Northam models set stage for Virginia to join COVID-19 political fracas

Virginia covid-19
(© Ingo Menhard –

Gov. Ralph Northam is setting Virginia up for a political fight with the Trump administration over social distancing and economic restrictions in place to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The governor on Tuesday touted modeling from the University of Virginia Biocomplexity Institute that appears to suggest the Commonwealth would need to be under a strict stay-at-home order indefinitely to avoid a “second surge.”

This in an environment that includes President Trump convening a task force aimed at easing restrictions nationwide, two different groups of governors – one representing seven states in the Northeast, the second covering California, Oregon and Washington on the Pacific coast –saying they will coordinate their actions regarding COVID-19 on a regional basis, and hard-hit Spain and Italy making moves toward gradual easings of their COVID-19 shutdown.

Adding to the intrigue: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is today threatening a “constitutional crisis like you haven’t seen in decades” if the president tries to reopen the country.

“While the data is limited, we can draw a few key conclusions. First, social distancing is important, and it’s working in Virginia. Second, while we continue to work closely with our hospital systems and other health care partners to prepare for a potential surge in acute cases, we are optimistic about our statewide hospital bed capacity. Finally, it’s clear we need to be responsible about how we ease restrictions, so we can keep Virginians safe and protect public health,” Northam said Tuesday, against this backdrop.

The dizzying array of graphs and charts released by the governor’s office on Tuesday doesn’t suggest an end in sight to Northam’s stay-at-home order, even as data from the University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which in its latest update, on Monday, projects Virginia, with current social-distancing guidelines in place through May, to be at peak-resource use on April 27.

On that date, according to the UW-IHIME model, which the Northam administration said it is also using as a guide, less than a quarter of the state’s available hospital beds will be needed for COVID-19 patients.

The modeling from UW-IHME is in line with the daily numbers from the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association and the Virginia Department of Health, which confirm the state’s hospital-bed availability being nowhere near surge levels.

“From the beginning, Gov. Northam has made it clear that everything we do must be grounded in science, public health expertise, and data,” Secretary of Health and Human Resources Daniel Carey said. “These models change every day, but we can use various models to help inform a range of outcomes we may be facing so we can make sure that Virginia is ready for all possible scenarios. Like every other state and many other countries, we are preparing for how we can move forward in a way that does not trigger another medical surge.”

That term used by Carey – “another surge” – mirrors something said by Bryan Lewis, research associate professor for the Network Systems Science and Advanced Computing division at the UVA Biocomplexity Institute, who referred to a “second surge” as he addressed the limitations of the various projections available to decision-makers.

It would seem to stand to reason that before you had a “second surge” or “another surge,” you maybe needed to have had a “first surge” – at the least a “first surge” that put a strain on the ability of the healthcare system to be able to provide care.

“Even without perfect projections, we can confidently draw conclusions,” Lewis said. “We know that social distancing is working and lifting restrictions too early can lead to a second surge. We will continue to improve our models as more data become available. We plan to incorporate outcomes specific by age, integrate the role of seasonality, and analyze mitigation techniques such as a Test-Trace-Isolate approach.”

Story by Chris Graham

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