VIRGINIA, USA — As one of his final acts as governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam issued a temporary emergency order Monday specifically designed to expand hospital capacity, and ease the pressures felt by staff. The order is set to last 30 days.
On Friday, the statewide COVID-19 hospitalization count reached 3,329 - surpassing the previous one-day high of 3,201 hospitalizations, which was reached on Jan. 13, 2021. More than 3,500 patients statewide are currently hospitalized with COVID-19 and ICU hospitalizations have more than doubled since Dec. 1. The winter season is also spurring an increasing number of flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) cases in Virginia, impacting hospital capacity, Northam said.
“It’s very serious. The reality is that we are seeing higher hospitalization numbers than we’ve seen in two years with the pandemic," Julian Walker, the
Vice President of Communications Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association said. "Really one of the biggest challenges right now is having adequate staff to provide a level of care appropriate for patients who need hospital care.”
The order was issued to help hospitals across the state address the rising number of patients admitted with COVID-19, the governor's office said. It will expand the number of available hospital beds, increase staffing capacity at hospitals and nursing homes and allow public health agencies greater flexibility in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Northam confirmed that the overwhelming majority of those hospitalized are currently unvaccinated patients.
The order specifically directs the state health commissioner to waive normal bed licensing requirements, allows hospitals to increase their licensed bed capacity and mandates increased coordination between hospitals and local medical services agencies. The order also allows providers with an active out-of-state license to practice in Virginia; authorizes experienced physician assistants to practice without a written supervisory agreement; increases provider-to-patient ratios and provides certain liability protections to health care workers who act in good faith to protect patients. The order also increases flexibility in the transfer of patients to state-operated psychiatric hospitals, which have seen dangerously-high census levels since the pandemic began.
The office specified that the limited duration of the order is based on modeling that suggests the virus will peak in the next few weeks.
"The reality is where things stand now we have a situation where the challenge isn’t so much about available beds, even though certainly the number of beds occupied in hospitals is growing, the challenge is having adequate staff available to treat patients who are in those beds and that’s becoming an even larger challenge right now," Walker said.
Walker said Monday's order is a welcome development, but said many of the actions the Governor included in the order are similar to previous waivers, and what VHHA had asked for twice since August.
“Health care workers and hospitals are exhausted, and they are again facing increasing numbers of patients, affecting their ability to provide care,” Governor Northam said. “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.”
Virginia has one of the nation’s lowest COVID-19 case rates and death rates per capita, Northam said, and the Commonwealth ranks in the top ten most vaccinated states in the country. But the highly-transmissible omicron variant has increased the number of people turning to the hospital with COVID-19, the governor's office said.
Gov. Northam also provided some general guidance for the public.
"It is a good idea to stay away from people who have not gotten their shots," the governor said in a press release.
He also advised the public to continue wearing masks when around others, to get booster shots and get all eligible children vaccinated. He also emphasized the importance of practicing social distancing while masking if you are not up to date on COVID vaccinations.
The Monday press conference where Gov. Northam announced the order was his last in office. Republican Glenn Youngkin will be sworn in as Virginia's 74th governor on Jan. 15, followed by three days of festivities. The swearing-in ceremony is free and open for the public to attend.