Northam conducts COVID roundtable with southwest Virginia business, government leaders


Virginia Governor Ralph Northam kicked off a listening tour of Virginia by taking part in a virtual roundtable with southwest Virginia business, education and local government leaders Friday morning. The meeting was hosted by the United Way of Southwest Virginia’s COVID relief council.

That council has been meeting since March to coordinate relief efforts across southwest Virginia. To date it has invested more than $820,000 in projects ranging from the creation of wifi hotspots for broadband-underserved communities, childcare expansion, distribution of PPE and cleaning supplies, and assistance for schools.

“When I was thinking about groups the governor could engage and talk with, this group actually came to mind first,” said Megan Healy, chief workforce advisor to the governor. “When I met with you in July, it was really about action and about solutions. It wasn’t about complaints and, ‘we need this and we need that.’ So, I knew that when we needed ideas to support Virginians…I knew this was the perfect group to go to.”

Northam acknowledged that fighting the economic, social and medical battles associated with COVID-19 have been draining, but that there was no room to let down vigilance, saying, “This virus is very stubborn. It has a mind of its own.” He asked how leaders in southwest Virginia have been making headway.

Rick Nunley, director of Human Resources at Universal Fibers told the governor that while the company’s revenues are off 40 percent against projections, entirely because of COVID-19, Universal Fibers has invested in getting its own private testing done, which has lowered time waiting for results from the one-to-two week range to an average of 30 hours. The company has put automated security measures in place and, Nunley said, “We’ll never let our guard down again.”

Sonu Singh, whose 1901 Group began operations in March, immediately had its employees begin working from home. He asked the governor to continue working on spreading the availability of broadband in the southwestern end of the state. 

Eric Deaton, COO of Ballad Health, noted the 14 percent positivity rates in southwest Virginia testing vs 5 percent statewide, and said his company is working with around 250 contract nurses through its 21 locations. “If there’s any assistance we could get in nurse recruitment, it would be greatly appreciated,” he told Northam. Deaton also asked the governor to put an emphasis on making sure health departments had the resources they needed for testing and contact tracing.

Delegate Israel O’Quinn, head of Strategic Investment for Food City, said finding employees has been a problem in his industry. “We’ve got about 17,000 associates spread out over four states, with a healthy contingent of those right here in southwest Virginia with both our corporate office and our distribution center being here. We’ve been in the process of bringing on about 1,200 people over the course of this, and particularly when you’re talking about distribution center, where the average pay for the jobs we’re trying to fill is going to be in the $40,000 range, we have had almost a near-impossibility to get those jobs filled. At the peak of this, we were competing with the $900 a week people were able to get (in unemployment benefits). We didn’t find too many people who were willing to forego that to go back to a full-time job.”

Josh Lewis, executive director of the Virginia Industrial Advancement Alliance asked the governor to continue to focus on rural Virginia’s needs. “The challenge is going to be rapid testing…Moving forward into the recovery process, we need to close the gap between urban and rural. Right now, they’re projecting about a three-year difference from the time that we get back to pre-COVID levels of employment – the urban areas will recover three years quicker than the rural areas. We need to close that gap.”

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