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VIRGINIA — In his last COVID-19 briefing, Gov. Ralph Northam issued a 30-day emergency order to address hospital capacity and staffing in Virginia on Monday. The order is in response to record-high COVID-19 hospitalizations recorded last week.
The state of emergency order, seeking to address increasing COVID-19 patients admitted to hospitals, will expand hospital beds as well as staffing capacity at hospitals at nursing homes. It will also expand telehealth and the medical professionals qualified to give vaccines.
"Health care workers and hospitals are exhausted, and they are again facing increasing numbers of patients, affecting their ability to provide care," said Northam in a statement. "These steps will help ease the strain, giving medical professionals more flexibility to care for people. Ultimately, the best thing everyone can do for our hospitals and their staff is to get vaccinated."
The order relaxes some regulations to help with staffing. Under the order, providers with an active out-of-state license can practice in Virginia, while experienced physician assistants can practice without a written supervisory agreement. The order also increases provider-to-patient ratios and provides certain liability protections to health care workers acting in good faith to protect patients.
On the capacity side, the order waives the normal bed licensing requirements, allows hospitals to increase licensed bed capacity as well as mandates increased collaboration between hospitals and local medical services agencies. In addition, the order will increase flexibility in transferring to state-operated psychiatric hospitals due to high COVID-19 levels.
The order is in effect until Feb. 11, 2022 unless amended or rescinded. The governor made the emergency order limited to 30 days based on modeling showing the virus will peak in the next several weeks.
Hospitalizations reached record numbers along with cases as the more-contagious omicron variant spreads. According to Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association data, Virginia has 3,681 hospitalized patients with positive or pending COVID-19 results as of Monday. The seven-day average of hospitalizations is 3,271 in Virginia, compared to the last peak average of 3,143 on Jan. 18, 2021.
Northam stressed that the majority of these hospitalizations are among unvaccinated people. Northam cited one example from Ballad Health, a hospital system in southwest Virginia, where 91 percent of its COVID-19 cases are among unvaccinated people, and 97 of COVID-19 patients on ventilators are unvaccinated.
"Vaccinations are keeping people safer, even as omicron variant spreads," Northam said. "Yes, vaccinated people can get COVID, that has always been true, and it seems more true for the omicron variant. But data from around the world for nearly a year now shows that if someone is vaccinated and they get COVID the symptoms are likely to be minor. Fewer vaccinated people have to be hospitalized with COVID and far fewer of them die of COVID."
The governor said that while the omicron variant appears to be more mild, it is more contagious, which means that he expects more people to be hospitalized. In Northern Virginia, a region with a high vaccination rate, Inova Health System reported 94 patients admitted with COVID-19, compared to a daily average of 10 new patients between April and Christmas 2021. In Hampton Roads, Northam said Sentara has reported a 300 percent increase in COVID-19 cases.
"I watch the numbers every day, and I'm in close contact with our health systems. They need our help," said Northam at the news briefing.
In some parts of the state, 97 percent of COVID-19 patents in hospital intensive care units who are on ventilators are unvaccinated, he said. "Vaccines work, plain and simple," the outgoing governor said.
This is the last week of Northam's term as governor. The Democratic governor has held around 70 briefings since COVID-19 first appeared in Virginia on March 7, 2020. The next governor, Republican Glenn Youngkin, will be inaugurated on Saturday, Jan. 15.
Northam said he has had several productive conversations with Youngkin. He stressed that the transition between the two administrations has been efficient with lots of communication, as opposed to the transition between Donald Trump and Joe Biden a year ago in Washington, where the outgoing president refused to acknowledge the new president.
"We want this process to be consistent,” Northam said. “So that when we turn over the keys on Saturday, Virginians will continue to get good access to testing, access to vaccines and also access to hospitalizations as needed.”
Northam said he has no plans to return the state's public schools to virtual learning during his final week in office, despite the dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases among students, teachers and staff. The governor said the state is seeing "very high numbers of children with COVID."
But Northam added that "students learn best in the classroom. That's where they're safest."
The governor said students who are vaccinated may still get COVID-19 at school. "If they do get COVID and if they have been vaccinated, their outcome will be much improved," Northam said.
A new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study has linked COVID-19 to a higher risk of diabetes in children. Researchers found children under 18, who recover from the virus, are shown to have a more than two and a half times greater rate of developing diabetes. A second database used for the study found a 30 percent increase in diabetes cases in children who have had COVD-19.