This is the letter I sent to Virginia’s governor this morning, as we cross the line of 100,000 deaths from Covid-19 in America. Let’s all keep pulling together in keeping that curve bent down here in the Commonwealth.
Dear Governor Northam,
Like many Virginians, I have family members who have come down with coronavirus. We wait to bury my wife’s grandmother, who died in the early days of the pandemic. My wife, an occupational therapist at the Richmond VA hospital, spends part of each day 3-D printing face shields and zealously guards the one N95 mask she’s been allowed. My sons, both Virginia college students, came home at spring break and studied via Zoom the rest of the semester. My older son, an ocean rescue lifeguard in Nags Head, has been trained to maintain health precautions to the extent that he can (he wishes beach goers there would do the same). My younger son, a film student who lost his chance at a summer internship, is still working in his bedroom, picking up special effects editing gigs online and wondering if it will be worth it to do his senior year if it’s just going to be more of the same. I’m a professor, had one week to convert my hands-on laboratory classes to virtual versions back in March, and spend part of each day now gaming out strategies for how to manage these courses in the fall. We all wear masks when we go out, we stay home otherwise. We even turned down an invitation to a Memorial Day picnic at a neighbors’ house, because older people would be there, and we’d hate to think we somehow might have infected them.
I say all this by way of introduction. One other thing: All four of us voted for you. We applauded your swift and straightforward coronavirus restrictions, even though they directly impacted our lives, because as we have seen they “bent the curve” of deaths this spring. Since then, however, we have been disappointed by your team’s management of the information and guidance we receive. Your confusing sort-of-mandate about mask wear in public places, for instance, does not seem to provide any additional incentive for sensible people; in fact, one might think it is intended to poke the hornet’s nest of never-maskers who marched on the Capitol early on. Your team obfuscates in answer to simple questions. Perhaps they don’t intend to, but it’s worrying.
I teach my sons and students not to complain without offering a suggestion, so I would like to practice what I preach here, if you please. This is what I ask:
Recognize that most Virginians will act responsibly when provided with the facts they need to make decisions and the tools they need to act on them. Trust us to do the right thing. Understand, however, that we need those facts and tools in order to do so. That said, please:
Follow Tennessee in making all Covid-19 testing free. Set up testing tents in the parking lots of county libraries or public schools across Virginia at least once a week; for those who cannot travel to those locations, offer a roving test van and a call-in number to schedule a test. Turn no one away who wants a test, whether they are symptomatic or not.
At these testing sites, provide literature and guidance on what to do if the test is positive. Provide explanations for home quarantine, including information on how to notify people we have been in contact with while contaminated, encouraging them to quarantine as well. Offer free paper masks to anyone who needs one.
(If testing and mask giveaways at this level are still unavailable, clearly explain why, and say when they will be. If testing must be rolled out in stages, show us the plan for that.)
Put the power of Virginia’s church congregations to work supporting their parishioners who are in quarantine, with food delivery, phone check-ins and prayer. Other volunteer groups, such as the Lions Clubs, PTAs, and Scouts, may be enlisted to similarly support people who are spending two weeks in isolation. Reach out to them and provide guidance on how to provide this support safely.
Provide free on-site testing at least twice weekly for all residents and staff at nursing homes and assisted living facilities, as New York is doing. Do the same at all Virginia state prisons. Encourage any business where people must work in close proximity indoors (grocers and meat processors, for instance) to do the same.
Provide emergency salary protection for anyone who must quarantine and make it illegal to penalize any employee who is in quarantine.
Break the stupid and unhelpful rule that says nursing homes, prisons, and food processors do not have to report out their numbers of infections. Communities need to know where the virus is spreading in order to act safely on those risks.
Please provide more accurate, up-to-date and granular local data about the virus’ spread on the Department of Health webpage. Include the information noted in my previous point.
Explain in plain language what you will do if the virus comes back. What would trigger back-tracking on the phases of reopening in a particular community? Stick to whatever plan you have in place for this. Make it clear to all of us that you are acting on the triggers and that you have the numbers to back up your plan.
Please continue your efforts to prepare the state for an upsurge in cases. At each of your press conferences, list how many ICU beds have been added, how many ventilators, how much PPE. How are health care workers being trained to meet an upsurge? Show your constituents that the Commonwealth will be ready for the expected upsurge in the fall.
Finally, if a business chooses to reopen, yet an employee does not yet feel safe to go back to work, do not rescind unemployment benefits for the duration of the crisis. Workers need to know that the governor has their back.
Governor Northam, as I said, I am confident that most Virginians will act as responsible citizens who care about each other in this crisis. We have already shown that, in following your initial guidance and bending the curve of cases. But we need honest, open, and clear information and direction from your office in order to continue on this path. One more suggestion, please be sure to model mask wear next time you go out?
Thank you for your leadership and for your team’s hard work. Stay safe, stay well,