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Northam prefers carrot over stick in beating back rising COVID numbers in Southwest Virginia

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As the coronavirus continues to pick up speed in Southwest Virginia, sending an increasing number of people to hospital beds or their graves, Gov. Ralph Northam said Tuesday he still prefers to persuade people to change their behavior.

“Why are the numbers rising? They are rising right now because people are gathering and they are not wearing masks. And if you look where they are not wearing masks, you see the increased numbers,” Northam said during a news briefing.

He said a marketing campaign is planned for the southwestern part of the state to convince people to comply with public health measures known to curb the spread of the virus the causes COVID-19.

“How do we encourage someone when they get up in the morning and go outside the house to put a mask on? That’s not asking a lot, but it certainly is for some people,” he said.

When asked if it were time for impose fines for violating his mask mandate, Northam said, “We are certainly looking at businesses and making sure they comply.’

He also said now that the General Assembly has tweaked state code to allow for a civil, rather than criminal, charge, it presents more options for enforcement. But he stopped short of saying that would happen.

“I said all along this is not about carrying a stick around. This is about carrying a carrot, and I will really encourage Virginians to follow the guidelines,” he said.

Northam acknowledged that case counts are going up across Virginia but said that overall the state’s positivity rate is low, about 6%, while the southwestern part is 3 percentage points higher.

In far Southwest Virginia and northeastern Tennessee, the region served by Ballad Health, the positivity rate on Tuesday was north of 16%. Ballad reported having 217 COVID-19 patients, it’s highest number yet. While the system continues to cut back on other medical care while increasing capacity for patients with the virus, it struggles with hundreds of health care workers becoming infected.

Dr. Daniel Carey, the state’s secretary of health, acknowledged the struggle for Ballad with health care workers and said the No. 1 thing to do to assist would be for everyone to wear masks, stay home if they’re sick and practice hand hygiene.

Case counts continued to escalate in October and into November in Southwest Virginia. The reproduction rate, or the number of people infected by one person with the virus, has risen across Virginia and is now above 1.0 in each region of the state. With a reproduction rate of 1, every new case causes one more, for a steady rate. Below 1, the disease declines and eventually dies out. Above 1, transmission of the disease grows.

With colder weather pushing more people inside, case counts are expected to continue to increase. The Thanksgiving holiday could prove problematic for controlling the spread.

“There is no genetic immunity that prevents you from giving this virus to your mother or your grandfather or any other loved ones in the house,” Northam said. “I’m not saying don’t celebrate Thanksgiving. But if you are planning to gather with people outside of your household, think about ways to do it more safely.”

Dr. Cynthia Morrow, director of the Roanoke City and Alleghany Health Districts, reminded people that they had the power to keep from further restrictions by heeding messaging.

“Every time I see someone not wearing a mask, it’s hard because I know that person is making a choice to take a risk for other people. One of the messages that sometimes gets forgotten is the purpose of wearing a mask is to protect the people around you,” she said during her weekly news briefing Tuesday.

“I hope the numbers tell a compelling story. We have 86 people in our community in the hospital right now struggling. We have lost 96 members of our community to this disease,” Morrow said. “If we can just think about wearing a mask as our gift to our community, as our statement that ‘I care about you,’ maybe there will be some people who will start wearing a mask.”

There are 671 active cases in Morrow’s districts, 128 more than the week before, yet another indicator that the disease is on an upward trajectory.

The 33 residents of the Roanoke health district and 53 residents of the Alleghany district who are in area hospitals range in age from 29 to 94, with the average age in the 70s. There are 34 outbreaks, with 15 of them in long-term care. Three each are tied to churches, day cares, businesses and public schools.

Last week, Morrow said she suggested to local school superintendents that they postpone winter sports because disease transmission is so high. The Richmond School District and five schools in Eastern Virginia announced Tuesday that they were canceling winter sports.

Northam said that he would not make the call but that the state provides the schools with all the information they need.

“I can promise you that Virginia is very diverse and one size doesn’t fit all. That’s why we have given the localities decisions on returning to school, and that’s the path we will continue to follow,” he said.

In the New River Health District, director Dr. Noelle Bissell canceled her weekly press call because it conflicted with the governor’s briefing. She released a statement that said long-term care outbreaks and general community spread are driving the numbers in most of her communities. She said she expects to see additional cases as a result of families and high school students having Halloween parties.

She said the New River Valley Business Continuity Team has helped businesses to handle positive cases and outbreaks and to alleviate some of the burden on the health department so it can focus on contact tracing and investigations.

Northam also announced that the state is increasing its testing capacity and expect to boost the currently 20,000 a day tests by another 7,000 a day by the end of the year. Also, he said, hundreds of thousands of rapid tests will be distributed to hospitals, higher education and local health departments.

The Virginia Tech lab that was created at the start of the pandemic was one of three labs awarded a contract to become part of the state’s OneLab network.

Under the agreement, Tech’s lab at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC in Roanoke will receive tests from all of the state’s health districts rather than just the six in the southwest region.

Tech said it will have the capacity to process 600 daily tests, and will receive $100 per test for the next year with a potential reimbursement of $21.8 million.

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