Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam declared a new state of emergency Monday aimed at helping hospitals and healthcare workers deal with the strain of a fifth wave of COVID-19 pandemic – largely fueled by the highly contagious omicron variant – that has pushed COVID-19 hospitalizations to record numbers across the state.
Northam (D), a pediatric neurologist and the only medical doctor serving as state governor during the pandemic, made the announcement during an afternoon press briefing that he said would be his last before leaving office later this week. Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin (R) will be sworn into office on Saturday, Jan. 15.
Executive Order No. 84, however, will remain in place 30 days, Northam said. That’s hoped to be long enough to help hospitals through the latest surge in cases and hospitalizations, which Northam said continue to involve mostly unvaccinated Virginians.
“The data are clear. Nearly everyone going to the hospital with COVID is unvaccinated,” Northam said, citing an example from southwest Virginia’s Ballad Health hospitals, which recently reported that 97% of its patients that need support from a ventilator while being treated for COVID-19 are unvaccinated.
“Vaccinations work, plain and simple. That’s why we have been saying for a year now, to protect yourself, to stay out of the hospital, please get vaccinated,” Northam said.
Still, Northam noted that while the omicron variant seems to cause less severe symptoms, particularly for those who have been vaccinated, the rising number of infections has resulted in more hospitalizations and more strain on hospitals. More than 3,500 COVID-19 hospitalizations were reported around the state on Monday, Jan. 10, according to the Virginia Department of Health. That’s about 300 more daily hospitalizations than were recorded during the worst of the pandemic’s previous peak in mid-January 2021.
The executive order affects regulations guiding four separate state agencies and includes 20 provisions. Among other things, the order allows hospitals to add more beds, allows healthcare workers with out-of-state licenses to administer care in hospitals and nursing homes, eases tele-health rules and patient-to-staff ratios and allows licensed practical nurses to administer COVID-19 vaccine without the supervision of a registered nurse or physician.
In addition, the order increases flexibility in the transfer of patients to state-operated psychiatric hospitals, which have seen "dangerously-high census levels since the pandemic began," Northam's office said in a press release accompanying the announcement.
The changes will help hospitals and health care facilities “get care to people more quickly," Northam said, adding that the order's 30-day time limit is based on modeling that suggests the virus will peak in the next few weeks.
Northam also used the briefing to thank the many people in his administration – as well as all Virginians working “on the frontlines” in hospitals and public health roles during the pandemic – and to brag a bit about Virginia’s efforts so far in combatting COVID.
Northam noted that Virginia has among the lowest COVID-19 case and death rates per capita of any state, and that the commonwealth ranks among the top 10 most vaccinated states in the U.S.
Northam also sought to stress that the current surge of cases is different than those that occurred when the pandemic began -- largely because of the effectiveness of the vaccine.
No change for public schools
The governor further said he would not take any action to halt in-person learning at public schools despite the rise in COVID-19 cases, including in children.
Still, Northam lamented that only about 30% of Virginia children between the ages of 5 and 11 are vaccinated, and he urged parents to get their kids vaccinated as soon as possible.
He also said Virginia would continue to adhere to a state law that requires schools to follow U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for public schools, which urge all students and teachers to wear masks.
“We want our children to be in school but we also want them to be there safely and responsibly,” he said. “… We are seeing really high numbers of children with COVID-19 and the best way to keep them safe is to get them vaccinated.”
In a press release accompanying the executive order, Northam encouraged all Virginians to do the following to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and ease the strain on hospitals. The press release states:
• It’s a good idea to stay away from people who have not gotten their shots.
• It’s a good idea to wear a mask when you’re around other people, especially if you don’t know whether they have been vaccinated.
• If you have not gotten a booster shot, now is the time to do it. Shots are widely available at pharmacies, doctor’s offices, and local health departments all across Virginia.
• If you have children age 5 and above, now is the time to get them vaccinated. This will make it easier and safer for them to go back to school.
• If you have chosen not to get your shots, you need to wear a mask and practice social distancing—to protect yourself and other people.