Gov. Ralph Northam speaks at a news briefing in March 2020 on the spread of COVID-19 in Virginia and the state’s response. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is facing growing calls from doctors to address a statewide shortage of personal protective equipment spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic.
More than 100 doctors across the state have signed a letter, released Saturday, calling on Northam and Health Secretary Dr. Daniel Carey to “solve the desperate medical supply shortage that is thwarting our efforts to control this pandemic before it reaches the point of no return.”
Among the most-needed supplies are basic protective garb — including surgical masks, respirator masks, gloves and disposable aprons — and testing kits. Testing for coronavirus remains limited throughout the commonwealth, and doctors in Virginia are experiencing the same shortages of essential supplies, such as viral culture media and sample swabs, as other areas of the country.
“For weeks we’ve been told those tests are just a few days away,” the letter reads. “It’s now clear that without your intervention they will not be here in time, if ever. We know the federal government has failed, but we need state and regional leaders like you to be part of the solution.”
Dr. Paige Perriello, a pediatrician in Charlottesville, said she was inspired to write and distribute the letter after the success of her own local mobilization efforts. The practice where she works — Pediatric Associates of Charlottesville — has spent at least the last week rationing personal protective equipment in preparation for an expected rise in COVID-19 cases. In coordination with what she described as a “loosely affiliated grassroots effort,” Perriello put out a community call for more gear.
It worked. Perriello said closed dental clinics began sending in face masks, schools began sending in googles and safety glasses, and local sewers began hand-sewing masks and other facial protection. One person even sent in a welder’s mask. She’s also been inspired by stories of luxury perfume makers who have agreed to make free hand sanitizer for the French government.
“I think there’s an opportunity for bold leadership here,” she said. “And continuing to watch and wait for what comes in doesn’t feel like enough for us on the front lines. The letter was not meant to be critical, but hopeful that we can do better.”
Shortages in other states have become increasingly critical as coronavirus-related hospitalizations continue to rise. In New York, one of the hardest-hit areas on the East Coast, doctors at a Brooklyn hospital told the New York Times that they were reusing masks for up to a week.
Northam addressed the concerns at his daily press briefing on Saturday, telling reporters that a shipment of protective equipment from the national emergency stockpile had been distributed to providers the day before. On Friday, Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver said that the commonwealth had received close to 200,000 pieces of equipment — including respirator masks, surgical masks, and protective gowns — and would be prioritizing distribution to emergency medical responders and hospitals.
On Saturday, Carey said Virginia was “following every lead” to source more protective equipment. The commonwealth’s emergency response team is tracking tips from General Assembly members, constituents, and health care providers about possible new sources of supplies, he said, and leaders are also considering whether other industries — such as industrial suppliers for mining and quarry operations — could supply items like N95 respirator masks.
“They may look a little different, but they’re perfectly serviceable in a health environment,” Carey said. Those efforts “haven’t come online” yet though, he added.
Carey also said the state’s actions needed to be complemented by a response at the federal level — a rare comment from a Virginia official. Northam has largely refrained from publicly critiquing President Donald Trump and his administration’s response to the pandemic, unlike some other state leaders, including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
“I think it’s also important to say that this is a national problem,” Carey said. “This will not be solved without a national solution. Otherwise we have each state grabbing for what they can.”
On Friday, Trump announced that he will trigger the Defense Production Act, a Cold War-era law that enables him to force industrial companies to manufacture emergency medical supplies and sell them to the federal government. It’s still unclear to what extent the administration will use the law to bolster equipment.
Virginia now has 152 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 25 hospitalizations and two deaths. 2,790 people have been tested for the virus through the state and private labs, according to the most recent data from the Virginia Department of Health.
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