The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Virginia has climbed to nearly 100, a statistic that was nearly a day old by the time state officials reported it Thursday.
The 94 cases is up from the 77 the Virginia Department of Health reported on Wednesday, with a total of 1,923 people having been tested for the virus and 19 people hospitalized. The cases include at least six in Chesterfield County, three in Richmond, three in Henrico County, one in Goochland County, one in Hanover County and one in Charles City County, according to VDH.
Those figures, however, are roughly 19 hours old by the time they’re posted to the agency’s website. State epidemiologist Lilian Peake said the lag is caused by a 5 p.m. cutoff the day before the Health Department’s noon update so officials can validate the information.
“We’re not trying to restrict that information,” Peake said. “We’re making sure that the local health departments and others are following up on any cases and if they need to put out a press release to let people know, they will do that. There will always be a lag.”
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said Wednesday that the city had four cases.
The Charlottesville-area health district reported Thursday morning that three more people had tested positive, bringing the city’s unofficial count to four. When the state Health Department updated its count at noon, it reported one case.
Peake, in a Thursday afternoon news conference with other state leaders, including Gov. Ralph Northam, said the state’s testing capacity has now grown to 1,000 tests. It remains unclear how many tests private labs are conducting.
Another assisted living case
In Northern Virginia, the city of Alexandria and the counties of Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William combine for more than 50 cases. Also, James City County in Hampton Roads has 14 cases.
A new case in Fairfax County is a man at an assisted living facility, the second in the state as concern mounts over the elderly, who are most susceptible to the virus.
The uptick in confirmed cases comes as officials continue their efforts to control the spread of the virus and deal with its implications.
Law enforcement, along with fire and ambulance agencies in the Richmond area, are meeting to coordinate with the Virginia Department of Health. The Northam administration announced more action, including an extension on the due date of tax payments. The state’s delegation in the U.S. Senate is debating a proposal to send checks directly to Americans.
Virginia officials recommend against arrests
Virginia officials are asking law enforcement agencies to avoid arrests when possible, amid calls from civil rights groups about jail conditions amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran said his agency is encouraging law enforcement officers to use summonses instead of arrests when possible.
Northam’s administration is also asking magistrates and judges to consider alternatives to incarceration. In addition, it is asking judges and prosecutors to consider modifying sentences for low-level offenders in favor of avenues like electronic monitoring.
“This is an encouragement. Obviously, public safety weighs on all of these decisions,” Moran said, adding that he hopes the effect will be to further protect the state’s incarcerated population and correctional staff from COVID-19.
“We really would like to emphasize and encourage our entire criminal justice system to take this virus as seriously as all of us are doing.”
The state will also suspend enforcement of motor vehicle inspections by 60 days.
The announcement comes after the Virginia ACLU and others called on the state to release some inmates out of concern for their well-being amid the pandemic.
Moran said Wednesday that the state had suspended visitation and transfers for incarcerated individuals, and had made it easier for lawyers to have no-contact consultations.
Also announced Thursday, Virginia is eliminating copays for all services covered under Medicaid, extending prescription refills to 90 days and expanding the services that can be conducted over video.
The state’s Medicaid program is taking advantage of flexibility from the federal government due to the pandemic.
Fairfax calls for ‘bolder and swifter actions’
In a letter to Northam, dated Wednesday, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax urged “bolder and swifter actions” to address the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fairfax echoed at least three lawmakers in calling for a special session to tackle legislation related to COVID-19. Among his proposals, Fairfax is asking for the state to delay all tax payments for 120 days, and to increase unemployment benefits.
Fairfax is also asking Northam to use his authority to mandate the closure of all bars, restaurants, gyms and theaters at least through April 15, with exceptions for carry-out and delivery.
“I have personally heard from many Virginians, including small business owners, employees, health care workers, families and community leaders across the commonwealth pleading that we implement much bolder and swifter measures to … combat this unprecedented health and, consequently, economic threat,” Fairfax’s letter reads.
Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said in a statement: “The governor found out about this letter through the press. This is a fluid and quickly changing situation, and he is in constant communication with public health experts. He will continue to make decisions in the best interest of Virginians.”
In December, Fairfax announced he would run for governor in 2021. He is among a handful of Democrats who have at least hinted at a run. Virginia’s governors are barred from serving consecutive terms, which means Northam is ineligible for re-election.
In February 2019, two women publicly accused Fairfax of sexual assault. He has rejected calls for his resignation, arguing that the accusations are false and are meant to damage his political career.
In his letter, he also asked Northam to mandate that all schools close through the end of the academic year, while making sure “no student is penalized.”
Lawmakers are scheduled to reconvene for one day on April 22 to take up Northam’s proposed amendments to and vetoes of legislation passed during the 2020 regular session.
Fairfax is asking for a special session in the weeks before lawmakers are scheduled to reconvene.
Drive-thru testing reopens
Sentara Healthcare, Virginia’s largest hospital system, on Thursday reopened two of its drive-thru COVID-19 screening and testing sites.
The hospital system originally opened three screening sites in York County, Virginia Beach and Chesapeake on Monday and screened a total of 1,760 people and tested 786 before closing on Wednesday due to a shortage of testing supplies.
The hospital system has received additional testing kits and said it would reopen the testing sites at Sentara Princess Anne Hospital in Virginia Beach and Sentara Williamsburg Regional Medical Center in York County. The Chesapeake site will not reopen.
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.
The drive-thru sites will open on a day-to-day basis as testing supplies allow, Sentara said.
Groups offer free books as schools stay closed
Read to Them, a Richmond-based nonprofit, and the Children’s Museum of Richmond are giving more than 1,000 books to city elementary school students as schools remain shuttered.
The groups announced Thursday that the books will be available for pickup at the city school system’s 20 food distribution sites starting next week.
“These are anxious times. With schools closing and communities taking action to address health concerns, we want to assist in encouraging families to continue making reading at home a priority,” said Read to Them Executive Director Christa Donohue.
Richmond schools are closed, as are those in Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico counties, through mid-April. Northam has ordered schools across the state shut down until at least March 27, and state education leaders are asking the federal government for a waiver from Standards of Learning testing.
The state Board of Education is scheduled to hold a meeting via phone at 1 p.m. Friday as the body weighs revising graduation requirements for seniors, among other things.
ABC location closes
An ABC store near Virginia Commonwealth University’s main campus is closed after the roommate of an employee tested positive for COVID-19.
The Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority announced Thursday that its store at 1217 W. Broad St. will be closed for at least two weeks.
No ABC employees have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the state agency, but all the Broad Street store employees have been asked to self-quarantine for two weeks. The store has 11 workers.