RICHMOND, Va. (WAVY) — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam held a press conference Friday as the state entered phase 1 of its coronavirus economic recovery plan.
Virginia reported 859 new COVID-19 cases and 22 new deaths on Friday morning. Virginia’s daily case numbers are continuing to trend upward, though the bulk of the cases are in Northern Virginia, Accomack County and Richmond, all of which will delay phase 1 by at least two weeks.
Highlights from the press conference below:
Heat over antibody tests inflating overall testing data
Northam started off by acknowledging a test counting method that caused Virginia to come under fire in recent days, being accused of artificially inflating its testing data with antibody tests to make the state’s lackluster testing infrastructure look better. The addition of antibody tests was first reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
The Virginia Department of Health had included both viral COVID-tests (PCR), which are used to confirm active COVID-19 tests, and antibody (serological) tests, an unreliable, much different test used as a “post-game” method to see if someone had the virus.
Both testing methods had been added together in total testing numbers since early March, which made Virginia’s weak testing numbers look better than they actually were. Virginia stills ranks among the worst states in the country in testing per capita.
Antibody tests made up 9% of total tests as of May 14, VDH said, with just over 15,000 tests added to the figure. VDH framed the issue as bringing “minimal change” to overall picture of Virginia’s number, but the addition of antibody tests had moved the percentage of positive tests per total tests, a key gauge of progress toward reopening, by 1.4%, to 13.6% overall.
When the antibody tests were taken out on Thursday and only viral PCR tests were counted, that overall number went to 15%. That makes a big difference when 10% is the minimum percentage leading health experts say is necessary for Virginia to reopen safely.
Northam and state officials have said that the state’s hard-hit areas, such as Northern Virginia with its high number of total cases and roughly 25% positive rate, are skewing the state’s overall positive rate. Tidewater for example (excluding the Eastern Shore), doesn’t have a locality with a 10% or higher rate.
Friday case numbers: 859 new cases, 22 new deaths reported as most of Va. enters phase 1 of reopening
Northam claims he just learned about the addition of antibody tests on Monday, when a reporter asked about the issue at Monday’s press conference. At the presser, Northam’s chief of staff Clark Mercer claimed Virginia was mixing the data to compete with other states.
“You can’t win” by keeping viral and antibody findings separate in public data … if another state is including serological tests, and they’re ranked above Virginia, and we are not, and we’re getting criticized for that, [then], hey, you can’t win either way. Now we are including them, and our ranking will be better, and we’re being criticized,” he said.
Though the “The Atlantic” magazine, in a piece titled “How Virginia Juked Its COVID-19 Data,” reported that no evidence exists that other states were blending antibody and PCR tests.
Northam says he ordered the Virginia Department of Health to differentiate the data after finding out on Monday, which it finally did Friday (VDH sent a press release to reporters on Thursday breaking down the data, but it wasn’t featured on VDH’s website until Friday).
VDH now breaks down PCR and antibody testing on the “testing” tab of its COVID-19 page, and shows the percent positive rates for each health district in the state.
Northam said that regions/localities can look at that data and request to go back to phase zero. He said he would take those requests.
Northam says he’s spoken with many officials statewide, including those in Virginia Beach and Norfolk, about the potential for reopening beaches to more than just fishing and exercise.
He said he’s expecting to make an announcement on beaches this upcoming Monday, May 18, as Memorial Day weekend nears but reiterates that social distancing is still very much a thing.
“Why I am so proud of the City of Virginia Beach and the approach they are taking is to do it safely and that is what all of us agree on,” Northam said. “We understand it’s the Memorial (Day) weekend. We understand what is going on with our economy in Virginia. But the top priority for all of us is to do it safely.”
The governor says he expects local law enforcement to enforce his restrictions this weekend. Violation of his executive order could result in a year behind bars and a $2,500 fine.
Virginia Beach Mayor Bobby Dyer has also urged people to follow the governor’s restrictions until the beaches open back up for full activities.
Training will be occurring this weekend for city beach ambassadors hired by IMGoing — whose responsibilities will include promoting social distancing measures.
As expected, the state lost a lot of money as part of the economic outfall of the pandemic.
Aubrey Lane, Virginia’s finance secretary, revealed the state saw a $700 million loss in April.
But in contrast “economic activity in the commonwealth held up well,” Lane said.
Lane said the continued operation of the defense industry in Hampton Roads helped to keep the economy afloat along with the federal government. He also said sales tax revenue remained mostly flat signaling the move from brick-and-mortar to online shopping and unlike the localities, the state also collects taxes from grocery and ABC stores.