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Governor cracks down on 757

Limits on gatherings, alcohol sales and restaurant hours are among the restrictions Gov. Ralph Northam will put into place in Hampton Roads, including Suffolk, beginning July 31 as a result of increasing COVID-19 cases in the region.

Those measures are part of a new executive order that will extend for at least two weeks, Northam announced during a press conference July 28.

While the state is in Phase 3 of its reopening, Northam opted to restrict gatherings to no more than 50 people, down from the 250 allowed in the current phase. Alcohol sales or consumption will be cut off at 10 p.m., and restaurants will have to close at midnight. Restaurants will also be restricted to 50% capacity.

“Our local health directors and their teams have been clear: they are seeing a significant shift toward younger people testing positive — people in their 20s, and even younger,” Northam said. “They are seeing increased socialization with non-household members, such as birthday parties, backyard barbecues and other celebrations. But we need to act to turn this around.”

Northam said this data has come in to the state health department through its contact tracing efforts.

While the seven-day positivity rate is down in four of five regions of the state, and is at 7.3% statewide, it has been on the increase in Hampton Roads.

Outside of the region, the positivity rate is hovering at around 6%. Within the region, it is 10.8%, Northam said, ranging from 9.9% to 18.6% in various localities. It is 10.2% in the Western Tidewater Health District, which includes Suffolk, Franklin, Isle of Wight County and Southampton County.

In Suffolk, there have been 974 cases of COVID-19, 90 hospitalizations and 46 deaths. In Western Tidewater, there have been 13 outbreaks and 442 associated cases with them.

The number of deaths reported per day across the state, and the health district, have been trending downward in recent weeks. The state’s seven-day average is about five deaths per day, according to state health department data through the middle of July, based on the actual day of death. That has been trending downward since May, when they averaged around 40 per day. Across the Eastern Region, which includes all of Hampton Roads and the health district, it averaged about five deaths per day in May, and though on a slight uptick in July, is still averaging just over two deaths per day.

COVID-19 patients are occupying more beds at hospitals — 1,294 as of July 28, and among all of the beds available at hospitals in Virginia, 12,652 of its 16,476 beds are occupied. In the Eastern Region, the number of beds occupied by COVID-19 patients has more than doubled since the beginning of July, going from 230 to 544 through July 28. In the region, 2,394 of its 3,348 available beds are occupied.

Among those with COVID-19 on ventilators and in intensive care as of July 28, 153 people statewide are on ventilators, with 79 of those in the Eastern Region. In ICU, the Eastern Region has 116 of the state’s 261 people in beds there, according to health department data.

Northam noted that hospitals across the state have discharged more than 12,000 people who have been treated for the virus, and more than 3,000 people in nursing homes have recovered.

Dr. Laurie Forlano, deputy state health commissioner, said there was initial baseline testing in nearly every skilled nursing facility statewide, and now facilities are working to meet weekly testing recommendations.

Northam’s executive order, while inclusive of Suffolk, does not include the other localities in the health district. It does include other Hampton Roads localities Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Hampton, Newport News, Poquoson, James City County and York County.

Besides testing data, Northam cited increases in the region’s hospitalizations along with ICU occupancies and emergency room visits by COVID-19 patients.

Northam said he has been in direct contact with the region’s mayors and local officials and said there is a unified commitment to addressing the increasing number of cases. He said people should continue to social distance, wear masks and wash their hands while not getting discouraged.

Suffolk Mayor Linda T. Johnson addressed the need for residents to practice those measures following a visit to City Council by health district director Dr. Todd Wagner.

Northam held a private meeting this week with Dr. Deborah Birx, a White House advisor on coronavirus, and members of his senior health team. He told her that the state sees Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, as its top medical leaders.

“She was complimentary of our work and the mitigation measures we have been taking for weeks,” Northam said.

Northam also held a meeting with about two dozen stakeholders, among them public health leaders, labor leaders, advocates for Latinos in the state, doctors, hospital administrators, nursing home representatives and legislators.

He said they outlined concerns about the pandemic in their respective areas, and expressed a need for faster turnaround times on COVID-19 testing, which officials said take anywhere from one to three days in a state lab, to between seven and 10 days in commercial labs. Northam and health officials said the lagging turnaround testing times are the result of a shortage in testing supplies.

Northam said the measures for Hampton Roads would remain in place for at least two to three weeks, but that would depend on the data that comes in. He said it is his goal to open up the economy and have children return to schools, but it has to be done safely and with everyone’s health as the top priority.

“If we see the numbers start to trend down, then we’ll look at it and lift the guidelines as soon as we can,” Northam said.

While Northam said the meeting was positive, and there are hopeful signs amid the pandemic, the state must clamp down now on Hampton Roads in order to limit the spread of the virus, and he is considering further measures if health metrics do not trend in a positive direction. He did say he understood the need to “let a little air out of … a very tense balloon,” but that people must continue to protect themselves against the virus.

“I’m worried that people are starting to lose hope,” Northam said. “And that’s not a good thing. So I want everyone to know this: there is a path out of this. I see hopeful signs ahead.”