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Virginia to increase testing as COVID-19 spread rises in Virginia; Northam urges caution during holidays


BOB BROWN/TIMES-DISPATCH

With a growing number of reported coronavirus cases and a projected holiday surge, Virginia has signed contracts with three companies to boost the state’s testing capacity.

The state is averaging roughly 20,000 diagnostic COVID-19 tests per day, and with the new contracts, health officials hope to boost that number to 27,000 by the end of the year. The additional testing capacity will help the state test more people living in congregate settings, during community testing events and during outbreak investigations, the administration of Gov. Ralph Northam said.

The announcement comes amid an uptick in new daily COVID-19 cases in the state, which reported an average of 1,462 over the last week, compared with 809 the first week of October.

 

The figure can be largely chalked up to the steady increase in testing across the state; however, the share of people testing positive among everyone tested appears to also be growing in the state. That number, called the positivity rate, was 6.2% over the past week, up from 4.8% the first week of October.

 
 

The World Health Organization has advised governments that the positivity rate should remain below 5%, a sign that states are conducting enough testing to catch outbreaks.

The state’s southwest region has seen the most dramatic growth in COVID-19 spread. The central region, which contains the Richmond metro area, has seen a slight uptick.

 

Virginia Health Secretary Dan Carey said Tuesday during a news conference with reporters that the state “need[s] to be prepared for outbreaks and surges,” and the additional testing will help with that.

Carey said that a bulk of the diagnostic testing taking place in Virginia right now is in hospitals for people seeking care for signs of COVID-19. He said the additional capacity will help with testing driven by the state for targeted purposes, like mitigating outbreaks.

 

The state is contracting with Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville and Sentara Healthcare in Norfolk. Carey said the locations of those labs will complement the state’s labs in Richmond and Fairfax, which will ensure short turnarounds for state-directed testing across the state, in part by reducing transportation times for test samples.

 
 

“It’s quite strategic to add to the public health labs we have,” Carey said. “It makes sure that when there’s a time of an outbreak and there’s a time of delayed testing times, that we have that capability for rapid turnaround in the public health to add to the total picture.”

Northam meanwhile stressed the need for people to follow the public health guidance around COVID-19 throughout the holidays. That includes wearing masks while indoors with non-immediate family, maintaining 6 feet of distance from non-immediate family and practicing additional hygiene. Vulnerable individuals should further limit their risk of exposure.

“I know you’re tired. I’m tired. The new normal is still ahead,” Northam said. “By and large, people have listened to the public health advice. ... We need to keep it up. It’s more important now than ever, and we cannot get complacent, or let down our guard for the holiday.”

Also Tuesday during the news conference, Northam said the state has started distributing some of the rapid tests it purchased last month and others it received from the federal government. This week, 100,000 tests were sent to the state’s hospitals, 100,000 went to public and private higher education institutions, and 100,000 went to local health departments for testing vulnerable populations.

Northam also commented on last week’s preliminary election results, which saw Joe Biden defeat President Donald Trump, saying the state’s COVID-19 fight will benefit from Biden’s election.

“It starts with messaging and encouraging people to follow the guidelines,” said Northam, who has been critical of Trump’s rhetoric vilifying mask mandates and public restrictions.

Northam said he and other governors would soon be communicating with the incoming administration regarding the use of the federal Defense Production Act to speed up manufacturing of COVID-19 supplies, including protective equipment.

mleonor@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6254

Twitter: @MelLeonor_