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RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam on Wednesday signed an executive order directing the state’s health care facilities to postpone elective surgeries amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Northam’s announcement comes as the state moves to build capacity at its health care facilities, anticipating surges due to COVID-19.

“This will preserve bed space, and also equipment including ventilators, and [personal protective equipment],” Northam said.

The executive order does not apply to “patients with emergencies or urgent needs.”

It also does not apply to abortions, or “the full suite of family planning services,” the order reads.

Northam also said the state is “exploring ways to make it easier for qualified medical professionals to help out,” including reworking the state’s licensing procedures and considering the use of medical school students.

The state has also begun working with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to identify sites around the state that could be used as health care facilities, “should the need arise,” Northam said.

That could include a wide array of facilities, including empty higher education buildings.

“We anticipate overburdening the capacity of our healthcare system,” Northam said. “We see that coming. We want to prepare for that.”

In other news, Northam announced the state’s public parks will be open during the day only.

“We will close campgrounds cabins and bath houses, starting Friday morning. This is in line with what other states are doing, as well as some national parks,” Northam said.

- Mel Leonor

State officials urge Liberty University to limit campus access

Virginia officials on Wednesday continued to urge Liberty University to limit access to its campus to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr., welcomed students back to campus this week, parting with what other universities are doing and attracting sharp criticism. The evangelical university houses roughly 5,000 students at its Lynchburg campus.

“We have heard too many mixed messages around the country about COVID-19, and this is yet another example. Our message has been clear and it will continue to be clear. Stay home unless you have to leave for essential reasons,” Northam said.

Asked whether he could close the school, Northam said he does not have the authority to do so. Northam issued an executive order banning gatherings of 10 people or more under the penalty of a misdemeanor, which he has said local governments can enforce.

“We appreciate our colleges and universities making accommodation for students with special cases. But that is very different from inviting students to leave their homes and come back to campus.”

Falwell has said most classes will be conducted online, but students are welcomed to reside at their dorms on campus.

“I think we have a responsibility to our students — who paid to be here, who want to be here, who love it here — to give them the ability to be with their friends, to continue their studies, enjoy the room and board they’ve already paid for and to not interrupt their college life,” Falwell told the Lynchburg News & Advance.

- Mel Leonor

Dr. Lilian Peake, state epidemiologist for Virginia, said Wednesday that there have been three more coronavirus deaths reported in the state. 

The deaths were two adults in the Peninsula Health District and a man in the Pittsylvania/Danville Health District.

These bring the statewide death toll to 12 -- 7 in the Peninsula Health District, 2 in Henrico, 1 in Fairfax, 1 in Virginia Beach and 1 in Pittsylvania.

The Virginia Department of Health reported on its website Wednesday that 391 people in Virginia have tested positive for COVID-19.

That's an increase of 101 cases, or 34.8 percent, from the 290 reported at noon Tuesday.

There are coronavirus cases in 53 Virginia cities and counties, an increase of 11 since Tuesday.

The VDH also said that 5,370 have been tested for the virus in Virginia, and there are nine deaths statewide.

On March 19, state health officials said there’s a lag in the reporting of statewide numbers, and figures on the VDH website might not include cases reported by individual localities or local health districts. The state has a 5 p.m. cutoff for tabulating daily numbers, so the numbers reported on the website each day are 19 hours old.

This is the breakdown of cases across the state according to the VDH website:

76 - Fairfax County

46 - Arlington County

41 - James City County

32 - Prince William County

23 - Virginia Beach

20 - Loudoun County

20 - Henrico County

13 - Richmond

11 - Chesterfield County

9 - Alexandria

8 - York County

6 - Charlottesville

6 - Stafford County

5 - Norfolk

5 - Williamsburg

4 - Albemarle County

4 - Newport News

3 - Chesapeake

3 - Goochland County

3 - Louisa County

3 - Mecklenburg County

3 - Portsmouth

3 - Shenandoah County

3 - Spotsylvania County

2 - Bedford County

2 - Culpeper County

2 - Danville

2 - Frederick County

2 - Gloucester County

2 - Hanover County

2 - Harrisonburg

2 - Isle of Wight County

2 - Lee County

2 - Manassas City

2 - Prince Edward County

2 - Rockingham County

1 - Accomack County

1 - Amherst County

1 - Botetourt County

1 - Charles City County

1 - Fairfax City

1 - Fluvanna County

1 - Franklin County

1 - Fredericksburg

1 - Halifax County

1 - Madison County

1 - Mathews County

1 - Nelson County

1 - Nottaway County

1 - Orange County

1 - Roanoke County

1 - Rockbridge County

1 - Suffolk

VCU piloting COVID-19 test with goal of same-day results

VCU Health System announced Wednesday that it is now piloting a COVID-19 test that it created in-house to identify whether hospitalized patients with severe symptoms are infected with the virus.

The hospital system intends to use the test to confirm and rule out COVID-19 cases with a goal of same-day results, according to a press release.

“Being able to determine whether a patient does or does not have COVID-19 quickly is of critical importance,” said Christopher Doern, Ph.D., director of microbiology at VCU Health, in a press release. “Being able to do that in our own laboratory will be a game changer in how we manage patients with potential COVID-19 symptoms.”

UVA Health also created its own test, which it debuted on March 18 and announced Wednesday that it would be making available for other hospitals in Virginia and surrounding states to use.

UVA Health has been testing between 25 and 50 people per day, the Daily Progress reported.

According to Doern, the process to create a test would normally take a year or more, but the VCU Health team created it in less than two weeks.

Still, a global shortage of the materials necessary for the test currently means that tests will be limited to those most likely to have COVID-19 who are hospitalized with severe symptoms.

VCU Health will continue to administer tests from private and public state health labs for all patients with COVID-19 symptoms, even those less severe, according to the press release.

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