Northam issues limited emergency order as virus cases rise

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam gestures as he delivers his annual budget forecast to a joint session of the House and Senate budget committees at the Capitol Thursday Dec 16, 2021, in Richmond, Va.

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Gov. Ralph Northam issued a limited emergency order Monday to help hospitals and other health providers address Virginia's soaring number of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations due to the spread of the super-contagious omicron variant.

“Health care workers and hospitals are exhausted, and they are again facing increasing numbers of patients, affecting their ability to provide care,” Northam said in a statement. “These steps will help ease the strain, giving medical professionals more flexibility to care for people. Ultimately, the best thing everyone can do for our hospitals and their staff is to get vaccinated.”

The order includes actions intended to boost staff and add flexibility for providers, and is limited to 30 days. Its issuance comes after Virginia broke a pandemic record for hospitalizations on Friday. Monday's totals set a new record, with Virginia hospitals reporting nearly 3,500 COVID-19-positive patients hospitalized statewide. The number needing intensive care has more than doubled since Dec. 1, Northam’s office said.

The order allows hospitals to increase their licensed bed capacity; allows providers with an active out-of-state license to practice in Virginia; authorizes experienced physician assistants to practice without a written supervisory agreement; increases provider-to-patient ratios; and provides certain liability protections to health care workers acting in good faith, the governor's office said.

It also increases flexibility in the transfer of patients at state-operated psychiatric hospitals, which the governor’s office said have been dangerously crowded during the pandemic.

Northam, a Democrat, is set to leave office on Saturday, when Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin will be sworn in. Youngkin's position on the emergency order was not immediately clear.

Northam's office said the limited duration of the order was based on modeling that suggests infections will peak in the next few weeks.

In the news release, Northam noted that the overwhelming majority of those hospitalized are unvaccinated. He urged everyone eligible to get an initial shot or booster, as appropriate.

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