This is a rough transcript for this program, and as such is not formatted like a news story. Yet I know that many prefer to read these, so I took the time to write it all out. But now I need to move on tomorrow’s episode of the Charlottesville Community Engagement newsletter.
The national election has brought the potential for a national strategy to fight COVID-19 with the announcement by President-elect Joe Biden.
“This group will advise on detailed plans, build on a bedrock of science, and will keep compassion, empathy and care for every American.”
But there are more than two months into inauguration and there is a looming crisis according to Virginia Governor Ralph Northam.
I’m Sean Tubbs, and this is the 49th episode of the Charlottesville Quarantine Report. On today’s show, excerpts from Governor Northam’s November 10 press conference, as well as parts of President-elect Biden’s task force announcement.
But first, let’s get a quick news update on the numbers as of November 11, 2020.
There are another 1,594 new cases of COVID-19 reported by the Virginia Department of Health this morning. That brings the seven-day average for new daily cases to 1,524. The seven-day average for positive test results remains at 6.2 percent statewide today.
There are another 18 cases in the Blue Ridge Health District reported today, bringing the seven-day average to 26. The percent positivity for the district for PCR tests has increased to 2 percent, up from 1.8 percent yesterday.
Governor Ralph Northam is asking Virginians to continue to follow health guidelines to stop the spread of COVID-19 but said yesterday he is not likely to impose restrictions.
“We’re seeing a rise in cases and in percent positivity which is now 6.2 percent and we’re also seeing a ride in our hospitalizations,” Northam said. “This is very concerning, especially because it is getting colder. The holidays are approaching and the temptation to gather with other people is high.”
Northam said the VDH continues to be concerned about Southwest Virginia where a high number of cases were reported late last week. In Wise County, the seven-day average for new daily cases per 100,000 population is 65.8. That figure is 52 for Washington County, 57.7 for Scott County, and 59.3 for Russell County. For comparison, those numbers are 7.8 for Albemarle and 19 for Charlottesville.
“Our team has been in communication with health directors in Southwest Virginia about the spread in that region,” Northam said. “We’re focusing on a communications campaign to emphasize the importance of doing the things that we know work. Avoiding indoor gatherings. Washing our hands. And wearing face coverings.”
Northam reminded the public that Virginia has a mask mandate in place for indoor spaces.
“While we are concerned about southwest Virginia I want to remind Virginians that we are seeing rising cases in other regions and around our nation as well,” Northam said. “The central region of Virginia for example is seeing a steady increase in case counts.”
Thanksgiving is 15 days away, and Northam urged people to remember that the virus spreads more easily indoors.
“This virus spreads through the air. And it spreads more easily indoors. You should take precautions around anyone who does not live in your own house. Yes, even if they are your family. There is no genetic immunity that prevents you from giving this virus to your mother, to your grandfather or any other loved ones in the house with you.
I’m not saying don’t celebrate Thanksgiving but if you’re planning to gather with people outside of your household, think about ways to do it more safely,” Northam said. “Consider how the space is ventilated. Or think about ways to have gatherings outdoors. Wash your hands. Think about smaller gatherings and wear a mask.”
On November 10, Northam announced that Virginia has entered into contracts with three labs to participate in a new COVID-19 testing network to be known as OneLab. This will increase testing capacity and turn-around time.
“OneLab is our coordinated COVID-19 lab testing system. It allows us to increase our testing capacity specifically to support high-priority testing campaigns such as community testing in surge areas, outbreak investigations, and testing in congregate setting such as our nursing homes.”
Northam said this would add the ability to process about 7,000 more tests a day by the end of the year. He also said that the state’s purchase of antigen tests will soon yield new kits.
“Those are the quick response tests. We purchased 200,000 tests through the Rockefeller testing compact and those are arriving in Virginia and being distributed to our nursing homes and our long-term care facilities. In addition, we’re receiving rapid Binax Now from the federal government and have distributed more than 52,000 of those so far.”
One of the things we’ll be watching for in the coming weeks are plans to deliver vaccines to millions of Americans. That may not be for some time, but there is a possibility.
“Yesterday we all heard good news from Pfizer that their vaccine appears to be ninety percent effective. That is very, very encouraging. But we should all remember that this isn’t the magic bullet. Any approved vaccination will still take months to distribute. Virginia like other states have spent months already preparing plans for how to equitably distribute a vaccination. When a vaccine is ready, one that is safe, and effective, we will be ready too in Virginia.”
Dr. Norm Oliver is Virginia’s Health Commissioner. He said the vaccine will be more effective if case loads can be kept lower.
“In order to stop a pandemic we really have to do our best to increase the immunity that exists in the population and vaccines do that, they boost immunity although as the Governor said it’s going to take us months to vaccinate millions in the Commonwealth. It will take a while to develop that immunity and during that period of time, a lot of the things that we are doing now we will continue to have to do.”
Dr. Oliver said the VDH rolls out flu shots every year, and is ready to proceed with the COVID-19 vaccine when one is ready. He said the federal Centers for Disease Control has approved Virginia’s plan.
“We have revised and tweaked those plans and we are ready to work with the CDC and the Department of Defense who are the two entities that will lead the vaccine allocation to receive those vaccines from them and ensure that those vaccines get into the arms of those of us here in the Commonwealth of Virgina.”
As of this recording, the incumbent president has not conceded the election. Northam addressed the issue.
“We expect to have a new president in January, President-elect Joe Biden, and I look forward to working with him and Vice President Kamala Harris. I am heartened that President-elect Biden’s first action has been to appoint a task force to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. Other governors and I have said for months that a stronger federal response would be helpful to us and I look forward to seeing that become a reality.”
We’re going to hear more about that task force in a moment. Let’s hear again from Northam about what’s coming up in the next couple of weeks.
“Virginians, you have done an exceptional job over the past eight months of responding to this crisis, and think about that. Eight months. I know you’re tired. I’m tired. The new normal is still ahead of us. But I want to say that by and large people have listened to the public health advice and we can’t stop now. We put on our face coverings in public and we avoid large crowds. And we need to keep it up. It’s more important now than ever. We cannot get complacent or let down our guard for the holidays. I don’t want to see our case counts continue to rise but we want to lower than and we all most do our part.”
Several reporters asked several times if there were plans at this point to return to the restrictions we were in for the first few months of the pandemic. Let’s hear this question from Kate Masters of the Virginia Mercury.
“Not to beat a dead horse when it comes to guidance on restrictions with COVID, but when I look at the state metrics I see that we’re seeing daily new cases rise higher than they ever have in the pandemic. So I’m wondering what it would take, what metric you would look at, that would trigger a possible new restriction. You mentioned that you knew what was making COVID rise. Can you speak more specifically to why eight months in we’re continuing to see these spikes and lulls in Virginia?”
“Yeah, a couple of things and I appreciate your question. We are seeing higher numbers of new cases but I would reiterate that we’re doing more testing. Early on we were just doing a few tests every day, if that. Now we’re doing 20,000 plus tests and will continue to do more. So we’ll follow the number of new cases. But I think just as important is to follow the positivity rate. And also the instance rate. But speaking to the positivity rate, if you look at the graphs, we were over 20 percent at one time in Virginia and now we’re at 6.2, so yes there are more cases in Virginia because of more testing. The positivity rate, while it is still increasing, is still relatively low and so we monitor all of these things. And again, not to be a dead horse to use your words, we need to continue to be able to figure out why those numbers are rising and they’re rising right now because people are gathering and they are not wearing masks. If you look at where they are not wearing masks, you see those increasing numbers.”
Northam said he looked forward to federal leadership. And when we come back after a break, we’ll get a preview. But the final question came from a reporter who asked what would be different in the Biden administration.
“It starts with messaging and encouraging people to follow these guidelines. It also includes options. Obviously we’re going to be communicating, governors, with the national leadership but it’s using things like the Defense Act where if we need more supplies, if we need more swabs, if we need more reagents, if we need more Binax testing, all of those things will be important. But I think a lot of it is the behaviour. This shouldn’t be a Republican versus a Democrat, or metropolitan versus rural. It’s really all of us. And in our case in Virginia, we’re all Virginians and let’s do the right thing not only for ourselves and our families but for those around us.
Governor Northam said his team has already been in touch with members of President-elect Biden’s task force. The President-elect made the announcement on November 9, the same day Pfizer made their announcement on the vaccine.
“It’s clear that this vaccine even if approved will not be very widely available for many months yet to come. The challenge before us right now is still immense and growing and even though we are not in office yet, I’m just laying out what we expect to do and hope can be done some it between now and the time we are sworn in.”
President-elect Biden said there is a need for bold action.
“We’re still facing a very dark winter and there are nearly ten million COVID cases in the United States. Last week we topped 120,000 new cases on multiple successive days. Infeciton rates are going up. Hospitalizations are going up. Deaths are going up. This crisis claimed nearly a thousand American lives a day and nearly 230,000 deaths so far. Projections still indicate we could lose 200,000 more Americans in the coming months before a vaccine can be made widely available. So we can’t forgo the important work that needs to be done between now and then to get our country through the worst wave yet in this pandemic.”
Biden then announced the creation of a COVID-19 Transition Advisory Board made up of public health experts toimplement the successful campaign’s plans.
“This group will advise on detailed plans, build on a bedrock of science, and will keep compassion, empathy and care for every American at its core, making rapid-testing much more widely available and building a core of contact-tracers who will track and curb this disease while we prioritize getting vaccines first to the most at risk populations, developing clear and detailed guidance for providing the necessary resources for small businesses, schools, child care centers, to reopen and operate safely and effectively during a pandemic, protecting both workers and the public. Scaling up productive life-saving treatments and therapeutics and when it’s ready, making sure an approved vaccine is distributed equitably, and efficiently and free for every American.”
Biden said there’s also a need to increase the amount of PPE again to make sure health care workers have what they need.
“We’re going to give states, cities and tribes the tests and the supplies they need. We’re going to protect vulnerable populations who are most at risk from this virus. Older Americans, and those with pre-existing conditions. We’re going to address the health and economic disparities that mean this virus is hitting the Black, Latino, Asian-American, Pacific islanders, Native American communities, harder than white communities. Focusing on these communities is one of our priorities, not an afterthought.”
Earlier we heard Virginia Governor Northam say how he was looking forward to federal leadership. You can hear him say that a lot in the early episodes of this podcast, which was created to document the response in the greater Charlottesville area. Here’s the President-elect.
“There’s so much good work happening at state and local levels and levels across the country. Governors, Mayors. They are stepping up. The advisory board will listen and learn from their experience. Because we know that we won’t fully defeat COVID-19 until we defeat it everywhere, my advisory council will also include experts on global health security so that we can restore U.S. global leadership to fight this pandemic.”
Biden also said something the current president has not said in eight months of the pandemic.
“We know the single most effective thing we can do to stop the spread of COVID is to wear a mask.”
As of this recording, President Trump has not conceded the election and is spreading misinformation. As of today, his campaign and adminstration have lost twelve court cases alleging voter fraud. Biden said the election is over, and it is time to get to work to fight COVID.
“It doesn’t matter who you voted for or where you stood before election day. It doesn’t matter your party, your point of view. We can save tens of thousands of lives if everyone would just wear a mask for the next few months. not Democrat or Republican lives but American lives. Maybe we’ll save the life of a person who stocks the shelves at your local grocery store. Maybe saves the life of a member of your place of worship. Maybe it saves the lives of one of your children’s teachers. Maybe it saves your life. So please, I implore you. Wear a mask. Do it for yourself. Do it for your neighbor. A mask is not a political statement but it is a good way to start pulling the country together.”
So, what happens next? What will the numbers be the best time I put another episode of the Charlottesville Quarantine Report? I don’t know, but every day I am paying attention through the Charlottesville Community Engagement report, and I hope you’ll subscribe.