is doing with our budget,” Northam said.

The Virginia Department of Health said Wednesday that 1,278 people in Virginia have been tested.

Four Richmond residents have tested positive for COVID-19, the first positive cases in the city limits.

All four — two men in their 20s and two in their 30s — had traveled outside of the state recently, and three of them were in a group, Mayor Levar Stoney said at a news conference Wednesday at City Hall. Those three are linked to a previously confirmed case in Henrico County. The group traveled to North Carolina earlier this month.

The fourth man traveled to New York and had contact with someone who tested positive. All four are in self-isolation at home. One had been hospitalized, Stoney said.

Three of the Richmond cases were discovered as a part of the investigation into the Henrico case, said Danny Avula, head of the Richmond and Henrico health departments. The cases were confirmed Wednesday morning, he said.

Health officials are working to determine who else the men may have had contact with after being exposed.

Officials stressed the importance of social distancing and limiting large gatherings to prevent spread of the virus. Stoney said the city would enforce the state ban on crowds of more than 10 people.

“Now is the time to increase our diligence and keep each other accountable,” Stoney said. “We have to be vigilant, personally vigilant, in this combat versus COVID-19.”

The Richmond-area cases include those in the city, Henrico and Charles City, along with cases in the counties of Chesterfield, Goochland and Hanover.

Altria case

One of the Richmond-area residents who tested positive for COVID-19 is a Philip Morris USA employee, the company disclosed.

Henrico-based Altria Group Inc., one of the largest employers in the Richmond region, notified its employees in a message dated Tuesday that an employee of Philip Morris USA, Altria’s cigarette manufacturing subsidiary, “has been confirmed positive for COVID-19.”

The company said in the message that the employee “is actively recovering and feeling well in self-quarantine at home.”

Altria spokesman Steve Callahan confirmed the information on Wednesday. Callahan declined to comment on where, specifically, the employee works.

“Out of respect for their privacy, we are not going to disclose any other details,” Callahan said.

Altria has about 3,300 employees in the Richmond area. Its operations in the region include its cigarette manufacturing plant just off Interstate 95 in South Richmond, its corporate headquarters on West Broad Street in Henrico and a research center in downtown Richmond.

“Like so many large employers, we’ve been planning for our first case,” said the message to employees from Sheila Freeman, vice president of manufacturing. “Our COVID-19 task force has rigorous protocols in place to ensure both employee safety and the continuity of our work.”

Callahan said Altria is following U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

“We have developed rigorous protocols to handle suspected cases,” he said, including notifying other employees who may have come into contact with anyone who tests positive. “Those protocols worked well in this case.”

He said other employees who were in contact with the individual who tested positive have been asked to stay home, with pay, for the next 14 days.

The company’s manufacturing plant is still operating but with access restricted to “essential employees,” Callahan said.

“The vast majority of our employees are working remotely,” including headquarters staff, he said.

Catholic Diocese

The Catholic Diocese of Richmond is also taking precautions to safeguard against COVID-19.

The diocese, which covers most of the state outside of Northern Virginia, announced Wednesday that Bishop Barry Knestout is in self-quarantine “out of care and caution.” Knestout, according to the diocese, experienced symptoms of a minor cold last weekend after heavy travel over the past two weeks.

He visited an undisclosed health care facility Wednesday morning and self-quarantined based on a doctor’s recommendation, according to the diocese.

“Bishop Knestout stresses that he does not feel seriously ill but is taking this measure as a precaution and is eager to return to public ministry,” the diocese said in a news release. “Until then, he will wait until doctors advise him of the status of the COVID-19 test and he is cleared to proceed with his public ministry.”

The diocese on Monday announced that Sunday Masses would be canceled, among other things, but the church would do a livestream of Mass.

Caring for children

In another development, state officials on Wednesday said they are asking all parents who are not essential workers to care for their young children at home, citing lack of capacity in the state’s child care centers.

Roughly 1,200 of the state’s 7,800 child care centers have closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, straining the number of slots available, said Duke Storen, the state’s commissioner for social services.

“We want to make sure that our children are safe, while also ensuring that essential personnel, medical professionals are able to go to work and know that their children are being cared for,” Northam said Wednesday.

Essential workers include health care professionals, first responders, workers at grocery stores and pharmacies, and workers in the manufacturing and food processing industries.

At the same time, the state is advising child care centers that remain open to limit the number of people in any one classroom to 10, including both children and adults — which would further strain capacity.

“We know that this will be a hardship for many providers to change their model, but we know that they are up to the task,” Storen said.

The directive was part of broader guidance issued Wednesday to the state’s child care providers. Centers were also asked to feed children in their classrooms instead of common areas and to stagger recess times. The guidance also includes suggestions on how to keep children 6 feet apart while still interacting.

Storen added that the state is surveying the health care industry to gauge unmet demand for child care.

Test shortage

Sentara Healthcare, the largest hospital system in Virginia, temporarily suspended its three drive-thru COVID-19 screening and testing locations due to a shortage of tests, the health system announced Wednesday. The drive-thru testing began on Monday.

The three drive-thru locations, which are at Princess Anne Hospital in Virginia Beach, Williamsburg Regional Medical Center and Sentara Edinburgh in Chesapeake, shut down at 2 p.m. Wednesday until more testing supplies become available.

They are still able to test high-risk patients — defined as those who have two of three symptoms (cough, fever of 100.4 or higher, and shortness of breath); have either traveled internationally or to an area with a COVID-19 outbreak; and are either 60 or older or have a serious health condition.

The health system asked that people who believe they meet the criteria to call their hospital before coming in. People younger than 60 with no underlying health conditions but who have symptoms are advised to quarantine at home for two weeks.

“We know that COVID-19 is a critical concern for our communities, so we are actively working with state and federal officials to get more testing supplies,” Sentara said in a statement.

Local testing

In a separate screening location, about 130 people drove through a pop-up testing site at Dorey Park in eastern Henrico County on Wednesday in the first such attempt by regional health officials to test people who have mild symptoms and worry they have the virus.

People who were tested called the health department for an appointment on a call center phone number that opened Wednesday morning. They remained in their vehicles while trained health officials wearing protective gear took oral swabs. Tests will be analyzed by the private company LabCorp and will be ready in about four days.

A small contingent of deputy sheriffs told patients who arrived before noon to park and keep their car windows closed. Vehicles then formed a line to pull up to four large tents. Richmond police operated a drone during the testing.

Health officials hope to do more testing at different locations around the region, Avula said.

“One of the biggest needs in our community around our collective response to this disease has been more opportunities for individuals who have symptoms but not severe enough to be tested through the state lab,” he said. “So we’ve been trying to figure out, how do we set up community testing opportunities in the context of there not being enough places to go for people who just have mild symptoms.”

Those who want to be screened by phone for a possible appointment may call (804) 205-3501 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Heading off scams

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia issued a statement Wednesday that warned fraudsters are setting up websites, contacting people by phone and email, and posting disinformation on social media platforms in scams linked to COVID-19.

The schemes include scammers:

  • offering to sell fake cures, vaccines and advice on unproven treatments for COVID-19;
  • creating fake shops, websites, social media accounts and email addresses claiming to sell high-demand medical supplies such as surgical masks;
  • contacting people by phone and email, pretending to be doctors and hospitals that have treated a friend or relative for COVID-19, and demanding payment for that treatment; and
  • soliciting donations for individuals, groups and areas affected by COVID-19.

“Fraudsters frequently prey upon vulnerable individuals during difficult times,” G. Zachary Terwilliger, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said in a statement. “Today, as our communities take important steps to limit the spread of COVID-19, we are working closely with our law enforcement partners to guard against fraudulent pandemic profiteers, as well as to ensure the rule of law and public safety is not eroded during this critical time.”

'I hear the symptoms feel differently for everybody' : A Richmond couple in their 30s tested positive for coronavirus. This is their story.

Joseph Papa, 37, and his husband, John-Stuart Fauquet, 38, haven’t been feeling well for a week. On Tuesday, they got the test results and found out why: They tested positive for the coronavirus.

They live in Richmond’s West End but spend much of their time traveling back and forth to New York for work. Papa is a book publicist and had book launches in New York and Philadelphia over the past few weeks. Fauquet works in executive recruiting and spent a few days in the beginning of March in his New York skyscraper office.

Before the calls for social distancing were issued, they had traveled to New York and Philadelphia for work and attended the Quirk Hotel opening in Charlottesville on March 5.

They also attended art galleries, ate at local restaurants, visited local theaters and went to a friend’s 50th birthday party. From late February to early March, they had contact with hundreds of people, both for work and through their personal lives.

They were feeling fine until late March 12, when Fauquet came down with a fever. The next day, Papa followed. They had similar symptoms: fever, fatigue and shortness of breath.

“I hear the symptoms feel differently for everybody. But for us, it was strong fatigue, exhaustion, and shortness of breath,” Papa said. “The shortness of breath was very new for us. It was feeling very easily winded, like you’ve just run a mile even if you’re only walking the dog.”

They visited their primary care doctor the next day, on March 13, and were tested for the coronavirus. The test was a swab of the nose and throat, and they were isolated. The swab was quick but the results took three business days, which turned into five days over the weekend.

Fauquet works in a skyscraper in New York where someone tested positive for the coronavirus. But he never came in direct contact with that person and they worked many floors apart.

“Getting tested for the coronavirus was an anomaly. I think if we went earlier or later, we wouldn’t have gotten tested,” Papa said. Because someone had tested positive in the same office building where Fauquet worked, they were tested for coronavirus.

They were sent home from the doctor’s office and they waited.

They self-quarantined. They didn’t leave their house for five days. Friends bought food and left it on their front porch.

On Tuesday afternoon, five days after being tested, they were notified that they had tested positive for the coronavirus.

“We don’t know how or where or when we were exposed to the virus,” Papa said. “It could have been in New York or Philadelphia or Charlottesville or Richmond.”

The doctor told them to get in touch if their respiratory health gets any worse, but otherwise, they’ve been instructed to stay put, take Tylenol, sleep and drink plenty of water.

Papa posted the news on his social media channels, just to let people know.

“Most people were incredibly sweet. But others were accusatory, as if we were knowingly spreading this around. We didn’t know. This happened before any of the messaging about social distancing was coming out,” he said.

Since spreading the word, Papa said their friends have been checking in and dropping off food without contact. Papa and Fauquet plan to order groceries online and take every other precaution going forward.

Papa said, “My message is: Stay home when you can. Flatten the curve. Take it seriously. Don’t be cavalier about it. Even if you’re feeling fine.”

Home-schooling during the coronavirus outbreak? Here are some tips

The number of students being home-schooled in Virginia has risen substantially over the past decade.

There were 23,290 home-schooled students in the state in the 2009-10 school year, according to data from the Virginia Department of Education, and that number has surged to 38,282 this school year.

With every K-12 school in the state shuttered due to the coronavirus pandemic, the state’s roughly 1.5 million public, private and ordinarily home-schooled students are at home. Many parents and guardians are trying to use the time — at least until March 27, under Gov. Ralph Northam’s order, and already longer for Richmond-area districts — to still have their children learn amid rising uncertainty over when schools will reopen.

Virginia’s K-12 education leader, James Lane, said Tuesday that there’s a “very real possibility of a significantly longer shutdown” than the two-week break announced last week.

With the future of the school year unknown and many parents attempting to home-school for the first time, the Richmond Times-Dispatch spoke with experienced home-school parents for their tips. Here is their advice.

Don’t try to re-create the school day routine

Alycia Wright taught for 12 years and now runs a home-school co-op in Henrico County with roughly 20 families.

Her first piece of advice: Don’t default to the structure of a school day.

“That’s just not realistic,” Wright said. “I suggest people think more in rhythms of their days instead of hard schedules.”

Wright suggests creating learning opportunities in everyday life. If you’re going to the grocery store, for example, see if your children can figure out what’s the better deal on a certain product.

Yvonne Bunn, the director of home-school support and government affairs for the Home Educators Association of Virginia, said parents should wake up before their children and make sure they complete any school-sponsored work provided by teachers.

Tracy Epp, the chief academic officer for Richmond Public Schools, said she hopes students dedicate as much as three hours per day toward their schooling during the break.

Nurture interests

Bunn suggests asking your children a simple question: If you could learn about anything, what would you like to learn about this week?

“That draws them in,” she said.

There are online resources — public libraries are closed, but their websites have tools, for example — that can help nurture those interests, Bunn said.

It might be classical music or board games. Sports or science. Whatever it is, Bunn said, try to stimulate their interest.

“Get their focus and give them some direction, but do things that they are interested in,” Bunn said. “For this short period of time, they don’t have to do certain things unless the academics have been provided for them from the school system.”

She added: “I would suggest that they start looking into subjects that really interest them or that they would like to do or what they want to learn more about.”

Limit screen time

Spending time with things they’re interested in helps with the battle over how much screen time children have, Bunn said.

Bunn recommended turning off the TV and putting cellphones away — that includes parents.

“Once parents get on their cellphone, then that’s an opportunity for the children to model that,” she said.

Bunn endorsed having students go outside on a nature walk and report back with a journal entry, among other activities.

Reading is also important, with a physical book or an audiobook, Bunn said.

Richmond Public Library announced Wednesday that it is expanding access to online resources, lifting the checkout limits on audiobooks, movies, comics and music to encourage online borrowing.

Wright said it is important for parents to make sure screen time is productive.

“If you can tailor the screen time so there’s a purpose to it, I think it’s great. But I always would suggest doing as much real-life learning as you can,” she said, adding that families should try to spend as much time outside as possible. “It’s easy to let kids watch TV or be on their phones. Just remember, those habits form quickly and they’re going to be extremely difficult to break once they get back into a structured schedule.”

While federal, state and local officials have recommended social distancing as a way to tame the coronavirus outbreak, hikes, bike rides and trail running are seen as OK.

Do things together

No matter what you do during the break, Wright and Bunn said, try to do as many activities together as possible.

“Real moments where you can talk and discuss and bond and have learning happening, those are the most valuable,” Wright said.

That might be cooking together or making arts and crafts together, activities both experts recommended.

School is going to be out for an extended period, so appreciate the time together, Wright said.

Said Wright: “Supply them with some resources. Maybe supply them with some online opportunities that have educational goals and just bond and enjoy each other.”

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Trump taps emergency powers as virus relief plan proceeds

WASHINGTON — Describing himself as a “wartime president” fighting an invisible enemy, President Donald Trump on Wednesday invoked rarely used emergency powers to coordinate critical medical supplies against the coronavirus pandemic while the Senate approved an aid package that will guarantee sick leave to workers who fall ill.

Trump used his authority under the 70-year-old Defense Production Act to give the government more power to steer production by private companies and try to overcome shortages in masks, ventilators and other supplies.

He also took a series of other extraordinary steps to steady the nation, its day-to-day life suddenly and fundamentally altered. A major part of that effort was pushing forward a broad economic rescue plan, which proposes $500 billion in checks to millions of Americans, with the first to go out April 6 if Congress approves the plan.

Also, the Canadian-U.S. border, the world’s longest, was effectively closed, save for commerce and essential travel.

Trump said he will expand the nation’s diagnostic testing capacity and deploy a Navy hospital ship to New York, which is rapidly becoming a U.S. focus of the pandemic, and another such ship to the West Coast.

And the Housing and Urban Development Department will suspend foreclosures and evictions through April to help the growing number of Americans who face losing jobs and missing rent and mortgage payments.

But as Trump laid out efforts to help the economy, markets plummeted. Gone were the last of the gains that the Dow Jones Industrial Average had made since Trump took office in January 2017.

Administration announcements came on a fast-moving day of developments across the capital, its empty streets standing in contrast to the whirlwind inside the grand spaces of the White House and the Capitol.

The Senate overwhelmingly passed a second coronavirus response bill, sending it to Trump, who signed it into law Wednesday night. The vote was 90-8 despite worries by many Republicans about a temporary new employer mandate to provide sick leave to workers who get COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. The measure is also aimed at making tests for the virus free.

Details on Trump’s latest economic rescue plan remain sparse — and it’s sure to grow with lawmaker add-ons — but its centerpiece is to dedicate the $500 billion in direct payments to Americans. It would also funnel cash to businesses to help keep workers on payrolls as widespread sectors of the $21 trillion U.S. economy all but shut down.

In a memorandum, the Treasury Department proposed two $250 billion cash infusions to individuals: a first set of checks issued starting April 6, with a second wave in mid-May. The amounts would depend on income and family size.

Taken together, the administration plan promises half of the $1 trillion plan to families and individuals, with the other half used to prop up businesses and keep employees on payroll.

The Treasury plan also recommends $50 billion to stabilize airlines, $150 billion to issue loan guarantees to other struggling sectors, and $300 billion for small businesses. The plan appears to anticipate that many of the loans would not be repaid.

“Every penny that they borrow and use for purposes of keeping people employed, they will not have to pay back,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., chief author of a detailed Senate plan.

The Senate will remain in session until the third coronavirus bill passes, with weekend sessions possible. But the House will have its own version and for now isn’t set to return until Tuesday, and any final compromise measure probably won’t reach Trump’s desk until late next week at the earliest.

“This legislation is not perfect, but we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” said Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is trying to take control of the effort, putting GOP chairmen in charge and promising to consult with Senate Democrats later. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., criticized the approach, saying it’s “too cumbersome, too partisan and will take far too long, given the urgency and need for cooperation.”

Economists doubted that the massive rescue package would be enough to stop millions of jobs losses, even if in the short term. It’s aimed at helping Americans without paychecks avoid foreclosure and other financial hardships and preventing businesses from sliding into bankruptcy.

Trump dismissed a suggestion from his own Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, that the nation could face 20% unemployment, at least in the short term.

That’s an “absolute, total worst-case scenario,” Trump said. “We’re no way near it.”

The government has told Americans to avoid groups of more than 10 people and the elderly to stay home while a pointed reminder was given to millennials to follow the guidelines and avoid social gatherings. Trump likened the effort to the measures taken during World War II and said it would require national sacrifice.

“It’s a war,” he said. “I view it as a, in a sense, a wartime president. It’s a very tough situation.”

No longer able to run for re-election on a healthy economy, he was taking on the mantle of a wartime leader after playing down the severity of the crisis for weeks.

The president also employed more nativist, us-versus-them rhetoric at the briefing, continuing his recent habit of referring to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus,” which has been sharply criticized as racist.

“It’s not racist at all,” Trump said. “It comes from China, that’s all.”

Trump later met nursing leaders and expressed “gratitude for those on the front lines in our war against the global pandemic.” A limited number of people gathered around a large table, their chairs spread apart in a display of social distancing.

The Defense Production Act gives the president broad authority to shape the domestic industrial base so that it is capable of providing essential materials and goods needed in a national security crisis. The law allows the president to require businesses and corporations to give priority to and accept contracts for required materials and services.

The executive order issued by Trump gives Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar the authority to determine “the proper nationwide priorities and allocation of all health and medical resources, including controlling the distribution of such materials ... in the civilian market, for responding to the spread of COVID-19 within the United States.” It also applies to certain health services.

The American Medical Association praised Trump’s order, saying it will improve the supply of personal protective equipment for health care workers and equipment such as ventilators to help critically ill patients keep breathing.

Trump also said he would soon invoke a rarely used federal statute that would enable the U.S. to tighten controls along the southwest border, based on a recommendation of the U.S. surgeon general.

The president said the law, intended to halt the spread of communicable diseases, would give authorities “great latitude” to help control the outbreak. Earlier, U.S. officials said that the administration would invoke the law to immediately turn back all people who cross the border illegally from Mexico and to refuse people the right to claim asylum there.

More than eight weeks after the first U.S. case of the virus was detected, the federal government is still struggling to conduct wide-scale testing for the virus. Compounding the problem, laboratories are reporting shortages of supplies needed to run the tests, which officials urged to be given to those most likely to have COVID-19.

Deborah Birx, who is coordinating the White House response, cautioned that there has been a backlog of swabs waiting in labs to be tested, and as that backlog clears, “we will see the number of people diagnosed dramatically increased” in the next few days.

Birx said the science discovering how long the virus can be transmissible on hard surfaces helped prompt the administration’s tightening of recommendations on social distancing.

“None of us really understood” that, she said. “We’re still working out how much is by human transmission and how much is it by surface. Don’t expose yourself to surfaces outside the home.”

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

Finally, the White House said a series of ads, digital and on television, will feature the president and first lady Melania Trump urging Americans to follow the guidelines. Birx also renewed her call for younger people to follow federal guidelines and stop meeting in groups.


Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., has become the first member of Congress to test positive for the coronavirus, his office said Wednesday.

Diaz-Balart entered self-quarantine Friday and stayed in Washington because his wife, Tia, has a pre-existing medical condition. On Saturday evening, Diaz-Balart developed symptoms, including a fever and headache, according to his office. On Wednesday afternoon, he tested positive for COVID-19.

Also on Wednesday, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said that she tested negative for the virus. McDaniel, who met last week with the president and Senate Republicans, had previously been exposed to someone who tested positive.

Note to RTD readers: A headline correction

Note to RTD readers: A headline correction

Wednesday’s front page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch contained a significant error that likely caused alarm among our readers.

A subheadline on the lead story reported that Virginia had recorded 67 deaths from the coronavirus. In fact, the state had 67 cases of coronavirus as of Tuesday night.

We strive for 100% accuracy in all of our work. Unfortunately, this was a case of human error, and we regret it.

The Times-Dispatch staff is working around the clock to provide the most complete and thorough coverage of COVID-19’s effects in Virginia, and we will continue. Thank you for reading and trusting us.

Coronavirus stories inside

Serving patients

VCU Health and some doctors put off non-emergency care. Page A5


K-12 closures extended; VCU delays commence-ment. Page A8


Richmond will enforce ban on crowds; workers get help. Page A10

Mass transit

GRTC is offering free rides and doing more cleaning. Page A11


Some banks are closing lobbies; withdrawals from ATMs rise. Page A12

Global situation

Iran reports spike in deaths, for a total of 1,135. Page A14

Advocates call for release of nonviolent inmates awaiting trial as courts grapple with COVID-19

The ACLU of Virginia, Richmond’s public defender and other legal advocate groups are calling for the release of many nonviolent inmates given the threat of the coronavirus to vulnerable incarcerated populations.

Also this week, Richmond’s top prosecutor said her office is working with the Richmond Magistrate’s Office and the Police Department to allow the release of individuals awaiting trial who are charged with nonviolent felonies and do not pose a risk to the community.

On Wednesday, the ACLU of Virginia urged authorities to release inmates who are being held in jails awaiting trial on misdemeanors or nonviolent felony charges. The organization is asking prosecutors, sheriffs, police chiefs and regional jail authorities to work with each other as well as with judges and magistrates to make that happen.

“We too often forget that people held before trial are presumed innocent and should be treated as such,” said Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia.

Also, she said that police chiefs and sheriffs with law enforcement authority should be directing their officers to follow state law by issuing summonses and releasing anyone they observe committing a misdemeanor.

In a letter on Tuesday to judges, law enforcement officials and others, Richmond Public Defender Tracy Paner asked for the immediate release from jail of people being held for nonviolent offenses and to ensure that inmates and detainees are safe.

In her letter, Paner asks that the probation and parole office in Richmond immediately lift holds for people with nonviolent charges. She also asked that probation, parole and pretrial meetings, court-ordered classes, in-person drug testing and collection of court debts all be “suspended and modified so that all reporting conditions are conducted by phone.”

“Today, as the number of COVID-19 cases rises in central Virginia, we are calling upon leaders of the justice system to take immediate action to limit the spread of the virus and the potential catastrophic effects on our community and clients both in jail and out,” Paner wrote.

Her office, along with the Richmond Community Bail Fund and the Legal Aid Justice Center, also are calling for the release of all incarcerated individuals, but Paner said that was unlikely.

Paner’s attorneys have filed bond motions for nearly every one of their clients awaiting trial, prioritizing those who are immunodeficient or older and therefore more susceptible to the virus. Paner said they are asking for judges to consider early release for those who are nearing the end of their sentences. But she criticized the level of cooperation from both the prosecutor’s office and Richmond bench.

“Even today with the growing recognition of the danger the virus presents to our community, prosecutors in Richmond continue asking the courts to hold defendants without bond, even for misdemeanor and nonviolent felony charges,” she said in the letter. “Conditions in the jail are incompatible with the current state and federal guidelines aimed at reducing the spread of the COVID-19 virus.”

Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin said her office is aware of the impact of the coronavirus on the entire criminal justice process.

“I anticipate that the courts will receive many motions from criminal defense attorneys asking that their client be released from the [Richmond City] Justice Center, even though that is a secure environment with medical facilities and staff, and which currently has no diagnosed cases of the virus,” she said.

“Public safety is our primary concern when considering our position on bond,” McEachin said. “Against that backdrop, we will evaluate such motions on a case-by-case basis with appropriate consideration of current public health concerns.”

Virginia law assumes that any person charged with a misdemeanor will be released on a summons, subject to certain exceptions, and will therefore not be jailed pending trial, McEachin said.

Most hearings and trials have been suspended by an emergency order from the Virginia Supreme Court. The order caused some confusion as lower courts appeared to take the guidance differently. Some closed down completely, which the Supreme Court had to later clarify was not allowed since people are still being charged with crimes while the courts operate at limited capacity.

If a trial goes forward during this time, and a person is convicted, and not a threat to the community, McEachin said her office would “agree to all suspended time or home electronic incarceration or a delayed report” to the jail.

“It is also the first long-term disruption of the court system we have ever seen,” said veteran criminal attorney Steven D. Benjamin. “The courts will continue to function, but only as necessary. The court, and the criminal justice community, understands the importance of diminishing jail populations as much as possible for the duration of this health crisis.”

Betty Layne DesPortes, Benjamin’s law partner and forensics expert, said it is hard to say whether releasing more incarcerated defendants heightens any risk to the public “because these are not normal societal conditions so any prior risk assessments simply are not applicable,” she said. “People have been ordered to essentially ‘shelter in place’ so everyone’s freedom of movement is curtailed. What effect that will have on crime rates generally remain to be seen.”

Meanwhile, the Virginia Department of Corrections repeated Wednesday morning that there are no known cases of the coronavirus among the prison system’s more than 30,000 inmates — many of whom are over age 60 — or staff.

But a department spokeswoman, Lisa Kinney, wrote in an email that “if we have an offender who appears to need testing, we will contact the Department of Health. We will attempt to access a test kit from our contract lab.”

“Staff are taking a screening questionnaire daily before they enter a facility,” she added. “If they need testing, they will contact their health care provider, as is the case with all state employees.”

As of Tuesday, Kinney wrote that there were fewer than 20 staff members known to be self-quarantined. “However, per guidance from the Virginia Department of Human Resource Management, we are now looking at having staff 65 and older and anyone with a chronic health condition to self-quarantine and telework (if their position can accommodate teleworking),” she added.

In a news release on Wednesday, Udi Ofer, director of the ACLU’s Justice Division, said, “Public health experts recognize that there is a heightened risk of infection for people who are involved in the criminal legal system, and that downsizing the footprint of the criminal legal system should be a part of the COVID-19 public health response.”

Gastañaga, of the ACLU of Virginia, said Wednesday that “everyone responsible for people who are incarcerated should be asking themselves what they can do to ensure that people who don’t need to be in prison or jail aren’t there and that no additional people are admitted to jails and prisons who don’t need to be.”

She said the Virginia State Parole Board should take an aggressive posture in favor of paroling anyone who is eligible while ensuring there is a humanitarian approach to providing continuing health services to those in need.

“This is not the time to parole older people and people with long-term illnesses or disabilities without assuring that they are paroled into an effective safety net,” she said.

The Virginia Department of Corrections said its epidemic sanitation plan is now in place for all facilities to ensure sanitation during the pandemic while using appropriate chemicals and approved personal protective equipment.

Previously, the department put in place screening questionnaires for offenders, volunteers, visitors and contractors. There is now a separate screening tool for employees and all employees must assess their risk on a daily basis before reporting to work, said the department.

The department said a multidisciplinary task force has been working to keep the new coronavirus from reaching the correctional facilities, monitoring COVID-19 updates and receiving guidance from the Virginia Department of Health, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization.

While visitation at correctional facilities has been canceled, off-site video visitation with the help of Assisting Families of Inmates, remains available. For the time being, each inmate is being given the opportunity to send two free messages per week through Jpay, the email system used by inmates.