As COVID-19 cases surge, Virginia to boost testing capacity

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — As COVID-19 cases continue to surge in Virginia and across the country, Gov. Ralph Northam on Tuesday announced plans to significantly increase statewide testing capacity and to launch a media campaign in southwest Virginia, which has seen a sharp rise in cases over the last month.
The moves come three days after Virginia reported 2,103 new cases — its biggest single-day increase in new cases since the start of the pandemic. On Tuesday, the state reported 1,435 new cases. The state’s seven-day moving average of new cases is 1,462.
The seven-day testing positivity rate has also climbed from just under 5% a few weeks ago to 6.2% on Tuesday.
Since the start of the pandemic, the state has recorded a total of 194,192 cases, with 3,726 deaths.
During a news briefing, Northam was asked several times whether the current surge and fears about even higher numbers during the holidays could prompt him to impose new restrictions or a lockdown like the one he ordered in the spring.
Northam said he is focusing on mitigation efforts and continuing to encourage people to wear masks and practice social distancing. He said he is not currently considering ordering new restrictions.
“I’ve said all along, this is not about carrying a stick around; this is about carrots,” he said.
Northam said the state has signed new contracts with labs at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville and Sentara Healthcare in Norfolk, which will increase the state’s testing capacity by about one-third — from a current average of about 20,000 tests per day to about 27,000 tests per day by the end of the year.
The media campaign in rural southwest Virginia will include messages on billboards and gas pump toppers, and in newspapers and social media. The messages will be aimed at emphasizing that the virus, which at first largely spared the area, has now hit it hard. Health officials have said the recent increase in case numbers there appears to be driven in part by small gatherings of family members who do not live in the same household. They’ve also blamed inconsistent mask wearing, outbreaks at churches and in-person schooling.
Northam and State Health Commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver said they were encouraged by the announcement by Pfizer Inc. on Monday that its COVID-19 vaccine may be 90% effective, based on early and incomplete test results.
“We are ready to get that vaccine and administer it to citizens here in the Commonwealth,” Oliver said.
Officials have stressed that it is unlikely any vaccine will arrive much before the end of the year, limited initial supplies will be rationed and it could take months to distribute it widely.
When asked during his news briefing how alarmed Virginia residents should be at the rising number of cases, Northam urged people to not become complacent about washing their hands frequently, wearing masks and practicing social distancing.
“This is not the time to give up … we’ve got to continue to push until that vaccination is available,” he said.
Northam, a doctor, and his wife Pam, both contracted the virus in September. On Monday, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, who won a second term in last week’s election, announced that he is self-isolating after a member of his campaign staff tested positive for the virus after interacting with the staff of the voter registrar’s office.
Northam implored people to keep their holiday gatherings to a minimum and to “keep distancing.”
“Have a safe and peaceful holiday season,” he said. “Spend as much time with your friends and family, but do it safely.”