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Governor asks Liberty University to reconsider students’ return to campus

Mike Still • Mar 26, 2020 at 2:30 PM

RICHMOND - Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam criticized Liberty University president Jerry Falwell, Jr. for having students return to the university’s Lynchburg campus after spring break during the state’s COVID-19 emergency.

Northam’s comments came during his Wednesday press conference updating the state’s COVID-19 situation. Resident students at Liberty University are taking classes online while staying in campus dormitories.

“We have heard too many mixed messages across the country, and this is an example,” Northam said. Citing I Corinthians, he added, “Those who have been given a trust must be responsible.”

Northam said Falwell should look at how many other colleges and universities in Virginia have reacted to the COVID-19 emergency by closing campuses and dormitories except in limited cases for students whose only residence is campus or if returning to their homes poses a health risk to them.

Asked if he had the authority to order Liberty to close for health reasons, Northam said no but that he was asking them to close.

On Wednesday, the state Department of Health reported a total of 391 confirmed COVID-19 cases across the state since the first case was reported on March 7. Fifty-nine people have been hospitalized and nine deaths reported to date.

State Epidemiologist Lillian Peake said 101 of the confirmed cases were reported since Monday. She said that the increase in cases came from a combination of increased testing and from community spread of the disease. The latest case total does not include a confirmed case reported Wednesday in Washington County.

Peake said most of the latest case reports came from testing handled at private labs. The turnaround from private labs on tests has been longer than testing done at state labs, she said, and tests developed at the University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University can give results in 8 to 24 hours.

Asked if health officials have been able to plot when Virginia can see a peak infection rate, Peake said data is not yet available although statistical models are being developed.

“We’re not at the middle,” Northam said of the emergency. “We’re not talking about weeks. We’re talking about months.”

Northam said he was issuing an executive order Wednesday to order all hospitals to postpone elective surgeries during the state of emergency unless delay of those surgeries would cause harm to patients. He also criticized how states are being left to themselves by the federal government when it comes to obtaining personal protective equipment for health care workers and other supplies.

“Allowing the free market to deal with prices and availability is not the way to handle this crisis,” Northam said.

Citing a typical situation where an intensive care patient might have as many as ten doctors, nurses and technicians assigned to their case, Northam said each of those staff have to change masks, gowns and other protective items each time they visit a patient. Those changes mean that several thousand pieces of protective gear are being disposed of daily at hospitals, he said, and that places heavy demands on equipment stocks.

State emergency and medical officials are looking at ways to meet the need for medical personnel as COVID-19 cases increase, Northam said, including using medical students and re-examining licensing procedures for health care workers.

Northam asked any trained medical and health care workers to apply to join the state’s Medical Reserve Corps at http://www.vdh.virginia.gov/mrc.

Northam said state officials have also talked with Army Corps of Engineers officials about preparations to build emergency hospitals if the infection rate increases and existing hospitals become overloaded.

Citing the situation of rising COVID-19 infections in New York and travel along interstate corridors linking Virginia, Northam asked travelers coming from high-infection rate areas in New York to self-quarantine for 14 days if they come to Virginia.

Northam also said he ordered that all Virginia state parks switch to day-use only, with no overnight camping or cabin use.

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