Northam OKs emergency order to help hospitals handle COVID-19 spike

By: - January 10, 2022 2:29 pm

Gov. Ralph Northam speaks at a press conference Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021, where he announced COVID-19 vaccines would be mandatory for state employees. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

In his final week in office, Gov. Ralph Northam is approving a limited emergency order meant to give hospitals and public-health agencies more resources to respond to surging COVID-19 hospitalizations.

In a news release Monday, the governor’s office said the 30-day order would “expand the number of available hospital beds, increase staffing capacity at hospitals and nursing homes, and allow public health agencies greater flexbility in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The order, set to expire Feb. 11 based on modeling that shows hospitalizations may have peaked by then, doesn’t impose any new restrictions that might impact the general public. Instead, it focuses largely on cutting through regulations, including restrictions on adding more beds and rules on which types of health-care workers can administer vaccines.

Hospitals had been asking for new emergency measures since late summer to help them respond to the delta variant of the virus, fueling some frustation among health systems when no new emergency declaration followed. Late last month, the Virginia College of Emergency Physicians asked the governor for an emergency declaration to respond to the omicron variant. With hospitalizations at record highs, Northam said at a news conference, he concluded within the last few days that action was needed.

“It’s causing a real strain on the people who work in hospitals,” Northam said.

With Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin set to be inagurated Saturday, Northam acknowledged Monday’s event would be and his team’s final COVID-19 briefing nearly two years in the pandemic.

“I am proud of this team and everyone who has worked so hard on our COVID response for 22 months,” Northam said. “We have consistently followed the science, and our approach has saved thousands of lives.”

Youngkin has signaled a new approach, campaigning against mask and vaccine mandates and saying Virginia will join the legal fight against President Joe Biden’s federal vaccine mandate for large employers.

Northam said he’s had “several very productive conversations” with Youngkin and expects a smooth transition when his administration “turns over the keys on Saturday.”

Responding to questions from repoters, Northam said he has not considered more drastic action like a return to online learning for all Virginia’s schools. The availability of vaccines, he said, makes the current stage of the pandemic fundamentally different from the challenges of early 2020.

“We’re going to have to live with this disease,” Northam said. “We still need precautions to keep ourselves and others … safe. But we will also need to go to school and shop at businesses and feel safe to gather together. That’s why everyone who can needs to be vaccinated.”

Nearly 3,500 Virginians were hospitalized with a confirmed COVID-19 case as of Monday, according to data from the Virginia Department of Health.

The Virginia College of Emergency Physicians said the emergency declaration “should provide necessary relief to emergency departments and hospitals statewide” adding that people neeindg COVID-19 testing should use community testing sites, not ERS.

“Get vaccinated and boosted,” the group said. “When you do, you avoid ever coming here with serious symptoms and you’ll keep ERs open to your neighbors and friends who truly need us.”

In a statement to NBC12, Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin’s transition team said he “supports the use of tailored executive action that removes staffing barriers and provides health care providers the flexibility in order to deliver high-quality care and give overworked medical professionals the relief they need.”

UPDATE: This article has been updated to include statements from the Virginia College of Emergency Physicians and Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin’s transition team.

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.