Youngkin’s new COVID-19 action plan treads familiar ground for Virginia

His directive mirrors one by former Gov. Northam, who also struggled with supply chain issues and vaccine hesitancy.

By: - January 20, 2022 3:15 pm

A COVID-19 vaccination event for adults and children offered through Richmond and Henrico Health Districts at Fairfield Middle School in Henrico County, Va, November 13, 2021. (Photo by Parker Michels-Boyce)

As Virginia continues to grapple with record-breaking numbers of coronavirus infections and hospitalizations, newly elected Gov. Glenn Youngkin is taking action to bolster the state’s health care system, the governor announced Thursday.

In a Thursday news release, the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association described his latest executive order as a “welcome and necessary step” to expand options for medical facilities. The text, though, largely mirror steps taken by former Gov. Ralph Northam, who also issued a temporary state of emergency earlier this month to relieve struggling hospitals. Youngkin’s order is set to expire 10 days after Northam’s, but offers similar flexibility to health systems as they field a new surge of infected patients.

Both directives aim to expand hospital flexibility, allowing facilities to quickly add beds without navigating the state’s formal licensing process. They waive some restrictions on providers, making it easier for out-of-state health care workers to practice in Virginia. And they direct emergency responders to coordinate with hospitals as both experience “overwhelming demands and capacity shortages.” 

Like Northam, though, Youngkin is now contending with a slew of challenges that he can’t fully control, from federal supply chain shortages to stubbornly unvaccinated Virginians. An ongoing testing shortage is one area addressed specifically in his newly released COVID-19 action plan, which directs acting State Health Commissioner Dr. Colin Greene to draft prioritized guidelines for in-demand rapid tests.

“The governor will discourage mass testing for the purposes of pre-screening, discourage asymptomatic individuals from testing, and urge healthy individuals with mild symptoms to stay home and use discretion on testing,” the administration announced. In addition, Youngkin will “work with the White House” to speed up distribution, according to the plan, and redeploy unused tests to schools, hospitals and nursing facilities.

It’s still unclear if the initiative will make a dent in the unprecedented demand for rapid tests, driven not just by increased infections and exposures but by school and workplace clearance requirements. The state has been struggling to match demand for weeks amid nationwide supply shortages, which have limited the number of tests it’s received from manufacturers.

At the start of January, the state was still waiting to receive more than 387,000 antigen test cards from Abbott out of an order of 500,000, according to Cheryle Rodriguez, a spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Health. The department has a standing order for Lucira at-home test kits, “but supply comes over the course of the month and is unpredictable based on the number of kits available from the manufacturer,” she wrote in an email.

“Additionally, VDH requested approximately 10,000 Ellume test kits from the federal government, but has not received any test kits to date,” Rodriguez added. The inconsistent supply has limited the scope of the department’s distribution programs, including efforts to distribute rapid tests at public libraries. 

Flanked by Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears and House Speaker Todd Gilbert, Gov. Glenn Youngkin delivers his first State of the Commonwealth address on Monday, Jan. 17, 2022. (Photo by Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Some localities have completely run out of test kits, with “currently no estimate of when test kit deliveries from VDH will resume,” according to one announcement from the Alexandria Library system. Other health departments, including Richmond-Henrico, have turned to ordering kits independently through suppliers. Diversifying its orders has helped the district source more tests, but shipments are still small, according to spokesperson Cat Long. As a result, the department is no longer handing them out at vaccination and testing events, instead relying on outreach workers and community partners to distribute the kits to vulnerable residents. 

As cases have surged over the last month, hospitals and emergency physicians have also pleaded with Virginians not to visit the emergency room for testing or treatment for mild infections. The vast majority of severely ill patients are unvaccinated, driving a renewed push to expand uptake.

Boosting immunization numbers was a top-line priority for Youngkin, who opposes statewide mandates but encourages both individual vaccines and boosters. His plan calls on the state to “reprioritize resources toward vaccine education and outreach,” and host 120 vaccination events across Virginia.

The shots are still widely available through local health departments and large-scale community vaccination centers, as well as chain pharmacies and private physicians. By last June, the state had already invested more than $20 million in vaccine outreach — an effort that included mobile vans and on-the-ground community health workers.

According to national polling by the Kaiser Family Foundation, conservative-leaning counties continue to have lower vaccination rates than localities that voted for President Joe Biden in the most recent election. In Virginia, uptake is also lowest in many traditionally red areas, including several counties in the southwestern corner of the state. 

Just under 70 percent of the state’s population is fully vaccinated, according to VDH data, but it remains to be seen if a Republican governor can help convince the remaining holdouts. 

“While many families have experienced tragedy over the last two years, Virginians have truly embodied the spirit of Virginia as they came together to fight a common enemy—COVID-19,” Youngkin said in a statement. “Today’s announcements are designed to give Virginians the tools and resources needed to make the best decisions for their families, strengthen our hospital systems, and ensure a strong recovery as we encounter new challenges associated with the pandemic that has become part of our everyday life.”

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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.