One of Trump’s top coronavirus officials recommends stricter pandemic restrictions in Virginia

Gov. Ralph Northam met with White House official Dr. Deborah Birx Tuesday morning to discuss mounting COVID-19 cases in Virginia. (Governor's Office)

Dr. Deborah Birx, one of the Trump administration’s top advisers during the coronavirus pandemic, is urging Virginia to adopt tighter safety standards as cases in the commonwealth continue to climb.

Birx met with Gov. Ralph Northam and other administration officials on Tuesday, the last stop of a five-state tour including Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee — all areas with growing COVID-19 numbers. A recent White House document classified Virginia as a “yellow zone” state with a percent positivity rate that’s crept above 10 percent in some regions. Birx highlighted a recent surge in the “heart of the vacation land,” an area that includes Virginia Beach and the Hampton Roads region, and an uptick of cases in Richmond.

“We wanted to come by and really talk to the governor and health leadership about additional mitigation efforts that they may be using over the next several days to decrease the spread,” Birx said at a briefing after her meeting with Northam.

The new mitigation efforts recommended by Birx and federal officials in a July 14 report stand in stark contrast to earlier messaging from the Trump administration, which spent much of April pushing states to reopen their economies and decide on their own guidelines for lifting restrictions. Birx also pushed back against criticism of the federal response, saying she’s conveyed the seriousness of the pandemic since it began.

“After joining the White House, I carried the same message that I always have, focused on public health,” she said Tuesday. “And that message is really a seriousness, and a seriousness that noted from the very beginning in March what we had learned from countries around the world — that there were groups that were very specifically, highly susceptible to this virus as a serious outcome.”

Birx largely did not respond to a question about specific concerns over the Trump administration’s response. Northam and other state leaders have blamed a lack of federal leadership for lags in testing, shortages of PPE, and inconsistent messaging over the severity of the virus.

“I think what’s important, at the moment that we’re in now, is really working with each state as we see the virus spread across the South,” she added.

Birx said Tuesday that the state’s hardest-hit localities should strictly limit gatherings (new White House guidelines recommend 10 people or fewer), move away from indoor dining, and emphasize mask use, “not only in public but also potentially at home” for households with high-risk family members.

“We wanted to make sure we brought that information in person,” she said, pointing to recent measures in Texas and Arizona, which responded to a surge in cases by closing bars, adding social distancing measures and introducing universal mask mandates. Birx said those policies led to “significant improvement” in transmission, urging Virginia officials to take similar mitigation efforts.

Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, said the governor also brought up specific concerns over testing turnaround times and supporting communities of color during his meeting with Birx. Doctors in some areas of the state have reported that patients are waiting more than two weeks for results — a lag that public health experts worry could hinder contact tracing and isolation efforts. Birx said federal officials are now encouraging labs to pool test samples for families and low-risk groups, such as patients entering the hospital for elective procedures.

“We’re really working with hospital laboratories to pool those specimens into large groups and screen 10 patients at once,” Birx said. “That reserves nine tests for critical diagnoses.” She added that the federal government is also calling on universities to expand or introduce their own testing systems as a way to boost access.

It’s still unclear how widely Northam will adopt the new policy recommendations. The governor is scheduled to hold a COVID-19 briefing this afternoon and hinted this weekend that he plans to roll back reopening specifically in the Hampton Roads region. The Daily Press reported that the area made up 33 percent of new cases as of Monday, but the federal government has also underscored other high-risk areas of the state, including Albermarle County, Martinsville and Galax.

Birx said states would ultimately have to make their own decisions about mitigation efforts, but expressed concern over reintroducing restrictions on a regional basis.

“What always worries me is if there’s people that have gone to the Virginia Beach area or the Portsmouth area or the Hampton area and unknowingly bring that virus back,” she said. “That’s really the decision.”

As of Tuesday, Virginia had a total of 86,994 COVID-19 cases and a statewide percent positivity rate of 7.3 percent. White House recommendations call for areas with a seven-day rate of more than 5 percent to close bars and only reopen restaurants that can follow strict social distancing measures.