As Virginia governor vows to ramp up COVID enforcement, state data continue to trend positive

Hospitals are at just over 60% capacity, deaths have plummeted, and cases have only spiked regionally.

Updated: July 15, 2020 - 11:59am

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

At a notably grim press conference on Tuesday, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam delivered a dire warning to state residents, calling some of them "selfish" for allegedly violating his mask mandate, ordering businesses to refuse service to patrons without face coverings, threatening to strip the licenses of business owners who fail to comply with his orders, and promising to dispatch a small army of state regulators to enforce those directives. 

The harsh coronavirus presser — the first Northam has held in several weeks —stands in marked contrast to official data on the coronavirus outbreak in the state, metrics which continue to indicate that the virus is largely on the retreat in Virginia, aside from some localized outbreaks and a recent uptick in hospitalizations amid ample hospital capacity. 

At the Tuesday press conference, Northam said he was directing state officials to conduct "unannounced visits to establishments as needed" in order to ensure they are complying with the governor's orders. In addition, the Virginia Department of Health "is deploying 100 people to ramp up enforcement," he said, with regulators particularly focused in the Tidewater region where cases are up. 

"If you own a restaurant or a business, and you're not following the regulations, your license will be on the line," Northam said. "And we will not hesitate to take action if needed."

Northam said he had instructed the state's Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority to "impose an earlier cutoff for alcohol sales at restaurants."

"I want to be clear," he said. "This is not the end of the actions we may take, but the beginning."

State data continue to show largely positive trends

Northam's grave, open-ended dictates and portentous warnings on Tuesday contrast sharply with the state's own coronavirus data, which continue for the most part to show largely positive epidemiological trends in Virginia: Deaths are the lowest they've been in four months, cases appear to have bottomed out in most parts of the state, and hospitals remain well within capacity to handle surges. 

Virginia's coronavirus dashboard offers several metrics by which users can view the state's epidemiological data. Among them are "confirmed cases by date of symptom onset," a key indicator for tracking a virus's progress through any given community. 

Data show that three of Virginia's five regions — central, northern and northwest — have all seen sustained declining daily case rates for roughly the last two months.

Only two of the state's regions, the eastern and southwest portions of the state, have seen rises, with the eastern region seeing the sharpest uptick. Excluding the eastern region, the rest of state has seen a sharp drop in infections since mid-March, apart from a brief uptick in the middle of last month. 

The high number of infections found in the eastern region correlates with an increased number of tests there. Testing increased notably over the month of June relative to other regions, though the rate of positive tests also went up significantly during that time, suggesting transmission of the disease was increasing alongside tests.

Yet deaths across Virginia have seen an even steeper decline than cases in any part of the state, peaking at the beginning of May before beginning a long and ongoing trend downwards, regardless of region. Deaths at the end of June were the lowest they've been since early March and do not appear to have risen since then; there are two days earlier this month — July 6 and 7 — on which the state recorded no deaths at all. 

Hospitals have ample capacity; most patients aren't there for COVID-19

Hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients began flattening in Virginia in late June, but they began a modestly sharp upward trend by the second week of July, standing at 1,127 patients as of Tuesday. As with cases, much of that increase comes from the eastern region of the state, whose share of hospitalized patients has nearly doubled from early July. 

Yet the state still has ample capacity to handle a surge in coronavirus patients. As of Tuesday afternoon, Virginia still had about 25% of normal hospital capacity available, roughly the same as was available in mid-June when cases bottomed out. When factoring in the state's surge capacity — which puts the total number of available beds in the state at just under 20,000 — Virginia is actually operating at roughly 64% capacity, with 36% of all beds still available. 

Though the number of confirmed inpatient coronavirus cases are up, it is not clear if the total number of hospitalized patients listed by the state health department actually represent the definitive COVID-19 case burden in state hospitals. 

Asked by Just the News if the 1,127 hospitalizations listed by the state on Tuesday represented patients hospitalized because of COVID-19 or merely with COVID-19, Department of Health spokeswoman Julie Grimes said it was the latter.

"The number of patients in the hospital that are either COVID-19 positive or have COVID-19-like symptoms and are awaiting test results," Grimes said. "If they came in for something like a burst appendix and it was determined the individual also was COVID-19 positive, they would be in that reported number."

Yet Julian Walker, a spokesman for the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association, told Just the News that that number actually represents patients being treated explicitly for COVID-19. 

Presented with Walker's claims, Grimes said she would look to confirm the state's data metrics. 

Among all of the state's metrics, its tracking of hospital personal protective equipment usage is perhaps most encouraging. 

Aside from a brief uptick of two hospitals in early June, no hospital in the state has reported difficulty in acquiring PPE since May 2, well over two months ago.