Virginia to begin double-counting multiple positive coronavirus cases

The new policy may serve to sharply drive up case numbers, which may in turn significantly delay the re-opening of the state.

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Ralph Northam in January of 2020
Ralph Northam in January of 2020.
(Zach Gibson/Getty)
Last Updated:
May 4, 2020 - 12:05pm

Virginia this week will begin counting multiple positive coronavirus tests in the same patient as new individual cases of the disease, a policy decision likely to significantly drive up reported case numbers in a state that has been relatively spared the worst of the pandemic so far. 

The state government announced on Saturday a policy change to its coronavirus data metrics. Health officials will begin reporting "the number of unique people tested per day rather than the number of unique people who have been tested at any point during the response," the new policy states. 

"We know individual people, especially healthcare workers and those in high-risk settings, may be tested more than once over time. This new method of providing test data also allows us to provide the number of tests per day," the policy continues, adding: "We believe these data to be a better representation of SARS-CoV-2 testing in Virginia, and a better guide to the public and policy-makers as they assess availability."

At a press conference on Friday, State Health Commissioner Norman Oliver gave an example of a single patient being tested four times for COVID-19. "What we’re doing now is, we’re counting all four tests," Oliver said. "That’s the difference." 

What was unclear from the new policy is whether or not each positive test result would be counted as a new case of coronavirus altogether rather than merely a new test. The Virginia Department of Health's COVID-19 dashboard displays the total number of cases in the state, the total number of tests performed, and the total number of "unique people tested" by state officials. 

Reached via email on Monday morning, Joe Macenka, a spokesman for Virginia's COVID-19 Joint Information Command, confirmed that each positive case of the disease would be counted as a new case altogether. "If a person is tested on different days, those tests are counted as separate," he said. 

Pressed to clarify the policy, Macenka said that repeat positive cases "are counted as separate cases only if the tests occur on different days. If [a Virginia resident] tested Monday and Tuesday and both are positive, that's two positives."

Re-opening of state tied to declining case numbers

That policy may serve to sharply drive up case numbers, which may in turn significantly delay the re-opening of the state. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has stated that the state will begin its first phase of re-opening only when state officials have logged 14 straight days of declining case numbers and hospitalizations.

The governor last week did allow elective surgeries in the state to resume, though the state's stay-at-home order, which is set to last until June 10, is still in place. 

Virginia has been hit relatively lightly by the coronavirus pandemic compared to many other states. According to Worldometers, it ranks 21st in the country for deaths per one million residents, and 20th for cases. 

Last month State Health Commissioner Oliver claimed that the initial "Phase One" of re-opening the state might take up to two years, though state officials quickly disavowed that estimate and said Oliver had misspoken.