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Northam: Testing turnaround still critical as COVID-19 surge nears

Mike Still • Apr 7, 2020 at 8:00 AM

RICHMOND — Getting faster COVID-19 testing results is critical as a surge of disease cases approaches, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said Monday.

Virginia has also signed a $27 million contract with a private supplier to get needed personal protective gear — including N95 masks, gloves and disposable gowns — expected to reach the state within the next six days.

Northam said at least one Virginia health care network is increasing its ability to test patients in its hospitals, and state labs are still turning around COVID-19 test results days faster than many private labs’ 7-10-day return on testing.

A commercially available test kit that can give COVID-19 infection results in 15 to 30 minutes is being sought, Northam said, but the kits depend on adequate supplies of chemical reagents and lab equipment that are also in short supply.

“Social distancing and handwashing continue to be our most powerful weapon,” Northam said.

The supply contract should give Virginia access to a secure Asian supply chain for masks and other protective equipment, Northam said. State Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran said the $27 million purchase is only the first of many supply buys the state will need to make.

Some federal equipment supplies have also been sent to Virginia, Northam said, and state emergency workers are reconditioning masks from the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic stores to send to hospitals statewide.

Northam said state residents should also follow federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations to wear face protection, including cloth masks. He said instructions and patterns for masks are available on the internet, and he demonstrated his own cloth mask made by the state Department of Corrections.

Northam also cautioned that while cloth masks can protect from spreading the virus through coughed or sneezed droplets, they are not the same as N95 masks.

“Unless you wear a medical grade mask, you won’t have medical grade protection,” Northam said.

Food banks across the state will also receive 56,000 meals, ready to eat. Northam said those will provide a six-week supply for people needing food during the state of emergency.

State Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said 2,878 confirmed cases of COVID-19 were reported by 9 a.m. Monday— a 241-case increase over the previous 24 hours — and 54 total deaths, or three more since Sunday.

Wise County reported its first confirmed case Saturday, after a 70-year-old man tested positive while being treated for a non-COVID-19 issue. Across the LENOWISCO Health District, which includes Wise, Scott and Lee counties and Norton, three confirmed cases have been reported, including two in Lee County.

Oliver said the lack of widespread testing means that state numbers on COVID-19 cases “are an underestimate of spread.”

Asked about reports of shifts in a predicted surge of COVID-19 cases from May to April 30, Northam said modeling of infection and cases continues to shift as analysts collect more information.

Northam said the state’s Department of Consolidated Laboratory Services has started developing a library of genetic signatures of COVID-19 positive results, and that library has shown that the virus came into the state from several sources and not one patient.

State Health and Human Services Secretary Dan Carey said faster and more widespread testing will help lessen the need for protective gear as health care workers can better identify with what patients they need to use that equipment.

Northam said he had been on a call with Vice President Mike Pence and other governors earlier in the day.

“The message from Washington is to continue what we’re doing, social distancing and handwashing,” Northam said.

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