RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Gov. Ralph Northam issued a limited emergency order Monday to help hospitals and other health providers address Virginia's soaring number of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations due to the spread of the super-contagious omicron variant.
“Health care workers and hospitals are exhausted, and they are again facing increasing numbers of patients, affecting their ability to provide care,” Northam said in a statement. “These steps will help ease the strain, giving medical professionals more flexibility to care for people. Ultimately, the best thing everyone can do for our hospitals and their staff is to get vaccinated.”
The order includes actions intended to boost staff and add flexibility for providers, and is limited to 30 days. Its issuance comes after Virginia broke a pandemic record for hospitalizations on Friday. Monday's totals set a new record, with Virginia hospitals reporting nearly 3,500 COVID-19-positive patients hospitalized statewide. The number needing intensive care has more than doubled since Dec. 1, Northam’s office said.
The order allows hospitals to increase their licensed bed capacity; allows providers with an active out-of-state license to practice in Virginia; authorizes experienced physician assistants to practice without a written supervisory agreement; increases provider-to-patient ratios; and provides certain liability protections to health care workers acting in good faith, the governor's office said.
It also increases flexibility in the transfer of patients at state-operated psychiatric hospitals, which the governor’s office said have been dangerously crowded during the pandemic.
The announcement was welcomed by several healthcare groups.
"We thank Governor Northam and his team for this critical action, which should provide necessary relief to emergency departments and hospitals statewide. The declaration highlights the important role ERs play as a safety net for all people every day. We also encourage Virginians in need of a COVID-19 test to use one of the many new community testing sites statewide, as emergency departments have only a limited supply and test only high-risk, symptomatic patients," read a statement from the Virginia College of Emergency Physicians — which had asked Northam to declare a state of emergency last month. "By the way: Get vaccinated and boosted. 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."
The Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association (VHHA) also voiced support for the measure.
"Certainly, you know, welcome these flexibilities," said VHHA Vice President of Communications Julian Walker, who added they would have been welcome sooner as the group had asked for them on two occasions. "In August, when we were in the midst of the fourth surge and then again last month, as the fifth surge was ramping up — asking for some of these kinds of flexibilities. And again, these are flexibilities that had previously been granted during earlier stages of the pandemic."
Northam, a Democrat, is set to leave office on Saturday, when Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin will be sworn in. A member of Youngkin's transition team released a statement about the declaration a few hours after the news conference.
"Governor-elect Youngkin and his transition team have been in frequent contact with hospital systems and medical professionals throughout the transition, and it is clear that our hospital systems continue to experience an historic staffing crisis as the COVID-19 pandemic creates new challenges for them. Governor-elect Youngkin supports the use of tailored executive action that removes staffing barriers and provides healthcare providers the flexibility in order to deliver high-quality care and give overworked medical professionals the relief they need," said transition aide Devin O'Malley.
Northam's office said the limited duration of the order was based on modeling that suggests infections will peak in the next few weeks.
In the news release, Northam noted that the overwhelming majority of those hospitalized are unvaccinated. He urged everyone eligible to get an initial shot or booster, as appropriate.
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