Virus hangs over final day of legislative session as Northam declares state of emergency

By: - March 12, 2020 3:47 pm

Gov. Ralph Northam stood with Democratic leaders in March as he declared a state of emergency on Thursday, freeing up state funds and resources to respond to COVID-19. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

State officials bumped elbows instead of shaking hands. Two senators asked to delay a crucial budget vote. And Del. Ibraheem Samirah, D-Fairfax, delivered an impassioned plea for an extended session — a request that earned him groans on the floor of the House of Delegates.

It was a dramatic end to an already dramatic Virginia General Assembly session, its final hours overshadowed by growing concerns over the statewide spread of COVID-19, the disease spread by a new strain of coronavirus. Legislators gathered for a final vote on the state’s two-year budget amid a plummeting global market and reports that cargo volumes were down 9 percent at the Port of Virginia compared to a year before.

Financial woes prompted Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford, to request a delay on voting for the $135 billion spending plan, citing concerns over the possible impact of the emerging disease on the state economy.

“I don’t believe that this virus has anything to do with Republicans or Democrats,” he told the Senate. “I believe it’s going to have an economic impact on our commonwealth.”

Those concerns were ultimately overruled by his Senate colleagues, much like a later request from Samirah to extend the 2020 session. Earlier that morning, he circulated a packet of failed bills from earlier in the session on paid sick leave, public option health care and a state-funded study on universal health care, urging delegates to reconsider the measures in light of the growing outbreak.

“We have solutions on the table,” he said. “We need to think of this very deeply. I’m calling for a special session to address this crisis we have for uninsured and underinsured individuals.”

The budget votes were also interrupted by a mid-morning briefing on COVID-19 from state health officials, who briefed the House of Delegates on the growing number of positive cases. Del. Hala Ayala, D-Prince William, asked whether the state had mechanisms in place to track the spread of disease. Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, asked about suspending rallies and large gatherings. And Del. David Bulova, D-Fairfax, questioned whether the state had issued guidance to school districts.

Del. Hala Ayala, D-Prince William, offered Lysol wipes to her colleagues on the floor of the House of Delegates during the last day of the legislative session. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

“As this progresses, we’ll need to have more specific guidance,” state epidemiologist Dr. Lilian Peake responded. “So, we’re going to continue to update that.”

Hours later, the governor did just that. Canceled events and an out-of-state travel ban for state employees are among the measures he’s taking to address the growing spread of COVID-19.

Northam declared a state of emergency on Thursday after the number of positive test results in the commonwealth nearly doubled within hours of his last briefing on Wednesday afternoon. Seventeen patients have now tested positive for the disease: 10 in northern Virginia, two in central Virginia, four in eastern Virginia and one in northwest Virginia, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

The state is providing limited geographic information on the new cases, citing patient confidentiality, but confirmed that six of the cases were contacts with other patients who contracted the disease. Two Virginians currently in Texas also tested positive for COVID-19 there.

Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said that none of the cases were among high-risk populations, such as people living in nursing homes or assisted living facilities.

“Since we met yesterday, it’s become clear that states all over the country need to take a greater leadership role,” Northam said. The state of emergency will give him full access to the state budget for emergency spending measures, and allow the state to suspend normal procurement rules — a practical measure that Oliver said will allow the Virginia Department of Health to bypass CDC-approved providers for medical supplies and equipment in a state of emergency.

Northam said he was taking several specific actions to curtail spread of the virus. One is cancelling all state-sponsored conferences and large events, and encouraging Virginians not to attend other mass gatherings. Another is implementing an out-of-state travel ban for all state employees for 30 days, with the possibility for special allowances in border communities such as Bristol, a city immediately adjacent to the Tennessee line. 

Northam said he will also introduce telework provisions for state employees and coordinate with local school districts to determine when, and if, closures are necessary. Much of his focus during Thursday’s address was on the state’s current supply of test kits, which he acknowledged was “limited.” State lab director Denise Toney has estimated that the state had the capacity to test between 500 and 600 Virginians. The state’s population is more than 8.5 million.

Virginia State Epidemiologist Dr. Lilian Peake updated General Assembly lawmakers Thursday on the state’s response to COVID-19. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

In response, the state has limited its criteria for testing patients. Northam said the state is working to develop its own tests, but is currently dependent on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to send new kits and supplies for developing them. Virginia is looking at measures being developed in other states, such as “drive-through testing,” Northam said, but would need to raise its own supply before implementing them. Some Virginia universities are working to get their own tests up and running.

Northam and state health officials have repeatedly stated that Virginia has enough tests to meet its current screening needs. 

Northam’s announcement comes amid major regional and global developments concerning the spread of COVID-19. An hour before the briefing, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan reported the state’s first case of community transmission, when cases of the virus can’t be linked to travel or close contact with another infected person. On Wednesday, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.

Most of Virginia’s colleges and universities, including the University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University, the College of William and Mary, and James Madison University have announced plans they will transition to online classes and limit the return of students on campus.

State epidemiologist Dr. Lilian Peake repeated Thursday that Virginia has not seen evidence of community transmission.

“What that would mean is we are testing people, and interviewing them, to get information about risk factors and we don’t find anybody,” she said. “So, we don’t know where it came from. But right now, we understand where people are getting this virus.”

However, Dr. Gonzalo Bearman, chief of infectious diseases and director of infection prevention at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, told the Mercury Wednesday that it is “essentially inevitable” that community transmission will occur here, if it isn’t already happening.

In the absence of expanding testing capabilities, health officials are encouraging Virginians who don’t meet the state’s criteria for screening to consult a doctor or health care professional about the possibility of private testing, now available through LabCorp and Quest — two of the nation’s largest laboratory networks.

Oliver said that patients should call their primary care doctor if they were concerned they might have the virus. If they didn’t have a primary care provider, Oliver recommended visiting a community health clinic. Local health departments are usually unable to provide primary care, he said, and are not considered testing sites.

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

An award-winning reporter, Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. While at the News-Post, she won first place in feature writing and breaking news from the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association, and Best in Show for her coverage of the local opioid epidemic. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md.