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Virginia health officials on Coronavirus: ‘Don’t panic, stay informed’

Posted at 10:42 AM, Mar 04, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-05 11:08:52-05

RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia government and health leaders held a news conference on Wednesday morning to discuss the state’s plans for coronavirus/COVID-19 should it appear in the Commonwealth.

As of Wednesday afternoon, there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Virginia, but officials said that more people have been tested for possible infection.

17 people have now been tested in Virginia. 14 of those tests have come back negative for the virus, while results are pending on three cases.

Two of the cases are listed as being in Central Virginia. A spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Health said they would not provide more specific details about the patients being test in order to protect patient confidentiality.

As of this weekend, those tests are being done at Virginia’s Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services, rather than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lab in Atlanta. Health officials said it allows the results to be process within three to four hours, rather than days.

“It means that we’re able to institute any kind of counter-measures that we need to institute more quickly,” said Dr. M. Norman Oliver, Virginia's State Health Commissioner.

Officials gave a tour of the lab where the testing is done and explained there is a three-step process once a specimen has been delivered.

First, the specimen is placed in a Biological Safety Level-3 (BSL) laboratory where the virus is rendered inactive so that it can no longer infect anyone. After that, the sample is prepared with a chemical reaction mixture that is necessary for testing. Finally, the sample is placed in a testing machine to “artificially replicate (amplify) the genetic material, if present, using a temperature cycling protocol. The amplification can be visualized using a computer to determine whether a sample is positive or negative for the virus.”

If a test comes back negative, that result is accepted. But, if a test comes back positive, it will be sent to the CDC lab for confirmation.

As for preparations for a possible confirmation in Virginia, Governor Ralph Northam said a task force has been monitoring the virus since the beginning of January and meets daily to discuss updates.

“The Commonwealth is taking this public health issue seriously, and we have a plan in place to respond to COVID-19,” said Northam. “The Virginia Department of Health has some of the country’s leading public health experts on its team, with deep experience guiding public health emergency responses, and I have great confidence in their ability to guide Virginia in this situation.”

State health officials urged Virginians to maintain good hygiene in an effort to keep the virus at bay.

Recommendations include:

  • Washing hands often with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds,
  • Using alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol if soap and water are unavailable,
  • Covering your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash,
  • Avoiding close contact with people who are sick,
  • Avoiding touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.

CBS 6 has also learned how one local hospital system is taking precautions against coronavirus.

A spokesperson for HCA Virginia said that starting this week, patients and visitors will be directed to enter HCA facilities through either the main entrance or emergency department so they can be properly screened. The spokesperson added if someone is displaying symptoms “such as fever or respiratory distress, measures are taken to respond appropriately to the patient’s needs and limit exposure to other individuals at HCA Virginia hospitals.”

CBS 6 asked the spokesperson if any patients at HCA Virginia facilities were currently awaiting test results for coronavirus. The spokesperson did not answer that specific question but said “[a]t no time have patients from Henrico Doctors’ Hospitals tested positive for Coronavirus”.