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Northam announces expansion of coronavirus testing in Virginia, which has lagged other states

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, left, walks through a testing site for the novel coronavirus in Richmond on Tuesday. Northam announced the state’s plans to ramp up testing for the disease on Friday. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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RICHMOND — Virginia is rapidly increasing its ability to test for the novel coronavirus after weeks of lagging behind other states, with officials on Friday announcing a doubling of daily testing and contracts with private labs to continue the expansion.

“We have made tremendous progress,” said Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who has come under mounting criticism for the state’s slow ramp-up of testing, which is tied to eventually loosening the social and business restrictions that have shut down the economy.

The state performed more than 5,800 tests on Thursday, more than double the 2,600 per day Virginia was averaging just over a week ago. Northam has set a goal of reaching 10,000 tests per day to get a better handle on the scope of the pandemic.

“Our goal is to make it as easy as possible for a sick person to get a test in a setting that they trust,” Northam said.

The state has contracted with two private labs in Virginia and another in North Carolina to increase testing capacity by 3,000 tests per day, said Karen Remley, the former state health commissioner whom Northam appointed to head a testing task force. Officials also announced a change in the way Virginia counts coronavirus testing, saying the old method made the state’s testing program appear smaller than it really is.

Pressure is mounting for Northam to loosen the state’s restrictions aimed at slowing the disease’s spread, with unemployment soaring and the state facing some $3 billion in costs and lost revenue from the pandemic. His order closing most nonessential businesses is set to expire May 8, and Northam said Friday that he will have guidance Monday on whether he intends to extend the ban.

“We are still working on a blueprint,” he said, pointing out that he has begun loosening some restrictions. As of Friday, Northam had lifted a ban on non-emergency procedures for doctors, dentists and veterinarians.

The pace of testing has become a political issue in Virginia after weeks of relative unity in the face of the pandemic.

“We’re pleased to see the number of tests being conducted in Virginia increase today, but the delays to date are inexcusable,” House minority leader Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said Friday in an emailed statement. “Virginia is home to some of the finest minds and institutions and we have the resources necessary to be a leader in fighting COVID-19. Lives and livelihoods are at risk every day we don’t have a good picture of the COVID-19 footprint in our communities. We can and must do better.”

Known coronavirus deaths and cases in D.C., Maryland and Virginia

Virginia has now logged 16,901 cases of covid-19 and 581 deaths from the disease.

As of Friday, Virginia had reported conducting 105,648 total tests for the coronavirus. The state had previously counted the total number of people tested, rather than the total number of tests administered. Friday’s numbers now include tests that have been administered to the same patient over the course of infection.

About an extra 10,000 tests show up now because of the change in methodology. Virginia Health Commissioner Norman Oliver said the state decided to make the change to better reflect the resources consumed by testing. He noted that some other states also count that way. North Carolina, for instance, confirmed it counts tests, not patients.

“The problem is, there’s no actual national standard,” Oliver said.

The change elevates Virginia from near the bottom of state rankings for testing, but keeps it in the lower half. Out of a population of more than 8.5 million, the total test numbers reported by Virginia on Friday are a little more than 12,000 tests per million residents. Maryland, with a population of just over 6 million, had reported 120,983 total tests — or more than 20,000 per million residents.

Virginia officials have struggled for the past couple of weeks to explain the state’s lag in testing.

In the early days of the crisis, Virginia — like most states — had little capacity for testing and faced severe shortages of the personal protective equipment (PPE) that health-care providers need to interact with infected patients.

The state issued strict guidelines to limit testing to only the most vulnerable people who showed symptoms.

The state lab at first could process only 400 to 500 total tests. Today, the lab handles that many per day. Private and hospital-based labs had much longer turnaround times for test results — in some cases, as long as eight days.

Faced with those limitations, doctors sometimes told patients with symptoms to stay home and self-quarantine rather than test them for a disease that still has no set treatment, state officials said.

On Friday, Northam announced that the federal government was helping Virginia get three devices for sanitizing PPE, allowing each face mask to be reused up to 20 times. By next week, the devices will be able to decontaminate up to 240,000 masks per day, Northam said.

With resources building, Northam loosened testing criteria in mid-April. Officials said clinicians have been slow to adopt the new policy.

The pace has left some private labs around the state bewildered. At Aperiomics in Loudoun County, chief executive Crystal Icenhour said her team quickly developed covid-19 testing capacity in late March when the state seemed to need help.

Virginia never called, and Icenhour said her lab is currently running at about 10 percent of its coronavirus testing capacity.

“I expected to be turning business away,” she said. “I was very much surprised.”

Steve Thompson and Erin Cox contributed to this report.

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