On Monday, Gov. Ralph Northam issued Executive Order 53, which requires the temporary closure of certain “non-essential” businesses and all K-12 schools in Virginia, both public and private, for the remainder of the academic year. It also bans all gatherings of more than 10 people. The executive order, which went into effect on Tuesday, will remain in place until April 23, 2020.
So for the next month, Virginians will be living in a suspended state of quarantine/isolation, although certain establishments will remain open to the public.
Northam, a physician, issued the executive order in an attempt to contain the novel coronavirus, which has sickened more than 50,000 people in the United States, and killed more than 800 Americans and tens of thousands of people worldwide. The most fatalities in the U.S. so far have been in New York and Washington State, mostly among the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the Virginia Department of Public Health reported 391 confirmed cases, including nine in Stafford County, two each in Spotsylvania and Culpeper, one each in Fredericksburg and Orange, and nine deaths statewide.
While the death toll in the commonwealth is still low, the executive order is a classic strategy aimed at stopping the spread of this highly contagious and potentially lethal virus, which has now spread to every region of the world. If it gets out of hand, it threatens to capsize Virginia’s health care system.
Officials in New York, the epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S., are expecting that as many as 140,000 people will need to be hospitalized over the next three weeks, with only 53,000 beds currently available. Northam’s executive order is an attempt to prevent that from happening here.
The governor acknowledged that shuttering so many schools and businesses in the commonwealth is unprecedented and that Virginians are “moving into a period of sacrifice.”
“I know the next several weeks will be difficult,” he said at a press conference on Monday. “These restrictions on non-essential businesses will create hardships on the businesses and employees affected. But they are necessary, and we do not undertake them lightly. I am calling on Virginians to sacrifice now, so that we can get through this together.”
Non-essential businesses include theaters, performing arts centers and museums in addition to gyms, beauty salons, racetracks, bowling alleys, amusement parks and other places of recreation. Restaurants and bars can continue to offer delivery and take-out service, but must close their dining-in facilities.
Essential businesses, such as grocery stores, banks, pharmacies, gas stations and home improvement centers will be allowed to remain open. “All businesses shall, to the extent possible, adhere to social distancing recommendations, enhanced sanitizing practices on common surfaces, and other appropriate workplace guidance from state and federal authorities while in operation,” according to the executive order.
Are quarantines effective? According to Howard Markel, distinguished professor of the history of medicine at the University of Michigan and the author of “Quarantine!” and “When Germs Travel,” whose team of researchers studied 43 U.S. cities’ response to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that killed 50 million people worldwide, the use of non-pharmaceutical measures—such as isolating sick people at home or in the hospital, closing schools, and banning public gatherings—can reduce the mortality rate.
But such measures come at a cost.
“We found that in the cities that acted early, for sustained periods, and that simultaneously used more than one measure, rates of morbidity and mortality were lower than in the cities that did not take such measures,” Markel stated. “We concluded that in the face of a severe influenza pandemic, non-pharmaceutical interventions should be considered to complement vaccines, prophylactic medication and treatment—though only as a last resort and only for a highly lethal infection because they are extremely disruptive to society.”
We should know in a month if the executive order was successful in slowing or halting coronavirus transmission, or if it failed to significantly reduce new cases of this deadly disease.
Until then, Virginians should abide by the governor’s executive order, follow the CDC guidelines, wash their hands, stay home, practice social distancing and pray that it works.