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Northam declares state of emergency in response to virus

State Epidemiologist Dr. Lilian Peake, center, speaks as Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, left, and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, right, listen during a news conference at the Capitol Wednesday March 11 , 2020, in Richmond, Va. Northam and others provided an update on the states readiness to handle the coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
March 12, 2020 - 1:05 PM

RICHMOND, Va. - Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency Thursday in response to the coronavirus pandemic, as the number of confirmed cases among Virginians grew to 17.

Northam advised all Virginians to avoid large gatherings “for the time being.” He said he was cancelling all state conferences and large events for the next 30 days and urged local governments and private organizers to follow suit. He also announced new restrictions on travel for state workers.

“The situation is fluid, and it is changing rapidly,” Northam, who is a doctor, said at a press conference with other state officials and top lawmakers.

Virginia has 17 “presumptive positive” cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, according to the latest figures from the Department of Health, up from nine the previous day.

Dr. Lilian Peake, the state epidemiologist, said that figure included two Virginians who had been diagnosed in Texas.

Peake said there is so far no sign of “community spread” of the virus in Virginia, meaning cases where it's unclear how the patient acquired it. Peake said the existing cases had either been linked to international travel or contact with another infected person.

Northam said it was increasingly clear that states need to take a more assertive role in addressing the crisis.

“Quite frankly, we’re getting mixed messages from the federal government. We find that unacceptable,” said Northam, a Democrat.

Northam said the state was considering developing its own test kits because it had become apparent that the “supply chain” from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was limited.

Northam's comments came the same day a top federal health official called a lag in U.S. testing “a failing."

The coronavirus has infected around 128,000 people worldwide and killed more than 4,700. For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for some, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people who contract it recover within weeks.

The virus has panicked global financial markets, and led to a cascade of cancellations and shutdowns around the globe and in Virginia, where a growing number of universities suspended on-campus instruction, at least temporarily.

Those include the University of Virginia, William & Mary, James Madison University, Virginia Commonwealth University and Longwood University, where a student tested positive for COVID-19.

Some public school districts in Virginia have announced temporary closures so that teachers can prepare for the possibility of implementing distance learning. Chesterfield County schools said they would be closed to students Friday, and Fairfax County schools were to be closed Monday.

Some large private employers, including Capital One, encouraged employees to work from home.

The governor's emergency declaration is an administrative tool that allows for additional flexibility in dealing with the virus.

“Virginians should know that we have longstanding plans in place to deal with pandemics. We have trained for them, and we are ready for this,” Northam said.

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Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

News from © The Associated Press, 2020
The Associated Press

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