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OPINION: Why must Southwest Virginia wait on the rest of the state?

OPINION: Why must Southwest Virginia wait on the rest of the state?

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Gov. Ralph Northam, after flirting with opening Virginia regionally, has now decided against it. Instead he said, “we’ll do that together.”

The governor’s “we’re all in this together” approach may be heartwarming, but does it make sense? Mind you, we’re not saying Southwest Virginia is ready to reopen now — we’re not health experts, and we’d rather those decisions be informed by science and not politics. But whatever the metrics for reopening, Southwest Virginia will surely hit them before other parts of the state. So why must we wait? Some numbers — we like numbers:

Infection rate: The highest infection rate in this part of the state as of Sunday is in Salem, where 31 cases (with only four of those hospitalized), works out to a rate of 121 per 100,000. Second-highest is Carroll County where 33 cases work out to a rate of 111 per 100,000. Roanoke is at 93 per 100,000, Washington County at 90 per 100,000, Botetourt County at 87 per 100,000, Roanoke County and Montgomery County at 66 per 100,000. Threelocalities — Bath County, Bland County and Dickenson County — still show zero cases. Meanwhile, the rate in the urban crescent is sometimes 400 per 100,000; Prince William County is at 585 per 100,000. That means even our hardest-hit locality is not even a quarter of the infection rate we’re seeing in Northern Virginia.

Deaths: All of Virginia west of Augusta County has seen just 18 deaths due to the COVID-19 virus. Those 18 deaths west of Augusta County represent just 2.2% of the state’s 812 virus-related deaths.

So we ask again: Why must Southwest Virginia be dependent on the rest of the state? Northam cited several reasons. Let’s take a closer look at them.

1. His COVID-19 Business Task Force has recommended against a regional reopening. Of the 23 people on that panel, only two are from west of the Blue Ridge. It’s not as if there were a lot of voices from this part of the state being heard. None of those 23 are from the Roanoke Valley, the largest metro area west of the urban crescent.

2. “We’d be picking winners and losers,” Northam said. Agreed: Government shouldn’t be picking winner and losers. The virus has already done that. Those four localities with zero cases are certainly winners, yet delaying the reopening of Dickenson County until the virus is under control in, say, Prince William County, the state effectively makes Dickenson County a loser. Northam rightly says he doesn’t want to create more divisions in society. However, would Northern Virginia stay shut down if the virus were concentrated in Southwest Virginia? We all know the answer to that.

3. Regional reopenings encourage the transmission of the virus into low-infection localities. This is the most science-based of the explanations Northam gave. However, by that logic the whole nation should reopen at once, and that reopening should be predicated on the infection rates in New York City, the hardest-hit place of all. After all, people can drive from New York to Virginia just as easily as they can drive from Northern Virginia to Southwest Virginia. There are some real concerns about the virus moving around that we shouldn’t ignore: What happens when colleges reopen later in the summer? Will we see students from high-infection areas bringing the virus to Virginia Tech and Radford and elsewhere? That’s a question we’ll have to get to regardless. It’s also not the immediate question here. Here’s the question now: If every business in those zero-infection localities reopened today, would we really see a caravan of people from Northern Virginia driving down to a barbershop in Bland County or to a diner in Dickenson County? Who was speaking for them on the governor’s task force?

Too much of the pandemic has become unnecessarily politicized — and polarized. Yes, Republicans have been the loudest voices pushing for the economy to reopen, and, yes, most of Southwest Virginia votes Republican. However, we can’t help but point out that some other Democratic governors — from Andrew Cuomo in New York to Tom Wolf in Pennsylvania to Jared Polis in Colorado — have approached things on a regional basis. Northam’s decision not to in a state with such geographical differences as Virginia — and such a wide disparity in infection rates — is curious, indeed.

While we’re asking questions, we’ll ask some more:

1. Why won’t Virginia say which nursing homes have outbreaks? State officials say state law prohibits this, but this appears to be an interpretation of state code, not the code itself. Other states have done so. Here’s one of many reasons why that’s important: It would help people get a better understanding of just how widespread the virus is — or isn’t. Take this odd juxtaposition: Buchanan County’s infection rate is 75 per 100,000, while Dickenson County next door is zero. It would help to know whether Buchanan’s infections are concentrated in a nursing home — or spreading randomly through the community. Both are bad, but the latter makes the virus more of a threat, and that’s something people are struggling to understand. How big is the risk here?

2. Why isn’t Virginia testing residents and staff at all nursing homes? The VDH says that 503 of the state’s 850 deaths have been residents of long-term care facilities. That’s 59%. Let’s put that another way: Virginia has had almost as many deaths in nursing homes as Florida even though Florida has more than twice our population, and a distinctly older population at that. Why has Virginia had so many nursing home deaths? Is it just bad luck? If we have only a limited number of tests, why aren’t we using them here? Northam talked last Monday about testing prisoners and poultry plant workers — but there was no mention of nursing home patients and staff. Why not?

3. Why is Virginia’s testing rate so low, anyway? The Kaiser Family Foundation says Virginia ranks 49th of the 50 states for testing. Only South Carolina ranks lower. Yes, Virginia’s had trouble getting access to the supplies necessary for testing, but so has every state — and virtually all of them have done a better job. Why? The longer this goes on, the worse Virginia’s response looks — which makes those of us west of the Blue Ridge wonder even more why we’re waiting on what happens in nursing homes in Henrico County and poultry plants on the Eastern Shore.

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