Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency Thursday in response to the coronavirus pandemic, as the state’s number of confirmed cases grew to 17.
Northam advised all Virginians to avoid large gatherings “for the time being.”
The declaration will allow the state increased flexibility to ease regulatory requirements and procurement rules, continue federal and multi-state coordination, and ensure continued access to critical services for the most vulnerable Virginians. In addition, it has become increasingly clear that states must take a primary leadership role in the national response to COVID-19, according to Northam’s office.
“Our top priority is to make sure Virginians stay safe and healthy, and that our response to this situation leaves no one behind,” Northam said. From our health department, to our schools, to our hospitals, to our transit systems, Virginia’s agencies and institutions have been thoroughly planning for every scenario. This emergency declaration will ensure we can continue to prepare for and appropriately respond to Virginians’ needs during this time.”
He said he was cancelling all state conferences and large events for the next 30 days and urged local governments and private organizers to follow suit. He also announced new restrictions on travel for state workers.
“The situation is fluid, and it is changing rapidly,” Northam said at a news conference with other state officials and top lawmakers.
“Virginians should know that we have longstanding plans in place to deal with pandemics. We have trained for them and we are ready for this,” Northam said.
Virginia has 17 “presumptive positive” cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, according to the latest figures from the Department of Health.
Dr. Lilian Peake, the state epidemiologist, said at the news conference that there is so far no sign of “community spread” of the virus, meaning cases where it’s unclear how the patient acquired it.
For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for some, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people who contract it recover within weeks.
Click here for the VDH report.
Northam also announced additional steps to ensure the health and safety of all Virginians, including:
Ban on state employee travel and implementation of telework policies
Virginia has more than 100,000 state employees stationed throughout the state. Northam has halted all official travel outside of Virginia by state employees, with increased flexibility for inter-state commuters and essential personnel. Specific guidance will be released to agency heads and state employees, and Virginia will revisit these guidelines after 30 days.
The governor has also directed his Secretary of Administration to implement a phased transition to teleworking for state employees. The Department of Human Resources Management will work with the Virginia Department of Health’s Equity Workgroup to prioritize support for impacted state employees that may be unable to perform their duties from home, including janitorial, food, and grounds staff.
State employees, including part-time employees, can access paid Public Health Emergency Leave in the event of exposure to COVID-19 or high-risk travel.
Public gatherings and large events
The state will cancel all specially-scheduled state conferences and large events for a minimum of 30 days.
Northam is directing state agencies, through the Department of Human Resource Management, to limit in-person meetings and non-essential, work-related gatherings.
The governor is also urging localities and nonprofits to limit large public events, effective immediately. Localities should make these decisions in coordination with their local health departments and the Virginia Department of Health. Highly populated localities and those with close proximity to positive cases are strongly encouraged to announce updated event guidance by Friday, March 13, at 5 p.m., in advance of the weekend.
Ongoing state response efforts
The state is continuing to execute a multi-agency response plan across all levels of government. Efforts include the following:
- The Department of Education has advised all school districts to update their pandemic guidelines, in consultation with their local health departments.
- The Northam administration continues to be in regular communication with superintendents, university and community college presidents, to provide guidance on the unique situations they are facing on the ground.
- The Virginia Department of Health has expanded its testing criteria to ensure that anyone who has symptoms and is in a nursing home is top priority and gets immediate testing.
- Nursing homes and senior care facilities have updated their policies to provide additional visitor screening and increased monitoring of patients.
- Virginia’s social services agencies are preparing options to ensure the most vulnerable populations have continued access to critical services, including the potential for in-home care and food supports.
- In the event of extended school closures, the Virginia Department of Social Services is working with local partners, such as food pantries, to ensure no one goes hungry.
Addressing barriers to care
- Virginia is working with insurers to waive co-pays and diagnostic testing related to COVID-19.
- Northam continues to encourage private businesses to explore telework and paid time off options, including those with hourly workers.
- Across the state’s transportation network, which includes airports, Metro, buses, and rail, the Virginia Department of Transportation is adjusting cleaning schedules according to CDC protocol.
- Virginia is training all transportation employees to spot indications of COVID-19, help reduce the potential spread of disease, and provide accurate information on symptoms, prevention, and diagnostic testing.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.