Virginia health commissioner on COVID-19: ‘We are looking into hundreds of contacts'

'This is serious. Everyone needs to take this seriously.'
Posted at 2:57 PM, Mar 15, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-15 22:10:12-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam held a news conference as health officials investigate a cluster of COVID-19 cases on the Peninsula following at least eight people tested positive for the virus.

COVID-19 cases in the Commonwealth stand at 45 as of Sunday, state health officials said.

Gov. Ralph Northam said Virginia is "taking additional steps to limit the spread" by banning events of more than 50 people on the Peninsula and banning events of more than 100 people statewide.

"We want you to avoid public gatherings of all kind," Northam said, "If you are planning an event with over several people, you should cancel it."

Northam urged people on the Peninsula to stay home.

"If you're planning to go to a restaurant or a church or to a bar on the Peninsula, I would discourage you from doing so," Northam said. "These are critical steps to reduce and slow the spread of this virus. We're not yet at the point of ordering a state-mandated quarantine. But every single person should stay home if they can. This is serious. Everyone needs to take this seriously."

State health officials 'very concerned' about community spread

State Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said officials are “very concerned” about the cluster of eight COVID-19 cases on the Peninsula and the likelihood of community spread of the virus.

“There are eight identified cases and upwards of close to 300 contacts that we're doing investigations on from those cases,” Oliver said. “Many tests are pending right now."

“When we identify a case, we do what we call contact investigation,” Oliver said. “And we are looking into hundreds of contacts of these cases to trace down any new cases and to isolate them when we find them. There will be new cases, we know that... And for all those reasons, we're going full court press on trying to identify those cases while ahead of time and isolate them, as we do identify them."

Department of General Services Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services Director Dr. Denise Toney said the state lab could perform tests on 370 to 470 people as of Sunday.

"That is dependent on how many specimens are needed for each patient," Oliver noted.

Those numbers were a sharp contrast to last Sunday when Toney said the state lab has two test kits, meaning 150 to 200 patients could be tested for COVID-19.

"We have more kits on order (from the CDC) and the availability of kits will dictate how many kits we will be able to receive at one time," Toney said last week.

Again this week Toney said she was "hopeful" Virginia would receive additional test kits from the CDC in the coming week.

However, Oliver said now that private labs offer the testing, "Virginia's ability to provide testing to people in the Commonwealth" as well as across the country, has increased.

Officials noted that the testing conduced by the state lab must be coordinated with the Virginia Department of Health.

“Testing at our facility is only done on those individuals that the health department has investigated and has approved for testing,” Toney said. “There are other individuals within the Commonwealth that are receiving testing and much of that tests must much of that testing is being done at the private sector.”

'Limited Community Spread'

Dr. Thomas Franck, the interim director of the Hampton/Peninsula Health District, said the agency's primary goal is containment when it comes to the COVID-19 cluster.

"W==e have activated our incident management team and we have a team of 40 of our personnel who are working twelve-hour shifts," Franck said.

Franck said that as of Saturday officials had made contact with more than 200 of the 284 people who came in contact with one of the eight people with COVID-19.

"We are working on the rest of them as we speak," he said. "We will continue to trace those contacts to ensure that self quarantining is taking place. And we continue to reach out and identify any further cases of COVID-19 in the community."

Authorities confirmed Saturday night "limited community spread" of COVID-19 on the Peninsula after a man in James City County died as a result of the virus and a staff member at the College of William & Mary tested positive.

Hampton City Manager Mary Bunting, James City County Administrator Scott Stevens, Newport News City Manager Cindy Rohlf, Poquoson City Manager Randy Wheeler, Williamsburg City Manager Andrew Trivette and York County Administrator Neil Morgan said in a joint statement the community must take "further steps to curtail the spread" after they learned of several more COVID-19 cases "within the region."

"Our first and most effective defense is to limit potential exposure," officials said. "In that respect, Peninsula residents are urged to avoid gatherings of more than 50 people. This includes church services, civic/social organization meetings, and public events and festivities."

"Remember to observe the hygiene steps of washing your hands frequently, sanitizing flat surfaces, and when possible avoid close contact," officials said.

Those county and city leaders noted that additional steps may be needed in the coming days as "local officials try to slow the rate of infection."

First COVID-19-Related Death in Virginia

Virginia health officials said a man in James City County died as a result of COVID-19 Saturday.

The victim is his 70s, who was hospitalized, died of respiratory failure as a result of the virus, officials said.

"The patient acquired COVID-19 through an unknown source," Virginia Department of Health (VDH) officials said.

The somber news marked the first death in the Commonwealth as a result of COVID-19.

"The Peninsula Health District has been working very closely to identify people who have been in potential contact with people known to have tested positive for coronavirus," officials said. "They are interviewing affected people and giving instructions on how to protect themselves and others."

Gov. Ralph Northam released the following statement in response to the death:

“Pam and I were deeply saddened to learn that a Virginian has died from COVID-19, and we grieve for everyone this virus has touched around the world.

“The health of Virginians and our communities is my most important priority right now. As a Commonwealth, we have taken major, critical steps to stop the spread of COVID- 19. I have declared a state of emergency, closed K-12 schools across the state, restricted visitors at nursing homes and correctional facilities, limited state employee travel, and canceled large events.

“This is a public health crisis—we must all treat it as such.

“Again, I urge Virginians: take this seriously. Take basic health precautions, avoid large gatherings, telework if possible, and stay home if you are sick. That will stop the virus from spreading.

“It is all of our responsibility, yours and mine, to keep each other safe and healthy.

“You deserve to know next steps. I will meet with local officials on the Peninsula tomorrow, and we will speak to the community at 12:00 PM about additional measures we are taking to combat COVID-19.”

Virginia COVID-19 Cases

Of the 408 people tested for COVID-19 in Virginia, 45 people had tested positive for the virus as of Sunday. Officials noted public health officials are "reaching out" to anyone who is known to have been in contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19.

The number of U.S. coronavirus cases, which have been reported in all states except West Virginia, swelled to nearly 3,000 Sunday.

The death toll from COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, rose to 62 Sunday.

Worldwide, the virus has infected more than 156,390 people and killed over 5,800, with the vast majority of them in China. Most cases have been mild, and more than half of those infected have recovered.

Safety Tips

VDH officials urged folks to abide by the following "effective behaviors" to "lower the risk of respiratory germ spread:"

  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Avoid contact with sick people.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when coughing or sneezing.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds; use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.

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COMPLETE COVERAGE: Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Tracker