Virginia and Redistricting

The U.S. Census Bureau officially announced on Friday that states will not receive their census data – the information that is used to redistrict – until the end of September. This announcement was not a surprise, given the earlier news that the data would be sent to states around July 31 due to COVID delays, but this later date solidifies that new maps will not be ready for this November’s House of Delegates elections in Virginia.

So what does this mean for the current redistricting process?

For candidates for the House of Delegates, this means that they will be running in November on the existing legislative maps. It is not yet known how this decision will officially be reached, since the Virginia Constitution requires elections on new maps in years ending in “1” and that Constitutional deadline will be impossible to meet.

It remains to be seen is whether the Delegate races will have to be held again in 2022 (meaning that they would run three years in a row) or if they will wait until 2023 to utilize the new maps.

One thing is abundantly clear: the ongoing work of the Commission is unchanged by this delay. Their deadlines are contingent on the arrival of the Census data — so while the map-drawing part of their job will start later, the process will remain the same. See our timeline to better understand the sequence of events that will unfold once the Commission receives the Census data.

Most importantly, our work does not change.

Virginia’s new redistricting process creates space, for the first time, for individuals and communities to weigh in on the placement of district boundaries. Consideration of public input – including Communities of Interest – provides Virginians an unprecedented opportunity to tell the mapmakers about their communities.

Our job is to enable people to fill that space. Every group working on this issue will be encouraging and empowering voices that have been historically marginalized in the redistricting process to speak up and use every tool at their disposal to advocate for themselves and their neighbors.

These delays have absolutely nothing to do with the language in the amendment that created the bipartisan commission. In fact, any redistricting scenario would be impacted by a delay of this magnitude. This is the case in every state in the nation — even those without citizen-led commissions.

There is a bright side to this news: In the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic, engaged Virginians have been banding together to create a path forward for those who want our historic commission’s work to produce fair and representative district maps, and now they will have additional time to make sure this decade’s redistricting is done the right way.

Despite lingering, and unfounded, fraud suspicions on the right, a recently issued state report called the 2020 election the “most safe, secure, and successful” in Virginia’s history.

This year, the Democratic-led General Assembly has rejected several Republican proposals to tighten election laws, while preserving several policy changes lawmakers enacted last year on an emergency basis like ballot drop boxes and looser rules for absentee voting.

But another significant election bill has drawn bipartisan support, one that would make it easier for political parties and nonpartisan data analysts to track geographic voting patterns amid a massive increase in absentee ballots.

The 8 citizen members and 8 legislative members of the Virginia Redistricting Commission met for the first time last night, January 21st, for just over an hour and a half where they introduced themselves and expressed their excitement to be contributing to a fair, balanced and impartial redistricting process. For their first order of business, Senator McDougle (SD-4), moved to allow for two citizen co-chairs – one from each party. Senator Barker (SD-39) seconded the motion, and the Commission proceeded to unanimously elect Greta Harris, a Democrat from Richmond, and Mackenzie Babichenko, a Republican from Mechanicsville, after citizen commissioner James Abrenio confirmed the legality of such action with the Department of Legislative Services (DLS).

Meg Lamb, the senior attorney for DLS then spoke to the commission about the delay of census data delivery. She reported that the 2020 census data would likely not be delivered until late summer or early fall, making it unlikely that new districts will be drawn in time for the 2021 elections. In years where new districts are drawn, the primaries are typically moved to August. However, because new districts are unlikely to be ready in time, the 2021 primaries are currently scheduled for June. Senator Barker suggested that in the interim before the data is delivered, the commission can begin its work using preliminary data, noting that population shifts in Virginia haven’t been as large as in the recent past.

Something *very* important for our politics happened on Tuesday
Analysis by Chris Cillizza,January 14, 2021 (Medium)

While the eyes of the world were focused on the impeachment efforts against President Donald Trump in Washington, DC, on Tuesday, Gov. Larry Hogan of neighboring Maryland did something extremely important in beginning the long process of unwinding our current political polarization.

The Republican governor announced that via executive order he had created an independent commission he will task with redrawing the state’s congressional and legislative lines following the decennial reapportionment later this year. Known as the Maryland Citizens Redistricting Commission, the nine-person group will include three Democrats, three Republicans and three independents.

A campaign table at a polling station in Buckingham County, Va., Nov. 3, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce / For the Virginia Mercury)

A Fredericksburg-area Republican picked for one of the citizen seats on Virginia’s new redistricting commission previously made vulgar or degrading online comments about President Donald Trump’s detractors, calling Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn a “bimbo” and actress Jane Fonda a “b*tch c**t.”

Before the November election, Jose Feliciano Jr., a 52-year-old U.S. Marine Corps veteran who listed his current job as an agent in the Federal Communications Commission’s public safety bureau, tweeted a photo of a pro-Trump highway caravan and said the only way the president could lose was a “rigged election.”

Screenshots of the tweets were circulated by the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which works to advance Democratic interests in redistricting processes throughout the country.

In a statement, the NDRC said Feliciano’s online activity shows he is “unfit to serve” on the commission and questioned why Republicans in the House of Delegates would nominate him to fill one of the four citizen seats reserved for the GOP.

The Mercury could not independently review Feliciano’s Twitter account because it was taken down after he was appointed to the redistricting commission last week. Feliciano said he took the account down Saturday “as a protest to them suspending President Trump.” In an email to the Mercury, Feliciano verified the tweets were his. He said that, in anger, he “used some language I should not have used,” adding what’s “done is done.”

“Looks like other posts are singled out because I am pro Trump, well I am pro Trump,” he said.

Twitter suspended Trump’s account over the president’s role in inspiring the attack on the U.S. Capitol last week by the president’s supporters, violence Feliciano said he fully condemns.

Feliciano was among the 16 nominees for the commission put forward by House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah.

His application included a letter of recommendation from Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania, who recently signed on to a letter asking Vice President Mike Pence to overturn Virginia’s 13 Electoral College votes for President-elect Joe Biden based on unfounded fraud suspicions.

House GOP spokesman Garren Shipley declined to comment on Feliciano’s tweets, saying “we don’t comment on redistricting matters.”

Amigo Wade, a legislative staffer who worked with the judges on the process, said the selection committee “will not comment on its decisions regarding the selection of the citizen members.”

The redistricting process hasn’t started yet. The seats on the 16-member commission, approved by voters in November, were just recently filled, with Gilbert and other General Assembly leaders playing a key role in picking which of the more than than 1,200 Virginians who applied were best equipped for the important work of redrawing the state’s legislative and congressional maps in a fair manner.

The eight citizen members were nominated by political leaders in the General Assembly and selected by a panel of retired judges. The other eight seats are reserved for sitting legislators.

Feliciano wasn’t included on the initial shortlist of finalists chosen by the judges, but they added him after realizing their list had no Hispanic members. In his application, Feliciano listed his race as White and Hispanic as his ethnicity.

With eight seats meant to go to Democrats and eight to Republicans, the commission wasn’t designed to be nonpartisan. However, it was generally understood as a way to avoid hyperpartisanship in redistricting.

One of Feliciano’s tweets was directed at the actor Peter Fonda, who made headlines in 2018 for tweeting that Barron Trump, the president’s youngest son, “should be put in a cage with pedophiles,” an apparent response to the controversy over immigrant children being separated from their parents at the southern border. Fonda later apologized for the remark.

In a June 2018 tweet to Fonda, Feliciano said: “you’re a piece of sh*t mother f**ker no different than you b**ch c**t sister!” His post did not use asterisks.

Fonda’s sister is Jane Fonda, an 83-year-old actress and left-wing activist who has sharply criticized Trump.

During the 2018 Winter Olympics, when Vonn failed to win a gold medal after drawing the ire of Trump supporters for saying she wouldn’t visit the White House, Feliciano tweeted to Vonn: “Congratulations great to see that you fell flat on your face, happy losing you losing bimbo.”

On Jan. 5, the day before Trump supporters violently stormed the U.S. Capitol, Feliciano tweeted a video that he suggested showed a police officer giving a “green light” for counter-protesters to “harass and attack Trump supporters.”

In response to a Jan. 5 Trump tweet touting the Jan. 6 rally that devolved into mayhem, Feliciano responded with a photo calling Trump the “GREATEST PRESIDENT IN MODERN DAY HISTORY.”

Felicano said he condemns the violence at the Capitol, calling the events a “complete disgrace.”

“Those criminals put a stain on all the good that has come from the Trump administration, and I hope each and everyone of them is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Feliciano said.

Though the NDRC attempted to portray Feliciano as a conspiracy theorist, some of the posts the group highlighted seem to be fairly typical of online conservative discourse.

For example, the group flagged a Feliciano tweet in which he said former President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign was hit with the heaviest campaign finance fine in American history. That $375,000 fine has been widely described by news outlets as one of the largest ever.

During the Black Lives Matter protests this summer, when U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said America didn’t “inherit” racism and slavery but instead “our founders and our government carefully created it,” Feliciano responded with a tweet saying the Atlantic slave trade predated America and began with Portugal. He said Kaine should “take a history class.”

“Explain to me how we own the slave trade,” he wrote.

A spokeswoman for the NDRC said Feliciano’s “tone on Twitter alone is disqualifying to serve on the powerful bipartisan redistricting commission.”

“How is Feliciano going to act as a commissioner working in good faith and in the best interest for all Virginians when he shares lies, misogyny and questions America’s involvement with slavery?” said NDRC spokeswoman Molly Mitchell.

Feliciano called himself a “descendant of slaves” and said he “in no way” questioned America’s role in slavery.

“I was only pointing out the fact of where and how slavery originated who started it and how it ended up on American shores,” he said.

Of Gilbert’s 16 nominees to the commission, all but Feliciano were White and non-Hispanic.

Feliciano said he was honored to be picked for the commission and plans to work for “all the people of the Commonwealth both Democrat and Republican.”

“I used intemperate language on social media, like millions of others have,” he said. “I regret my choice of words but it has no bearing on my ability to do the job.”

In his letter of recommendation, Cole called Feliciano “hard worker, a person of integrity, and honor.”

“I am confident he would be impartial and do a great job,” Cole wrote.

Cole’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

The commission, which will begin redrawing maps when new U.S. Census date comes in later this year, is scheduled to hold its first meeting by Feb. 1.

Retired judges pick eight citizen members for Virginia redistricting commission
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw January 6, 2021 (Medium)
The Capitol at dusk. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A panel of retired judges on Wednesday picked the eight Virginia citizens who will serve on the state’s new redistricting commission, finalizing the group that will handle the important task of redrawing the state’s political maps when new U.S. Census data arrives.

The judges spent hours trying to solve the puzzle of winnowing more than 60 finalists down to eight people who, by law, were supposed to represent Virginia’s geographic, racial and gender diversity.

“We’ve got to check a number of boxes here,” said retired Judge Pamela Baskervill, who chaired the five-judge panel assembled to choose the citizen members.

More than 1,200 people applied for the eight seats late last year. But the judges could only pick from four lists of 16 finalists submitted by four legislative leaders in the General Assembly.

The judges picked six men and two women to fill the eight citizen seats on the 16-member commission.

Four of the chosen members are White (three non-Hispanic and one Hispanic), two are Black, one is Asian American and one is multi-racial.

Three of the members are from Northern Virginia and two are from the Richmond area. Southwest Virginia, Southside and Hampton Roads will each have one citizen representative on the commission.

The group includes four self-identified Democrats and four who identified as Republicans.

The selected citizen members are:

Nominees of Senate President Pro Tempore Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth:

  • James Abrenio, 37, of Fairfax, a trial lawyer.
  • Sean S. Kumar, 41, of Alexandria, a strategic advisor and lawyer.

Nominees of House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax:

  • Brandon Christopher Hutchins, 39, of Virginia Beach, a military veteran and health care professional.
  • Greta J. Harris, 60, of Richmond, president and CEO of the Better Housing Coalition.

Nominees of Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City:

  • Marvin W. Gilliam Jr., 64, of Bristol, a retired coal mining executive.
  • Richard O. Harrell III, 74, of South Boston, a trucking executive.

Nominees of House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah:

  • Jose A. Feliciano Jr., 52, of Fredericksburg, a military veteran and federal agent with the FCC’s public safety bureau.
  • Mackenzie K. Babichenko, 36, of Mechanicsville, an assistant prosecutor in Hanover County.

(Note: Some applicants were nominated as finalists by multiple legislative leaders, but the judges had to pick two from each leader’s list.)

The other eight seats on the commission will be filled by sitting state legislators.

The commission, approved by voters in a ballot referendum last year, will soon get to work preparing to redraw Virginia’s legislative and congressional districts, a process previously handled wholly by the General Assembly. Because of uncertainty surrounding the 2020 Census data, the exact timeline for the commission’s work is unclear. New maps are supposed to be in place in time for House of Delegates elections this November, but Census delays may make it impossible to redraw the districts in time.

Whenever the state receives solid data on population shifts, the commission’s decisions could impact the partisan tilt of the statehouse and the congressional delegation for the next decade.

Critics of the commission proposal warned that it lacked adequate provisions to ensure a diverse group of people would be at the table for the next redistricting process. But diversity seemed to be a top priority for the judges, with their discussion centering more on whether they were achieving the right balance rather than the backgrounds and qualifications of specific applicants.

Comparing notes on which candidates stood out to them, the judges initially narrowed the finalists down to a group of 19. They then realized their shortlist lacked any Hispanic applicants and didn’t include anyone from the Eastern Shore/Northern Neck region. The panel made a point of adding at least one Hispanic applicant (Feliciano) after retired retired Judge Larry B. Kirksey said he was troubled by the lack of Hispanic representation. But several judges said it was nearly impossible to create a perfectly representative commission given their limited options for just eight slots.

“’We can only work with the list of folks that came to us from the members of the General Assembly,” said retired Judge Joanne F. Alper. “We didn’t have access to the whole 1,200.”

Alper said she felt it was important to include at least one member from the Southside and Southwest regions, even though their shortlist only included White men from those areas.

“You need somebody at least that has some knowledge of that region,” she said.

Some progressives had raised alarms that the pool of applicants was disproportionately White and wealthy, pointing to an analysis by the Virginia Public Access Project.

The application process was open to everyone willing to fill out the form and provide three reference letters, but the judges also grappled with strict, General Assembly-imposed limitations on who was eligible to serve.

To prevent cronyism, the legislature passed rules barring political aides, lobbyists, partisan operatives and family members of elected officials from serving on the commission. But those rules also forced the judges to reluctantly strike one applicant whose wife previously worked on Capitol Hill.

Several judges said they were impressed by both the quantity and quality of the applicants interested in serving on the commission.

“I’m just amazed by the diversity, the energy, the brilliance,” said Kirksey.  “Not just brightness. There is brilliance on this list.”

Va. political leaders name 8 legislators who’ll serve on new redistricting commission
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw December 1, 2020 (Medium)
The Capitol at dusk. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The group of eight Democratic and Republican legislators who will serve on Virginia’s new redistricting commission will be made up of five men and three women, including two senior members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.

The legislative members, who will wield significant power over how legislative and congressional districts are redrawn when new U.S. Census data comes in next year, come from districts that touch most regions of the state, ensuring some level of geographic diversity in the process.

Leaders of the General Assembly’s four political caucuses announced their appointees to the commission this week, filling half the seats on a newly created commission voters approved in a referendum last month. Instead of having the full General Assembly draw new political maps itself, the eight legislators on the 16-person commission will work with eight citizen members to draft new maps for the decade ahead. The application window for citizens who want to serve on the commission opened this week and will close on Dec. 28.

The map-drawing process could shape which party holds power in Richmond, which incumbents can safely win re-election and which might face challenges, and how much clout geographic regions will have in the state legislature.

As they work to set up the commission, Republican and Democratic leaders in the two chambers got to pick two appointees each from their own ranks.

Those appointees are:

House Democrats

  • Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax
  • Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond

House Republicans

  • Del. Les Adams, R-Chatham
  • Del. Margaret Ransone, R-Westmoreland

Senate Democrats

  • Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton
  • Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax

Senate Republicans

  • Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg
  • Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover

Each two-person caucus unit is important because, according to the commission rules, each one could block a map proposal even if the other three groups support it. That system is meant to foster collaboration and bipartisanship, but if the commission fails to approve a plan it would fall to the Supreme Court of Virginia to oversee the creation of maps drawn by appointed experts.

Six of the legislative members supported the commission proposal when it was passed by the General Assembly earlier this year. The two House Democrats did not. Nor did Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, who appointed them.

One of the opponents’ primary concerns was that the commission might not be diverse enough.

“A Redistricting Commission that represents the racial, ethnic, geographic and gender diversity of the commonwealth is necessary to ensure every Virginian has a voice in the redistricting process and in our government,” Filler-Corn said in a statement. “Commissioners will need to be committed to inclusion and dedicated to a fair redistricting process that protects the vote of every Virginian. These are the standards for individuals I am appointing as legislators today and my recommendations for citizen members to the commission moving forward.”

In an interview, Simon, who fought the redistricting amendment hard during the 2020 session and in the run-up to the election, said he expects to “be there to sort of keep an eye on things.”

“I think we want to deliver to voters what they expected,” Simon said. “Which is a fair process and maps that sort of reflect the political makeup of Virginia.”

The Senate’s picks largely reflect seniority. Locke and Barker were major supporters of the redistricting reform push. Locke is chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus, and Barker was a patron of the constitutional amendment creating the commission.

“These two leaders have the experience, knowledge, and historical context of redistricting and also are keenly aware of the importance of making sure we have diverse representation in our Commissioners,” Sen. Louse Lucas, D-Portsmouth, who made the Democrats’ picks as the president pro tempore of the Senate, said in a news release. “Senators Locke and Barker have been involved in this process for years and I know they will be a great addition to the commission.”

McDougle is the Republican caucus chair, and Newman served as president pro tempore of the Senate before Republicans lost their majority last year.

The picks from House Republicans were somewhat surprising. Neither Adams nor Ransone is a member of the House GOP leadership, and neither are seen as particularly outspoken partisan warriors.

In a news release, House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, noted that both Adams and Ransone “supported the creation of the commission throughout.”

“With their combined knowledge and experience, I have no doubt they will help craft what the voters have demanded — fair maps for every Virginian,” Gilbert said.

Virginia General Assembly passes rules for newly approved redistricting commission
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw November 9, 2020 (Short)
Voters cast ballots at Charles M. Johnson Elementary School in Henrico County. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

With Virginia’s redistricting debate now settled by voters, state lawmakers approved a package of rules Monday for how the new, bipartisan map-drawing commission will work next year.

Democrats’ dispute over the redistricting commission, which almost 66 percent of Virginia voters approved last week, delayed the formal conclusion of the special session that began in August. To settle it, legislative leaders and Gov. Ralph Northam agreed to pass a post-election budget amendment allowing the commission to be set up and begin its work next year.

Democrats in the House of Delegates had opposed putting the language in the budget as the session seemed to be coming to a close last month. They argued voters should decide on the constitutional amendment creating the commission as it stood, without any improvements added legislatively.

On Monday, a few House Democrats gave speeches saying they still feel the commission idea is flawed, but will respect the result.

“The people have spoken in great numbers and they wanted to see changes in how the redistricting process happens in Virginia,” said Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, an outspoken critic of the commission proposal who called it “regrettable that there was so much confusion and misinformation” about the redistricting question on the ballot.

The House voted 99-0 to approve the redistricting language. It also easily cleared the Senate.

Proponents of the change have hailed the commission as a much-needed change to a system that has given elected legislators free rein to draw districts to benefit themselves or their party behind closed doors.

“From the start, this movement has been about putting the voices of citizens above politicians and political parties,” the redistricting reform group OneVirginia2021 said in a statement celebrating the commission’s passage.

Voters approved a constitutional amendment creating a 16-person commission with equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats and seats split between sitting legislators and citizen members. Once new U.S. Census data is received in 2021, the commission will redraw Virginia’s congressional and legislative districts, a process that could determine partisan control in Richmond.

The commission’s members will be appointed in the coming weeks, and the panel has to hold its first meeting before Feb. 1.

The budget language approved Monday lays out who is eligible to serve on the commission and the process it will follow.

Among other things, the language:

  • Bans people who hold partisan offices, political aides, campaign employees, lobbyists and others from being appointed to the citizen seats to the commission. It also bans political insiders’ relatives from serving on the commission.
  • Stipulates that the commission’s makeup should reflect Virginia’s “racial, ethnic, geographic and gender diversity.”
  • Declares that the commission’s records, including internal communications, are public and subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.
  • Bans commission members from discussing redistricting-related matters with any third parties “outside of a public meeting or hearing.”
  • Requires the Supreme Court of Virginia to appoint two experts, or special masters, to draw court-overseen maps if the commission and the General Assembly fail to agree on their own. The special masters would be picked from lists submitted by political leaders from both parties.
  • Requires any Supreme Court judge related to a member of Congress or the General Assembly to recuse themselves from any redistricting decision. Current Justice Teresa M. Chafin is the sister of state Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Lebanon.
In historic change, Virginia voters approve bipartisan commission to handle political redistricting
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw et al.November 4, 2020 (Medium)
Voters arrive at the Taylor Masonic Lodge in Scottsville, Va., Nov. 3, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce / For the Virginia Mercury)

For years, redistricting reform advocates have been arguing something should be done to curb Virginia’s long history of political gerrymandering.

On Tuesday, voters overwhelmingly agreed, passing a constitutional amendment that largely strips the General Assembly of its authority to redraw legislative and congressional districts, a historic shift in a system that dates back to Virginia’s colonial beginnings.

Wielding that power instead will be a 16-member, bipartisan redistricting commission made up of both sitting lawmakers and citizens, a panel designed to conduct its business publicly as opposed to the secretive, insider-driven processes of the past.

In a year of intense partisan division, the idea of depoliticizing the redistricting process seemed to draw broad support across parties and regions. With almost 90 percent of expected votes counted early Wednesday morning, about 67 percent of Virginians had voted in favor of the amendment.

Though some votes were still uncounted, FairMapsVA, the anti-gerrymandering group pushing for the amendment with its parent organization OneVirginia2021, declared victory around 12:40 a.m., saying the result came after six years of work.

“Tonight, we celebrate the formation of Virginia’s first citizen-led redistricting commission; and tomorrow, we get back to work to ensure the commission’s work is successful,” the group said in a statement.

The outcome ensures that the next redistricting process — which could determine how much representation Virginia communities have, which political party is likely to hold power in Richmond and which incumbents are or aren’t safe from election challenges — will have at least some direct citizen involvement for the first time ever.

Once a decade, the state uses new U.S. Census data to redraw legislative and congressional maps to ensure each district has roughly the same population. How those districts are drawn can have far-reaching impacts, affecting which party can win a majority of the seats, electoral competitiveness, how much political power minority communities have and which individual politicians get to represent a particular area. So it’s no surprise that changing who draws those maps was a contentious endeavor.

The vote on the redistricting question, coupled with strong Democratic victories in Tuesday’s statewide races, reveals a disconnect between some Democratic leaders and the party’s voters.

Many Democrats in the House of Delegates voted against the commission proposal this year after voting for it in 2019, a reversal they said came after they had more time to consider its flaws. The Democratic Party of Virginia also officially opposed the initiative despite the fact that it was supported by senior Virginia Democrats like U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner. Had the amendment failed, the Democratic-led General Assembly and Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam would have the final say on new maps.

Fair Districts VA, an advocacy group formed by Democrats opposed to the ballot question, conceded defeat early Wednesday morning, saying it had been “fighting an uphill battle.” The group demanded that more be done to pursue stronger redistricting reform going forward.

“The people who pushed Amendment 1 know of its flaws – and it is now incumbent upon them to seek real solutions to fix those flaws,” Fair Districts said in a news release.

The proposal was supported by national good-government groups as well as the ACLU of Virginia, the League of Women Voters of Virginia and the Virginia Chamber of Commerce. But it fell short of what many redistricting reformers envisioned: a fully independent commission that gives incumbent politicians no power whatsoever to draw their own districts.

Because Virginia has no process for citizen-initiated constitutional amendments, it’s always been up to state lawmakers to willingly give up their redistricting power. In previous years, the Republican-led House of Delegates routinely blocked redistricting reform efforts. But GOP leaders changed their position in 2019 after federal courts redrew some House districts to correct Republican-led racial gerrymandering, a development that helped put the House GOP majority in jeopardy heading into the 2019 elections.

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, argued unsuccessfully in March for an alternative redistricting amendment that was supported by a majority of Democrats in the House of Delegates. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Reserving half the seats for legislators was seen as a compromise that still gives General Assembly leaders a hand in redistricting, which can have career-ending consequences for incumbents whose districts change dramatically.

Maps produced by the new commission will go to the General Assembly for an up-or-down vote. If the commission can’t agree on maps or the General Assembly rejects the commission’s maps, the Supreme Court of Virginia would conduct a court-supervised redistricting process.

Opponents have also argued the commission proposal lacks explicit protections for minority communities. Supporters say the amendment achieves that by referencing the federal Voting Rights Act and specifying that districts will allow “opportunities for racial and ethnic communities to elect candidates of their choice.”

The insidery arguments about the commission’s particulars seemed to escape many Virginians.

Some voters said they hadn’t heard about the redistricting amendment until they saw it on their ballot Tuesday, drawing disparate conclusions about its potential impact from the one-paragraph description they read in the voting booth.

At a polling place in downtown Richmond, none sounded especially confident in their interpretations.

“It’s so convoluted if you read it from the back of a voter ballot,” said Patrick Ogden, who ultimately decided to vote no because he opposed the idea of stripping the governor of his authority to veto redistricting plans and giving the unelected members of the Supreme Court of Virginia a role in the process. “I believe the governor should have a little more say. At least that’s what I read from it.”

Sasha Atkins, who also voted no, said the explanation on the ballot made her worry the amendment wouldn’t give regular citizens enough of a say in the redistricting process. “We should be representing ourselves,” she said.

Another voter at the same polling place said she voted for the measure, but only because she thought it addressed how local school districts redraw their boundaries.

In Southwest Virginia’s Franklin County, Gary Holden of Ferrum said he supported the commission while voting “straight-ticket Democrat.” He said he saw the commission as preferable to the current system “so long as it’s made up of equal parties.”

In Virginia Beach, 44-year-old schoolteacher Scott Parker said he voted for the redistricting amendment because he wanted to bring more logic to the process.

At the same polling place, Janise Jenkins, a 39-year-old property manager, also said the amendment would be an improvement on the status quo.

“It will be fair, more reasonable,” she said.

The commission was approved just in time to handle the redistricting process scheduled for 2021, but pandemic-related delays with the census data could create severe timing issues. With all 100 seats in the House of Delegates up for election next year, officials will have to rush to get new districts in place in time for late-summer primaries and a shortened general-election cycle.

If the delays make it impossible to draw new districts in time, the House elections could potentially be run using existing district lines. The state could also be left scrambling if there appear to be major problems with the census count conducted in such a chaotic year.

In the short term, officials will get to work setting up the commission and deciding who will serve on it. By Nov. 15, the state Supreme Court is supposed to submit a list of retired judges willing to serve on a selection committee that will pick the citizen members from nominees floated by General Assembly leaders. The commission’s eight legislative members are scheduled to be appointed by Dec. 1.

The commission has to hold its first public meeting by Feb. 1.

First, the General Assembly will reconvene to pass additional rules for how the commission will work. Those rules were being considered for inclusion in the state budget during the recent special session, but the fierce intraparty debate among Democrats over the amendment led lawmakers to keep the budget process open until after the outcome was known.

With the amendment approved by voters, the legislature is set to return next week to finish that work.

For years, redistricting reform advocates have been arguing something should be done to curb Virginia’s long history of political gerrymandering.

On November 5th, voters overwhelmingly agreed, passing a constitutional amendment that largely strips the General Assembly of its authority to redraw legislative and congressional districts, a historic shift in a system that dates back to Virginia’s colonial beginnings.

Wielding that power instead will be a 16-member, bipartisan redistricting commission made up of both sitting lawmakers and citizens, a panel designed to conduct its business publicly as opposed to the secretive, insider-driven processes of the past.

In a year of intense partisan division, the idea of depoliticizing the redistricting process seemed to draw broad support across parties and regions. With almost 90 percent of expected votes counted early Wednesday morning, about 67 percent of Virginians had voted in favor of the amendment.

From Virginia Mercury article on Nov. 4, 2020 (see Top News for full article)

Virginia and Covid-19

Big uptick in vaccine supplies for states expected
Virginia Mercury, Laura OlsonFebruary 24, 2021 (Short)

Executives from five COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers told Congress Tuesday that they expect to significantly boost the number of shots delivered to states in the coming weeks.

Pfizer will increase weekly shipments to more than 13 million doses by mid-March, an increase from the 4 to 5 million doses shipped weekly in early February, the company’s chief business officer, John Young, told a U.S. House panel.

Moderna, the other vaccine that has received federal authorization for emergency use, expects to double its monthly vaccine deliveries by April to more than 40 million doses per month.

Fairfax County is ranked as one of the wealthiest communities in Virginia. It’s also one of the healthiest.

As of 2020, Fairfax led the state in measures including length of life, access to exercise opportunities and low rates of poor health indicators such as smoking and adult obesity, according to annual rankings by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. From 2015 to 2019, the county’s median household income was $124,831 (nationally, it’s around $68,703, according to the U.S. Census Bureau).

Currently, Fairfax County is also leading Virginia in vaccine distribution. In late January, health officials shifted the state’s strategy, routing doses through local health districts based on their percentage of the state’s population. As Virginia’s largest locality with more than 1.1 million residents, that left Fairfax with the largest share.

Even before then, the Fairfax County Health Department had requested — and received — more than eight times as many shots as other local health districts, according to data from the Virginia Department of Health. From Dec. 22 to Jan. 23, Fairfax received a total of 74,625 doses. Over the same time period, the Richmond-Henrico Health District, received a total of 19,550 doses for both localities, which have a combined population of nearly 560,000.

In the early weeks of Virginia’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout, hospital systems in five local health districts requested, and received, tens of thousands of doses — a disproportionately larger share than pharmacies, community health clinics and even the local health departments charged with overseeing the state’s immunization plan.

In Chesterfield, for example, HCA Virginia requested 27,775 first doses from Dec. 14 to Dec. 20 and ultimately received 18,275 — more than enough to vaccinate what Jeff Caldwell, the system’s vice president of communications, described as more than 17,000 total employees across the state. VCU Health in Richmond requested and received 20,050 first doses within the first three weeks of the state’s rollout — far more than its roughly 13,000 employees (spokeswoman Alex Nowak said the health system also has more than 10,000 “affiliated team members,” which include residents, medical students and food service workers, but not every direct or affiliated employee is involved in patient care.)

The Mercury obtained detailed distribution data for the Richmond, Henrico, Chesterfield, Fairfax and Central Shenandoah health districts from a reader, who noticed that the Virginia Department of Health’s public vaccine dashboard initially allowed the public to download spreadsheets showing how many doses were delivered to individual facilities.

Feds boost state vaccine shipments to 11 million doses next week
Virginia Mercury, Laura OlsonFebruary 9, 2021 (Short)

States will see another increase in the COVID-19 vaccine doses they receive, with President Joe Biden’s administration announcing Tuesday that the federal government will distribute 11 million doses next week.

That’s an increase from 10.5 million doses this week, and 8.6 million during the week President Joe Biden took office last month. Those increases were attributed to boosted production by vaccine manufacturers.

The administration has not published a state-by-state breakdown on how many doses are distributed each week. Iowa Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley, both Republicans, have questioned whether Iowa is receiving a fair share of doses under that formula, and wrote to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday, asking CDC officials to release the weekly formula for allocating vaccines to states.

State officials say they’re confident that no COVID-19 vaccines are going to waste in Virginia.

But seven weeks into the state’s vaccine rollout, the Virginia Department of Health won’t release data on wastage, which vaccinators are required to report under a provider agreement distributed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The document, which providers must fill out in order to administer vaccines, requires them to report the number of doses that were “unused, spoiled, expired, or wasted as required by the relevant jurisdiction.” In practice, that means hospitals, pharmacies and other administrators should be reporting the data to VDH, which then passes the information onto the CDC.

The Mercury first requested the data from VDH in late January, after Dr. Danny Avula, the state’s vaccine coordinator, stated in a telebriefing that the reporting was required but that he didn’t have information on wastage in Virginia.

Gov. Ralph Northam speaks at a news conference in August. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Here we go again, Virginia, trailing the pack at yet another critical turn in combating the global coronavirus pandemic — the rollout of the lifesaving vaccine that could finally break the back of COVID-19. And if you’re a Democrat in Virginia, particularly one who’s seeking statewide office this fall, this isn’t what you had hoped to see.

It feels like last March, when the coronavirus caught the commonwealth flat-footed and plodding in its initial mobilization against the novel and then-mysterious plague, forcing Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration to play catch-up.

Yes, catch up Virginia did. Eventually. Northam, the only physician governor of any U.S. state, finally issued forceful and unambiguous orders to kick Virginia’s protective response into the same high gear that Maryland, Ohio, New York and other states had already hit. Schools closed, as did most businesses not deemed essential. Home sheltering, working and learning remotely, social distancing, hand washing and mask wearing were the order of the day. Literally.

City streets fell silent and abandoned. For weeks on end, springtime gusts whistled across sprawling, empty shopping mall parking lots. Small businesses — and even some large ones — took it in the neck, particularly mom-and-pop restaurants, bars, retailers, gyms and cinemas. A chilling number of those shops and offices and eateries died, in many cases taking family livelihoods and life savings with them, and they will never be resurrected. Those were lifesaving steps Virginia had to take and the government was justified in taking them.

Friends Torin Enevoldsen and Taylor Little have a picnic in the parking lot with food they picked up from The Cheesecake Factory at Short Pump Town Center in Henrico, Va., May 16, 2020. Little said her mother originally suggested meeting friends for take-out lunches, while dining in most restaurants is still prohibited. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury

Even then, just when Northam had emphatically laid down the law on requiring the use of face coverings, he undermined his own messaging when photographs of him laughing it up unmasked and huddled close with others for selfies on Virginia Beach’s Boardwalk began trending across social media.

By summer, Virginia had ramped up testing, plateaued its numbers of COVID-19 cases and related deaths, and driven down the percentages of positive coronavirus tests. Restrictions were eased. By autumn, ours was among the states faring the best with the coronavirus. But getting there was like pulling teeth.

For reasons still not clear, Northam’s Department of Health balked at making public the granular coronavirus testing data for extended care facilities that families of elderly, ailing and vulnerable people could use to make informed decisions about their loved ones. That was particularly galling after an outbreak at a Henrico County nursing home was among the nation’s deadliest in the early weeks of the pandemic. Eventually, faced with withering media coverage and public outrage, the administration relented and, without explanation, made the data available.

The VDH’s reluctance to provide specific, actionable guidance last summer to school districts on whether, when and how to reopen classrooms or continue virtual schooling created chaos and conflict among faculty, administrators and parents within school divisions and resulted in a crazy-quilt patchwork of differing regimens across the state.

And so it goes.

Last Thursday, with the respected Becker’s Hospital Review ranking Virginia’s vaccination effort the fifth least effective in the nation, Northam found himself promising to jump-start a torpid immunization effort one month after Virginia got the first of its nearly 846,000 vaccine doses. According to Becker’s, only about 218,000 — barely over one-fourth — of those doses have been injected into the arms of Virginians.

Compare that to West Virginia, which has dispensed nearly 70 percent of its approximately 161,000 doses — the nation’s best rate. Maryland and North Carolina have each dispensed about 32 percent of their vaccine allotments, while Kentucky and Tennessee have injected 43 percent and 44 percent, respectively, of their doses. Idaho, Hawaii, Alabama and Georgia (the nation’s worst at just under 20 percent) were the only four states that performed worse than Virginia.

At Thursday’s news conference, Dr. Danny Avula, Northam’s newly appointed vaccine czar, said that to achieve a pace that puts the commonwealth ahead of the virus and returns life to normal sooner rather than later, Virginia needs to dispense about 50,000 doses daily. Last week, the state was at about 30 percent of that pace. As of Friday, 88 of the state’s 133 localities remained mired in Phase 1A, the first phase of the vaccine rollout that includes frontline healthcare workers, first-responders and nursing home residents. Only one-third of the localities, clustered mostly in Southwest Virginia, the Eastern Shore and Northern Virginia, had advanced to Phase 1B, which includes people 65 and older, police and firefighters, teachers, grocery workers and essential government workers.

Northam said he was “pleased” with a pace in which only one out of every four doses the state received a month ago has been injected.

“Everyone will need to be patient. It’s going to happen as fast as it can be done and it’s moving faster every day,” he said Thursday. “Monday, we vaccinated more than 15,000 people. Tuesday, it was more than 17,000.”

When Virginia is the laggard behind every one of its contiguous neighbors, isn’t it fair to ask why? Two weeks ago in Tennessee, for instance, officials in Sullivan County opened a max vaccination site at the Bristol Motor Speedway Dragway, a 10-minute drive from the Virginia border. On its first day, Jan. 7, the site ran out of doses by noon. Vaccinations are scheduled for four days starting this week at Richmond’s enormous car-racing venue. The sprawling NASCAR stadium in Martinsville also volunteered to be a mass-vaccination venue if needed, but thus far has no takers.

Patience, your excellency, is in short supply. After a life-altering (and, in more than 5,600 cases in Virginia and nearly 400,000 nationally, life-ending) 11 months of pandemic, a searing summer of racial unrest, an election from hell and an even worse post-election in which a defeated president instigated the attempted violent overthrow of Congress in a vain effort to keep the victor from taking office, this might not be the most opportune time to prescribe a chill pill.

And, boy, did Virginia’s out-of-power, victory-starved Republicans notice.

Del. Kirk Cox, a conservative former House speaker and a declared GOP candidate for governor, assailed the Northam administration’s lethargic response in a statement.

“While … it’s good news that he’s trying to speed up vaccine distribution, the truth is ‘better late than never’ just doesn’t cut it,” Cox said, adding that he urged Northam “to take decisive action over a week ago.”

Northam could still turn around Virginia’s thus-far inauspicious vaccine deployment, just as his administration eventually energized Virginia’s leisurely initial response to the pandemic last spring. But if he doesn’t, it could hand Republicans another significant election-year bouquet.

This year, the GOP won’t run in the shadow of a president so polarizing that he just cost once-ruby-red Georgia both of its Republican U.S. senators, flipping control of the Senate to the Democrats. They’ll also have a raft of brochure issues courtesy of Virginia Democrats, including proposals to end the death penalty and legalize marijuana, plus last year’s parole board debacle. Those issues resonate among conservatives and many centrists and could buttress a GOP argument that Democrats have gone too far left for an electorate that traditionally rewards moderation.

That said, Republicans haven’t found an opportunity over the past dozen years they couldn’t squander. They could do it again by nominating Amanda Chase, a Trump-style nationalist who urged the president to declare martial law to stay in power and whose incendiary claims have gotten her suspended from Facebook and ostracized by her own party.

The vaccine issue is one that voters will remember in November. The vaccine represents a genuine human triumph, our deliverance from the pain and loss that the past year has inflicted upon us. Government must get this right, and those in charge of it should answer for the consequences if it doesn’t.

Exhausted vaccine reserve could unravel plans for Phase 1b expansion in Virginia
Virginia Mercury, Kate MastersJanuary 15, 2021 (Short)
A provider with Augusta Health administers a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine this week. (Courtesy of Augusta Health)

News that the federal government has already exhausted its supply of “reserve” COVID-19 vaccines sent Virginia officials scrambling on Friday — less than 24 hours after Gov. Ralph Northam outlined plans to expand vaccine eligibility.

The Washington Post reported Friday that there was no federal stockpile of additional vaccines, despite an announcement earlier this week by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who told states the Trump administration would begin distributing those doses immediately. Previously, the administration said it was holding back the vaccines to ensure a second dose for everyone who had already received a first shot.

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines — the only ones currently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — require a two-shot schedule.

Northam, along with multiple other Democratic governors, first asked HHS to begin releasing the reserve doses earlier this month. Virginia, like other states, has attributed its slower-than-expected vaccine rollout in part to the limited supply coming from the federal government.

HHS initially appeared unwilling to acquiesce to the request, according to reporting from Politico. But the administration’s Operation Warp Speed reversed that stance soon after President-elect Joe Biden announced he would begin releasing reserve doses to states after taking office.

Northam was one of many public officials to celebrate the arrival of additional vaccines. In his State of the Commonwealth address Wednesday, the governor announced that Virginia would begin vaccinating residents aged 65 and older — a direct response to Azar, who told states to expand their vaccination eligibility to speed up the pace of administration.

Gov. Ralph Northam at a press conference in October. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

At a news briefing the next day, Northam announced that Virginians aged 65 and older, and those 65 and under with underlying medical conditions (including asthma, heart conditions and obesity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), would be moved into Phase 1b of the state’s vaccination plan — the second stage of prioritization after health care providers and long-term care residents.

“This means about half of Virginia is now eligible to receive the vaccine,” he said Thursday. “That’s a major logistical effort, and it’s not going to happen overnight.”

But with Friday’s report, the timeline — and whether those expanded populations will still be eligible for Phase 1b — is even more unclear. Last week, the Virginia Department of Health announced that 11 local districts were moving into the second stage of the state’s campaign (two more — Pittsylvania-Danville and Southside — later this week). At his briefing, Northam said the rest of Virginia would move into Phase 1b by the end of January, and some local health districts have already announced plans for delivering vaccines to the expanded population.

The governor’s office couldn’t immediately confirm whether the reported lack of reserve vaccines would affect plans to expand 1b. “Honestly, right now we’re just trying to get clear answers from the federal government,” spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky wrote in an email on Friday.

But the Post reported that vaccine shipments, for all states, would likely stay flat if no additional doses had been held in stockpile. For Virginia, that’s roughly 110,000 doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccine a week.

If that distribution remained the same, it would take around 39 weeks to vaccinate roughly half of all Virginians who fall into the expanded 1b category — which also includes teachers, first responders, and other essential workers. That’s a rough estimate, not accounting for new vaccines that may enter the supply chain and assuming that the state was also administering 110,000 doses a week.

At the same time, Virginia is still struggling to administer the vaccine doses it does have available. As of Friday, the state had only administered about 28 percent of the 943,400 total doses distributed to hospitals, local health departments and other medical facilities, according to date from the Virginia Department of Health’s vaccine reporting dashboard.

State health officials have said the dashboard is undercounting vaccines, partially due to lags or glitches in its electronic reporting system. But the CDC currently ranks Virginia 43 out of 50 states and Washington, D.C., when it comes to the number of doses administered per 100,000 people.

Dr. Danny Avula, the director of the Richmond-Henrico Health District who was recently appointed to head the state’s vaccine efforts, said officials were actively working to speed up the pace of vaccinations — including plans to establish large, free-standing vaccine clinics across the state.

But any mass immunization efforts will be hindered if vaccine supply remains low. Yarmosky said it was just one more frustration in trying to coordinate a COVID-19 response with the federal government.

“Once again, the Trump administration cannot seem to provide basic facts and truths,” she wrote Friday. “On Tuesday, governors were told explicitly that we would be provided additional doses — Virginia immediately pivoted and we moved quickly to expand eligibility and increase access.

“Now, the news media is reporting that the exact opposite may be true,” she said. “We’re frankly trying to gather as much information as possible right now — like every American, we need to understand what is going on, so we can plan accordingly. While astonishing, this is hardly surprising. What we’re seeing is fully in line with the dysfunction that has characterized the Trump administration’s entire response to COVID-19. President-elect Biden cannot be sworn in fast enough.”

Children head to school in Goochland County. (NBC12 via Goochland County Public Schools) Gov. Ralph Northam’s latest message to local school systems is to start thinking about reopening — and soon. “In the short term, all of our school divisions need to be making plans for how to reopen,” he said at a news briefing on Thursday. “It’s not going to happen next week. But I want our schools to come from this starting point: how do we get schools open safely?” Some division leaders said the new directive — accompanied by interim guidance from the Virginia Department of Health and Department of Education — represented a significant departure from the state’s earlier messaging on in-person instruction. Virginia’s initial guidance, released in July, emphasized that the final decision on reopening laid “squarely in the hands of local school boards” amid uncertain evidence on the role of children in COVID-19 transmission. But a new letter from Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane and state Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver assured superintendents, school leadership and local health departments that “data increasingly suggest that school reopenings are unlikely to contribute significantly to community transmission when rates of community transmission are low and schools have infection prevention measures in place.” The accompanying guidance includes a decision-making matrix that elevates individual mitigation measures over levels of community transmission. In a separate briefing later on Thursday, Lane said many divisions have been basing their reopening decisions primarily on top indicators from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which advise schools to consider community case rates and the percentage of positive tests over the last two weeks. New guidance from the Virginia Department of Education urges schools to consider individual COVID-19 mitigation measures over community transmission when making decisions on reopening. But Lane said heavier consideration should go to the ability of local schools to implement mitigation measures such as mask usage, sanitation and social distancing. Other main considerations include whether there’s evidence of spread within school buildings themselves, as well as the impact that school closures have had on the surrounding community. “Even if they’re in the highest category of community transmission — and even more so for low and moderate — we recommend that they maximize in-person learning as much as possible,” Lane said. The recommendations also call on schools to prioritize instruction for more vulnerable students, including young learners, students with disabilities and English language learners. And instead of making district-wide and long-term decisions — opting for remote learning over an entire quarter or semester, for example — officials say schools should have the flexibility to phase out decisions after a few weeks. “If there’s low absenteeism, there’s no case transmission in buildings, your staff capacity isn’t strained — that school should have some in-person options,” Lane said. “If there’s an outbreak in a school, certainly think of closing for some time. But if there are no outbreaks and no transmission in the school community, we’re saying you should open as long as you can do mitigation strategies.” However, as contact tracing resources have grown increasingly strained, most local health departments are prioritizing outbreaks and other cases that pose a significant public health risk. If multiple students or staff members test positive after close contact or sharing a potential exposure, health officials will likely investigate to determine if there was in-school transmission. But there’s little data on how most individual cases were contracted, and many local health officials have warned it’s become increasingly difficult to catch infected students or staff before they enter school buildings. Reopening decisions have sparked fierce debate in local communities since Northam first announced a framework to bring students back to the classroom — four months after becoming one of the first governors in the country to close schools for the remainder of the spring semester. Lane emphasized that the state never required schools to adopt remote instruction after releasing its first round of guidance in July. But those guidelines heavily emphasized CDC recommendations and asked schools to notify VDOE if they planned to deviate from the state’s framework. THE MORNING NEWSLETTER Subscribe now. By early September, the majority of local school divisions — 67 in total — had chosen to begin the fall semester remotely. As of Thursday, that number had dropped to 52. But Keith Perrigan, the superintendent for Bristol Public Schools in Southwest Virginia, said much of the ongoing caution stemmed from the original guidance, which took a more incremental approach to bringing students back to the classroom. “This is a huge change,” he said. “The previous phase guidance, it was probably more of a recommendation to be cautious. And I think the new guidance is to try your very best to reopen. If you can mitigate appropriately, you ought to do what you can to get back in school.” There’s still no mandate for school divisions to follow the state’s revised guidance. Lane said Thursday that the Virginia Constitution left the final decision with local school boards. But education officials also faced heavy criticism from some superintendents earlier this year for allowing local divisions to deviate from the original plan. State Superintendent James Lane in 2016, when he was named superintendent for Chesterfield Public Schools. (NBC12) Some school systems have already made the decision to stay closed until at least the early spring — something Lane said he’d recommend reconsidering in light of the new guidance and the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines. But there are also continued debates even in districts that have prioritized in-person learning. In Chesterfield County, which announced plans to bring back elementary students next month, parents launched a petition calling on the school system to reverse the decision and keep schools mostly closed until teachers are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Both Northam and Lane faced significant questioning over the timing of the new guidelines, given that many schools have already announced reopening decisions for the spring. Virginia is also experiencing an ongoing surge of COVID-19 which some models suggest could continue until February. Rates of community transmission are consistently higher across Virginia than they’ve been at any other point during the pandemic. Daily new cases have risen in all five geographic regions throughout the early days of January, and hospitalizations are at an all-time high. Many health systems have voluntarily canceled elective surgeries or announced new surge plans to boost capacity for an ongoing influx of cases. Lane said announcing the new guidance would give school districts the opportunity to prepare their plans in the coming weeks — even as Virginia contemplates longer-term changes such as year-round instruction to make up for learning loss during the pandemic. Northam also touted the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines as an important step in returning students safely to the classroom. “While getting everyone vaccinated isn’t necessary to reopening schools, it will make it a lot easier,” he said. Eleven local health districts have begun vaccinating educators — or plan to start soon — after moving into Phase 1b of the state’s vaccine campaign. Students at Watkins Elementary in Chesterfield County attend class wearing masks. Chesterfield returned to all virtual learning after Thanksgiving. (Chesterfield County Public Schools) But the timeline for the rest of the state remains unclear. As of Thursday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranked Virginia in the low bottom third of all U.S. states when it came to immunizing residents. The same day, VDH’s vaccine reporting dashboard showed that only about 25 percent of shots distributed across the state had made their way into patients’ arms. And throughout November and December, some health districts advised in-person schools to again close their buildings, warning that the surging cases made it impossible for them to trace and investigate new infections. In Bristol, Perrigan said it was the first dose of vaccines — administered by the local health department earlier this week — that helped reassure teachers more than anything else. “That’s what had the biggest impact — the availability of vaccines,” he said. “I think a lot of pressure was released once our staff was able to get that first round.”
Virginia Mercury, Kate MastersJanuary 15, 2021 (Medium)
Children head to school in Goochland County. (NBC12 via Goochland County Public Schools)

Gov. Ralph Northam’s latest message to local school systems is to start thinking about reopening — and soon.

“In the short term, all of our school divisions need to be making plans for how to reopen,” he said at a news briefing on Thursday. “It’s not going to happen next week. But I want our schools to come from this starting point: how do we get schools open safely?”

Some division leaders said the new directive — accompanied by interim guidance from the Virginia Department of Health and Department of Education — represented a significant departure from the state’s earlier messaging on in-person instruction. Virginia’s initial guidance, released in July, emphasized that the final decision on reopening laid “squarely in the hands of local school boards” amid uncertain evidence on the role of children in COVID-19 transmission.

But a new letter from Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane and state Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver assured superintendents, school leadership and local health departments that “data increasingly suggest that school reopenings are unlikely to contribute significantly to community transmission when rates of community transmission are low and schools have infection prevention measures in place.”

The accompanying guidance includes a decision-making matrix that elevates individual mitigation measures over levels of community transmission. In a separate briefing later on Thursday, Lane said many divisions have been basing their reopening decisions primarily on top indicators from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which advise schools to consider community case rates and the percentage of positive tests over the last two weeks.

New guidance from the Virginia Department of Education urges schools to consider individual COVID-19 mitigation measures over community transmission when making decisions on reopening.

But Lane said heavier consideration should go to the ability of local schools to implement mitigation measures such as mask usage, sanitation and social distancing. Other main considerations include whether there’s evidence of spread within school buildings themselves, as well as the impact that school closures have had on the surrounding community.

“Even if they’re in the highest category of community transmission — and even more so for low and moderate — we recommend that they maximize in-person learning as much as possible,” Lane said.

The recommendations also call on schools to prioritize instruction for more vulnerable students, including young learners, students with disabilities and English language learners. And instead of making district-wide and long-term decisions — opting for remote learning over an entire quarter or semester, for example — officials say schools should have the flexibility to phase out decisions after a few weeks.

“If there’s low absenteeism, there’s no case transmission in buildings, your staff capacity isn’t strained — that school should have some in-person options,” Lane said. “If there’s an outbreak in a school, certainly think of closing for some time. But if there are no outbreaks and no transmission in the school community, we’re saying you should open as long as you can do mitigation strategies.”

However, as contact tracing resources have grown increasingly strained, most local health departments are prioritizing outbreaks and other cases that pose a significant public health risk. If multiple students or staff members test positive after close contact or sharing a potential exposure, health officials will likely investigate to determine if there was in-school transmission. But there’s little data on how most individual cases were contracted, and many local health officials have warned it’s become increasingly difficult to catch infected students or staff before they enter school buildings.

Reopening decisions have sparked fierce debate in local communities since Northam first announced a framework to bring students back to the classroom — four months after becoming one of the first governors in the country to close schools for the remainder of the spring semester.

Lane emphasized that the state never required schools to adopt remote instruction after releasing its first round of guidance in July. But those guidelines heavily emphasized CDC recommendations and asked schools to notify VDOE if they planned to deviate from the state’s framework.

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By early September, the majority of local school divisions — 67 in total — had chosen to begin the fall semester remotely. As of Thursday, that number had dropped to 52. But Keith Perrigan, the superintendent for Bristol Public Schools in Southwest Virginia, said much of the ongoing caution stemmed from the original guidance, which took a more incremental approach to bringing students back to the classroom.

“This is a huge change,” he said. “The previous phase guidance, it was probably more of a recommendation to be cautious. And I think the new guidance is to try your very best to reopen. If you can mitigate appropriately, you ought to do what you can to get back in school.”

There’s still no mandate for school divisions to follow the state’s revised guidance. Lane said Thursday that the Virginia Constitution left the final decision with local school boards. But education officials also faced heavy criticism from some superintendents earlier this year for allowing local divisions to deviate from the original plan.

State Superintendent James Lane in 2016, when he was named superintendent for Chesterfield Public Schools. (NBC12)

Some school systems have already made the decision to stay closed until at least the early spring — something Lane said he’d recommend reconsidering in light of the new guidance and the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines. But there are also continued debates even in districts that have prioritized in-person learning. In Chesterfield County, which announced plans to bring back elementary students next month, parents launched a petition calling on the school system to reverse the decision and keep schools mostly closed until teachers are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Both Northam and Lane faced significant questioning over the timing of the new guidelines, given that many schools have already announced reopening decisions for the spring. Virginia is also experiencing an ongoing surge of COVID-19 which some models suggest could continue until February. Rates of community transmission are consistently higher across Virginia than they’ve been at any other point during the pandemic. Daily new cases have risen in all five geographic regions throughout the early days of January, and hospitalizations are at an all-time high. Many health systems have voluntarily canceled elective surgeries or announced new surge plans to boost capacity for an ongoing influx of cases.

Lane said announcing the new guidance would give school districts the opportunity to prepare their plans in the coming weeks — even as Virginia contemplates longer-term changes such as year-round instruction to make up for learning loss during the pandemic. Northam also touted the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines as an important step in returning students safely to the classroom.

“While getting everyone vaccinated isn’t necessary to reopening schools, it will make it a lot easier,” he said. Eleven local health districts have begun vaccinating educators — or plan to start soon — after moving into Phase 1b of the state’s vaccine campaign.

Students at Watkins Elementary in Chesterfield County attend class wearing masks. Chesterfield returned to all virtual learning after Thanksgiving. (Chesterfield County Public Schools)

But the timeline for the rest of the state remains unclear. As of Thursday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranked Virginia in the low bottom third of all U.S. states when it came to immunizing residents. The same day, VDH’s vaccine reporting dashboard showed that only about 25 percent of shots distributed across the state had made their way into patients’ arms.

And throughout November and December, some health districts advised in-person schools to again close their buildings, warning that the surging cases made it impossible for them to trace and investigate new infections. In Bristol, Perrigan said it was the first dose of vaccines — administered by the local health department earlier this week — that helped reassure teachers more than anything else.

“That’s what had the biggest impact — the availability of vaccines,” he said. “I think a lot of pressure was released once our staff was able to get that first round.”

Virginia pushes back estimate for vaccinating all residents for COVID-19
Virginia Mercury, Kate Masters January 11, 2021 (Medium)
Gov. Ralph Northam speaks at a news conference in August. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Every Virginian vaccinated by early to mid-summer?

Many experts say it’s no longer likely. Gov. Ralph Northam has also readjusted earlier — and more optimistic — estimates from late November, when he spoke to NPR about the state’s COVID-19 vaccination plans.

“Phase three will be the general population and hopefully by, you know, early to midsummer have everybody in Virginia vaccinated,” he said at the time. But after a slower-than-expected rollout — both in Virginia and across the country — the administration has slightly revised its targets.

“The governor is still hopeful that everyone will have the opportunity to be vaccinated by mid-summer to fall,” spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky wrote in an email on Tuesday. The administration’s prospective timeline includes a few caveats, including the fact that children under 16 — or roughly 2 million Virginians — won’t be included in the overall total because a vaccine hasn’t yet been approved for them.

The goal also assumes that some of the state’s residents will decline the vaccine (“although we’re hopeful that is not a large percentage and will decrease further as this process continues,” Yarmosky wrote). And ultimately, it means Virginia will need to be administering at least 50,000 doses a day, which is contingent on new vaccines entering the market and an increase in federal shipments.

Yarmosky pointed to recent changes that have inspired optimism from state leaders across the country. One, announced Friday, is that the Biden administration plans to begin releasing available vaccines immediately, rather than holding back a second dose from shipments from Pfizer and Moderna.

But even with the change in administration, many experts say there needs to be a rapid shift in how COVID-19 vaccines are distributed and administered in order to meet a late-summer to fall target. Mark Capofari — who worked for Pfizer and spent more than a decade as the director of global logistics at Merck before becoming a full-time lecturer at Penn State — thinks vaccinations will be ongoing well into the third quarter of the year, which stretches from July to September.

Thomas Denny, the chief operating officer of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute, said it might take even longer for most of the public to get inoculated — possibly not until October or November.

“I got a bit more optimistic when it looked like vaccines were coming and we’d have a good number of doses to start out with,” he said. “But then in between late December and so far in January, just about every place has missed its mark with using the amount of doses they’ve gotten.”

“I’m now back to thinking that it’s not likely by the summer that we’ll achieve it,” he continued.

When the vaccine will be accessible to most Virginians has been a major question since the state received its first doses in mid-December. The Northam administration has tentatively predicted that Phase 1a — when vaccines are prioritized for health care providers and long-term care facilities — could conclude by the end of this month. But there’s already been some overlap with Phase 1b, which includes first responders, correction officers and teachers, followed by other frontline personnel such as grocery store clerks and mail carriers.

On Friday, the Virginia Department of Health announced that 11 local districts across the state were beginning Phase 1b early after vaccinating the majority of their medical workers and long-term care residents. Scheduling an appointment would “depend on the supply of vaccine available,” the department warned, and the phase is likely to take “several weeks to months” even with an early start.

But at a briefing last week, Northam also outlined prioritization plans for Phase 1c, the next step of the state’s vaccine campaign, which will include other essential workers in construction, transportation and utilities.

Providing a clear timeline for all the different subgroups can be complicated. VDH guidelines set a clear order for frontline workers in Phase 1b “because there is not sufficient supply at this time to vaccinate everyone at the same time.” But Virginians aged 75 and older are also included in Phase 1b, and it’s unclear where they fall in the order of prioritization.

Northam emphasized flexibility in his briefing last week, saying he’d rather see providers administer more doses than hew strictly to the state’s guidance. But given the state’s current pace, it’s unclear when the next two phases — which cover about half of the state’s roughly 8.5 million residents — will fully get underway.

As of Friday, the state had received 481,550 doses of vaccine and administered nearly 150,000, or about 30 percent of its total allocation. Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said Tuesday that the Virginia Department of Health’s vaccine reporting dashboard could be undercounting anywhere from 35,000 to 55,000, which would push the state’s total closer to 40 percent.

Bloomberg’s vaccine tracker ranks Virginia above nearby states including Pennsylvania, North Carolina and South Carolina, but below neighbors such as Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia (which has an administration rate more than double the Old Dominion’s). And some experts, including Denny and Bruce Y. Lee, a professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy, say the haphazard rollout of vaccines across the country is mainly attributable to poor federal planning.

“When it comes right down to it, very few states have the wherewithal or the resources for the kind of coordination that’s required,” said Lee, who also works as the executive director of CUNY’s Public Health Computational and Operations Research. “That needed to come from the federal government.”

But Capofari said that state planning also played a major role, pointing to sometimes drastically different vaccination rates across the country. Funding makes a major difference, as does intensive planning and coordination between different agencies and providers.

He pointed to hospitals and local health departments — two settings where the state has routed a significant number of vaccines, though the Virginia Department of Health still can’t say which vaccines went where. If hospitals are going to play a role in vaccinating groups other than their own employees, Capofari said they need clear guidance on who to prioritize and how to reach them. And if hospitals are expected to transport any surplus doses to other settings, there needs to be clear communication and a plan of action, from which facility is responsible for transporting the vaccine to the equipment they’ll use to preserve the doses to when the delivery will be made.

“I think there’s still a lot of uncertainty still as to what the plans are and even where to do the inoculations and how to go about it,” he said.

Regulators want to extend Virginia’s expiring pandemic workplace safety rules
Virginia Mercury, Ned OliverJanuary 11, 2021 (Medium)

Brandon

 

Gov. Ralph Northam at a press conference in October. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Gov. Ralph Northam acknowledged Wednesday that Virginia needs to speed up the pace of its COVID-19 vaccinations, announcing a “you use it or you lose it policy” prodding health care providers to administer the shots to more residents.

“I want you to empty those freezers and get shots in arms,” he said. “When you have vials, give out shots until they’re gone. No one wants to see any supplies sitting unused.”

The governor’s news briefing — his first in nearly a month — came as Virginia experiences its worst COVID-19 caseload than at any other point in the pandemic. The statewide percent positivity rate rose to nearly 17 percent on Wednesday, and Northam pointed out that daily case numbers are currently four times higher than they were in the spring — an average of more than 4,700 new infections every day.

At the same time, Virginia has been grappling with a sluggish rollout of a vaccine described by the governor as “the most powerful tool — the one that’s going to literally change things.” Northam has not announced new restrictions since early December, but has described COVID-19 vaccines as a ray of hope in the ongoing pandemic.

Many states have struggled with administering the shots after the federal government shipped out early doses in mid-December. But until recently, Virginia ranked 46th in the country when it came to the percentage of vaccines administered among states, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported. The state’s rating has improved, but thousands of vaccines still have yet to make their way into the arms of Virginians.

State health officials also elaborated on reporting issues that have prevented administered doses from appearing on the Virginia Department of Health’s vaccine reporting dashboard. Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said Wednesday that the department updated its internal immunization reporting system in anticipation of the COVID-19 vaccine, but that some providers, as a result, have struggled to enter data in a timely manner. There have also been technical glitches that have prevented some health systems’ vaccines from hitting the dashboard.

Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, said that in some cases, providers are reporting vaccinations but the data is appearing inaccurately in the state’s system, requiring VDH employees to go back and verify the numbers. As a result of all the problems, Oliver said that the state’s totals could be undercounting anywhere from 35,000 to 55,000 doses.

“We’re actually doing better than we appear,” he said after the briefing. But even if 55,000 was added to the state’s total number of administered vaccines, it would mean that health providers have given out around 171,247 of the 481,550 doses delivered to the state — around 35 percent.

To address the slow rollout, Northam announced several steps the administration plans to take over the next several weeks.

A provider with Augusta Health administers a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine this week. (Courtesy of Augusta Health)

New goals for administering the vaccine

Northam outlined new goals for giving out the vaccine as one of the first steps in his plan to ramp up administration. Currently, he said the state receives roughly 110,000 doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccine a week, which equates to an immediate goal of delivering 14,000 shots a day to fully use up that supply.

On Wednesday, VDH reported that 2,695 doses had been administered in the last 24 hours. That daily increase has been as high as 12,000 in recent days, but Yarmosky said the large jump was the result of backlogged data. Current reporting delays make it difficult for the department to assess daily progress, which is why resolving those issues is an instrumental part of achieving the governor’s goal, she added.

Longer-term, Northam said he’d like to build up to 25,000 daily doses — a number that also depends on federal officials ramping up shipments to states. Oliver later said the goal was achievable if President-elect Joe Biden delivered on his promise to distribute 100 million shots within his first 100 days in office. Yarmosky also said the state’s daily goal would increase with the greater supply.

‘Lose it or lose it’

Northam’s newly announced policy is directed at health systems, local health departments and other clinical settings that receive doses of the vaccine. The governor said with the next shipment of Pfizer and Moderna doses, VDH would expand its reporting so Virginians can see where vaccines are delivered and how quickly they’re being used.

“Virginians, you deserve this transparency,” he said. State officials will also monitor usage, and sites that don’t fully use their allocated doses could face reduced shipments going forward.

“Don’t save anything,” Northam said. “You’re going to get every dose you need because more is coming. But if you’re not using what you receive, you must be getting too much.”

A plan for next phases

The governor also unveiled priority groups for Phase 1b and 1c,  the next stages in the state’s vaccination campaign. According to Yarmosky, the current phase — 1a, which includes medical workers and long-term care facilities — should be finished by late January. VDH spokeswoman Erin Beard told the Mercury yesterday that moving onto later phases is based on whether “vaccine supply significantly increases” and “if vaccine demand is less than supply.”

Phase 1b will include essential and frontline workers — “people who work in jobs that keep society functioning,” Northam said. That includes roughly 285,000 teachers and childcare providers, along with first responders, mail carriers, corrections officers and grocery store workers. Essential workers in manufacturing and food production will also be included, as will public transit employees.

All adults aged 75 or older will also be included in phase 1b.

Phase 1c will cover essential workers in construction, transportation, and food service, such as restaurant servers, as well as adults aged 65 or older and all Virginians between 16 and 65 with high-risk medical conditions. The two groups — phase 1b and 1c — cover about half of the state’s roughly 8.5 million residents, Northam said, before the vaccine will move to the general public.

But the logistics of moving onto different phases — and the details of how state officials will ensure quicker innoculation — are largely unclear. Northam appointed Dr. Danny Avula, the director of the Richmond-Henrico Health Department, to oversee and coordinate statewide vaccination efforts, saying more details would become available in the coming weeks.

Dr. Danny Avula speaks at an event in 2018 during which he was named director of both the Richmond and Henrico County health departments. (Katie O’Connor/Virginia Mercury)

But as the Mercury has reported, some large health systems are vaccinating non-clinical employees who have worked from home since the start of the pandemic — even as some community providers struggle to book appointments with their local health departments.

Northam emphasized Wednesday that distribution sites should err on the side of vaccinating Virginians rather than holding doses based on prioritization. But Oliver also said that sites should follow the state’s guidance whenever possible “because that’s been well thought through” (he later added that VDH advised against giving out doses to Virginians who aren’t frontline workers, including anyone who can work from home).

What’s not clear is how Virginians in phase 1b and 1c will be notified that they’re eligible for the vaccine and when it becomes available. It’s also still unclear how health systems will manage excess doses. Northam said his administration hasn’t heard of vaccines being wasted, but Oliver later said anecdotal data suggests that only 60 percent of EMS workers and nurses have opted for vaccination.

Whether health systems will assist in vaccinating other priority groups remains to be seen. Oliver said it would require close collaboration with local health departments so that hospitals could redistribute unused doses to other settings.

“Maybe they vaccinate, maybe they just provide the supplies,” he said. “And we would shift the allocations if they weren’t using them.”

 

Virginia state senator dies of COVID-19 complications
Virginia Mercury, Robert ZulloJanuary 1, 2021 (Short)
Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Russell. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Virginia State Sen. A. Benton “Ben” Chafin Jr., R-Russell, has died of COVID-19, the Senate Republican leadership announced Friday evening.

“Tonight, as the Senate of Virginia comes to grips with this tremendous and untimely loss caused by COVID-19, our sympathy and prayers are with Ben’s wife, Lora Lee, their children and grandchildren, and Ben’s mother and his sister, Justice Teresa Chafin,” Senate Republican Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, said in a statement.

Chafin, 60, was born in Abingdon and was briefly a member of the House of Delegates before winning a special election to the Senate in 2014. He is the first Virginia lawmaker to die from the virus, though several have had bouts with COVID-19, as has Gov. Ralph Northam and his wife, Pam.

“Ben was deeply and wholeheartedly committed to the commonwealth, and especially to the people of Southwest Virginia. A community leader in Russell, Ben rose to prominence in the fields of law, banking and agriculture long before his neighbors elected him to the General Assembly,” Norment said.

“First as delegate and then senator, Ben relentlessly promoted and fought for the interests and values of Southwest. He put the interests of those he was entrusted to serve first, cherishing the people of the region he proudly called ‘home.’”

Northam, a Democrat and former state senator who also presided over the chamber as lieutenant governor, said Southwest Virginia had “lost a strong advocate — and we have all lost a good man.”

“I knew Ben as a lawmaker, an attorney, a banker, and a farmer raising beef cattle in Moccasin Valley, working the land just as generations of his family had done before him. He loved the outdoors, and he loved serving people even more. He pushed hard to bring jobs and investment to his district, and I will always be grateful for his courageous vote to expand health care for people who need it,” Northam said, referring to Chafin’s vote to expand Medicaid in 2018. Northam has ordered the state flag to be lowered to half-staff.

“Pam and I are praying for Lora and their children. … This is sad news to begin a new year with the loss of a kind and gracious man. May we all recommit to taking extra steps to care for one another,” Northam said.

The Roanoke Times reported that Chafin had tested positive for the virus in December but that his family kept the diagnosis private for weeks.

Democratic House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, said she was “deeply saddened” by Chafin’s death, which comes less than two weeks before the General Assembly is scheduled to convene on Jan. 13.

“I respected his commitment to the people of the 38th senatorial district and his strong advocacy on their behalf,” she said.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, said Chafin “epitomized the Virginia gentleman — he was compassionate, thoughtful and cared deeply for his district and all Virginians. We will miss him dearly.”

The consequences of rugged individualism in a pandemic
Virginia Mercury, Roger Chesley October 29, 2020 (Short)
A masked protester near the Virginia State Capitol during a “Reopen Virginia Rally” in Richmond, Va., April 22, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Americans can be a selfish lot. Not everybody, of course. But too many people couldn’t care less about taking the necessary steps to keep deaths and infections from COVID-19 at bay.

It’s not that hard: Stay at home as much as possible. Wear a mask out in public and in buildings. Wash your hands. Avoid situations where you can’t stay at least 6 feet apart. Treat workers with respect and deference who must come into contact with consumers. Limit the number of people at social gatherings.

Folks, none of these are Herculean tasks. We’re not being asked to climb mountains, mine for ore or donate a kidney just to survive.

Yet several months into this raging pandemic, the “me-first” mentality is readily apparent, in the commonwealth and elsewhere:

• The Virginia Department of Health issued a news release last week noting COVID-19 cases were surging in Norton city and Lee, Scott and Wise counties. “Keep in mind that your behavior can help protect yourself and others — or put you and them at increased risk,” said Dr. Sue Cantrell, a director of health districts in the area. (I tried to interview Cantrell about whether resistance to mask-wearing contributed to the numbers, but I couldn’t reach her.)

• A mid-October wedding at Wintergreen Resort forced several employees to quarantine because of possible exposure to COVID-19, an official said. Some staffers tested positive. Weddings are special, but shouldn’t couples limit the number of guests because of the times we’re in? Even then, you don’t know if all the well-wishers had recent tests confirming they were free of the virus.

• Lynchburg General Hospital’s acute care facilities were “strained,” a top official said, because of an influx of coronavirus patients last week.

• Despite new restrictions imposed by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker prohibiting indoor dining in specific communities, a throng of customers showed up and packed a restaurant in defiance of the guidelines, the Chicago Tribune reported. The restaurant’s social media post said it was opening “out of survival and to help our staff pay their bills.” Yet Pritzker this week warned “there seems to be a COVID storm coming.”

The United States has proved the days of exceptionalism are over — unless you’re talking about leading everybody else with more than 226,000 deaths. By mid-October, the United States had the highest numbers of COVID-19 infections and deaths, and officials said we’ve entered a third peak of cases in many states.

We don’t have a vaccine. So why is it so hard for Americans to do what medical experts advise to fight this thing?

University professors I interviewed and scholarly articles suggested several reasons: Partisanship, since many Republicans followed President Donald Trump’s lead in downplaying or even denying the coronavirus’ existence, and they resisted wearing masks. A rugged individualism — baked into the nation’s founding — over working for the common good. And pandemic fatigue, even as there’s no end in sight to the carnage.

“We are a country that values individualism, materialism and wealth over the well-being of our neighbors,” Tim Goler, assistant professor of sociology and urban affairs at Norfolk State University, told me. He’s one of the researchers overseeing a pandemic study of older adults.

Goler added that people are fed up with being at home, especially if they haven’t been directly affected by deaths or illnesses: “They’re willing to sacrifice people dying.” You saw indications of this even earlier this year, when protesters demanded states to reopen their economies — even as spikes of infections continued.

“The pandemic has exposed the extent to which we do not live in a ‘United States of America,’ ” said Ernestine Duncan, a psychology professor at NSU. She noted people in other nations have accepted strong restrictions on movements and behavior, and they’re faring better than the U.S.

Clearly, we’re an individualistic society, Duncan noted.

It made me wonder about the last time our sprawling, populous country really sacrificed as a whole for the common good. Historians might point to World War II, in which food, gasoline and clothes were rationed.

Officials and residents collected scrap metal and rubber for the war effort. Women entered defense plants to work because so many men had joined the military and people grew “Victory Gardens” in large numbers to supplement their meals.

The circumstances, though, aren’t totally analogous. Back then, Americans were forced into rationing because of governmental mandates; that hasn’t always been the case this time. Trump has hesitated to restrict the movements and actions of citizens in spite of the way the coronavirus is transmitted.

In the 21st century, our rugged, go-it-alone mentality has horrific consequences. We shouldn’t be surprised by the ever-rising COVID-19 death toll if we continue to be more concerned about individual comfort rather than our collective safety.

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy — an awful one.

Virginia COVID-19 Briefing
VPMOctober 28, 2020 (59:00)
Virginia health officials issue COVID-19 warning over small gatherings
NBC29.com, Adrianna Hargrove and Henry Graff October 28, 2020 (Short)

Virginia Health Officials are warning about small gatherings. It’s part of the concern over rising numbers in southwest Virginia but the message goes to the entire state as we head into the holidays.

“Coming together as an extended family as if you are in one household does present risk,” said Dr. Daniel Carey, Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources.

During a COVID-19 briefing Wednesday, Governor Ralph Northam said those gatherings are the reason behind a percent positivity climb from 5% to 8% in southwest Virginia.

“I know that many people are tired of COVID restrictions. We are all tired of not having social get togethers, not going to see sports or shows, not having the regular interactions that we count on in our lives,” said Northam.

Virginia COVID-19 Briefing
VPMOctober 13, 2020 (54:00)
Virginia COVID-19 Briefing
VPMSeptember 15, 2020 (40:00)
Virginia COVID-19 Briefing
VPMSeptember 1, 2020
Virginia COVID-19 Briefing
VPMAugust 5, 2020 (01:00:00)
Virginia COVID-19 Briefing
VPMJuly 28, 2020 (55:00)

To understand the mind of a teacher, those of us who do other things for a living must attempt some mental gymnastics.

Let’s imagine a professional passion so acute that when the coronavirus shuttered classrooms, they pivoted with little warning or rehearsal to digitally link dozens of children from home and continue daily instruction remotely.

Close your eyes and comprehend a devotion to students so strong that you spend your personal money to supplement classroom supplies as eclectic as sanitizing wipes and Elmer’s glue, crepe paper and whiteboard markers.

Now, as days start shortening and summer bends toward autumn and a new academic calendar, imagine balancing your innate yearning for the classroom with a well-reasoned fear of a monstrously contagious, potentially deadly virus that medicine still can’t control and science doesn’t fully understand.

Finally, overlay that against the backdrop of political conflict and chaos that multiplies by the day.

Virginia prison system says active COVID-19 cases down to 22
Virginia Mercury, Ned OliverJuly 13, 2020 (Short)

The Virginia Department of Corrections says it’s down to 22 active cases of COVID-19 among inmates in the 40 prisons it operates around the state.

Gov. Ralph Northam’s secretary of public safety, Brian Moran, touted the figures Friday, which include six hospitalized prisoners and 16 still being held at various correctional facilities. He emphasized the latter number in a presentation to lawmakers.

“We have 16, let me repeat, 16 active cases in all of our correctional facilities,” he said during a joint meeting of the Senate’s judiciary and social services committees. “That’s out of 28,000 inmates, 40 correctional facilities. Sixteen — one six — active cases.”

Virginia is refusing to release information on COVID-19 outbreaks at poultry processing plants on the grounds of privacy concerns, despite a June decision to provide such data for long-term care facilities.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Mercury in June after Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration began releasing facility-specific data for nursing homes, the Virginia Department of Health said it would not provide the same information for poultry processing plants “in order to ensure that VDH is able to preserve the anonymity of individuals whose medical records have been examined during the investigation of COVID-19.”

“VDH is considering how to make the information you have requested available at the health district and/or regional level,” wrote VDH Deputy Commissioner for Governmental and Regulatory Affairs Joseph Hilbert in an email.

Neither a followup request to Hilbert nor an inquiry to the governor’s office about the justification for releasing such information for nursing homes but not poultry plants were answered.

Virginia and Climate Change

Democrats eye vehicles as the next target for cutting carbon emissions
Virginia Mercury, Sarah VogelsongJanuary 14, 2021 (Medium)
An electric vehicle charges at a public station in Henrico County, July 2020. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

While Virginia Democrats’ big environmental push of 2020 was the Virginia Clean Economy Act, a sweeping omnibus measure designed to eliminate carbon emissions from the state’s power grid by 2050, during the 2021 session they’re setting their sights on a tougher and more diffuse source of carbon: transportation.

According to 2017 figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, almost half of Virginia’s carbon emissions  48 percent  come from transportation. Electric power, by contrast, accounts for almost a third, at 29 percent.

But while power grid emissions come largely from a few dozen generating plants fueled by coal, gas and oil, transportation emissions come from literally millions of sources. More than 8.4 million vehicles are registered in the commonwealth, according to 2020 data from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. The vast majority of those are powered by gasoline-fueled internal combustion engines, with electric vehicles numbering just shy of 150,000, most of them hybrids.

“The transportation sector is where we can have the most gains now in terms of getting carbon out of the atmosphere,” said Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun, who is sponsoring two bills that aim to encourage electric vehicle use.

Replacing Virginians’ gas-powered vehicles with electric ones will be a daunting lift. Unlike many other states, Virginia currently has no incentives in place for electric vehicle adoption, and price tags for proposals to both incentivize such purchases and build up the infrastructure to support their expansion are large. One recent study conducted by a working group through the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy found that a proposed rebate program would require $43 million in funding to cover rebates for approximately 13,000 electric vehicles.

Still, many Democrats, who control the legislature and the governor’s office, argue that with climate change accelerating and increased flooding due to sea level rise in the low-lying Hampton Roads region, action is needed.

“We’re now in the position where the public, I believe, is driving the legislators to say, number one, we’ve got to do something about the environment, but number two, there’s options now that we’ve never had before” said Del. Ken Plum, D-Fairfax, during a virtual town hall about electric vehicles this December. “We need to get on board.”

Looking to California — and Maryland — for new emissions standards

Among environmentalists, this session’s top-line legislation is a bill being carried by Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, that would allow the State Air Pollution Control Board to adopt low-emission and zero-emission vehicle standards set by California beginning no earlier than 2023 and no later than 2025.

The Clean Air Act of 1970, the nation’s preeminent air quality law, prohibits any state from setting its own emissions standards for new vehicles but provides a waiver of that restriction for California, which already had standards on its books at the time of the law’s passage and was suffering from widespread smog and other pollution. Other states that wish to set emissions standards more stringent than federal ones are allowed to adopt California’s  a road taken by 15 jurisdictions, including Maryland, Delaware and Washington, D.C. (Three other states are in the process of considering adoption.)

Bagby’s legislation, House Bill 1965, would put Virginia on a path toward adopting not only these low-emission vehicle, or LEV, standards but zero-emission vehicle, or ZEV, standards mandating that a certain percentage of all cars sold by manufacturers in Virginia be electric. Under the Clean Air Act, neither can go into effect for at least two years after approval by the federal government.

Advocates say the measures, collectively known as the Advanced Clean Cars Program, are essential for carbon reduction goals.

“It’s really important that we pass this bill this year, because once the regulation is finalized, there’s a mandatory two-year wait before manufacturers need to comply,” said Lena Lewis, energy and climate policy manager for the Nature Conservancy, which along with groups like the Southern Environmental Law Center, Sierra Club Virginia and the Virginia Conservation Network is supporting the bill. “Given the urgency and the pace at which climate change is happening, we need to react to it with the seriousness which this problem demands.”

Auto dealers, though, have balked. The Virginia Automobile Dealers Association opposed a similar measure in 2020 and this December sent a letter to the chairs of the House and Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committees asking that a stakeholder group be convened to study electric vehicle deployment and that consideration of a “comprehensive plan to decrease vehicle emissions” be brought forward in 2022.

“Virginia dealers support the adoption of EVs. They have adapted to changes in their industry for generations, and electric vehicles represent just the latest in a long line of advancements,” said Don Hall, president and CEO of the association, in an email. But he said the zero-emission vehicle standard would require dealers to carry “vehicles that may be too expensive or not in demand by consumers” on their lot.

“Virginia should only consider ZEV mandates in conjunction with the necessary commitment of resources to assure successful implementation of the regulations without unfair impact on any party, including dealers,” he said.

In its letter to the committee chairs, VADA emphasized the need for more infrastructure investment prior to the creation of any new mandate.

“If Virginia wants to emulate California, then the Commonwealth must also match California’s investment,” the association wrote.

Bagby called the request to delay action until 2022 “unfortunate.”

“We have acknowledged that this can’t start immediately and we can’t expect those cars to show up on the lots overnight,” he said. But, he added, the Advanced Clean Car standards would put “a timeline in place,” with an expected start of 2025.

“It’s time to get the wheels in motion,” he said.

Feeding supply, fueling demand

While Hall said electric vehicles “are still far outpaced by demand and registrations for gas-powered vehicles in Virginia,” advocates say the Advanced Clean Cars Program could increase adoption by increasing the commonwealth’s supply of electric vehicles.

If adopted, the ZEV standard would require roughly 8 percent of all vehicles manufacturers sold statewide to be electric by 2025.

The demand is there, say these advocates. One survey conducted by pro-electric vehicle group Generation180 found that while over half of Virginians surveyed were likely to consider an electric vehicle for their next car, inventory was 44 to 54 percent lower in Virginia cities than in comparable Maryland cities, with certain popular models seven to 10 times more available in the latter. Many respondents reported having to travel to Maryland to buy an electric car.

Availability isn’t the only barrier to electric vehicle adoption, however. While costs have dropped in recent years  experts believe they’ll reach price parity with gas-powered vehicles by 2025, or even sooner  the technology remains more expensive than traditional models.

bill put forward by Reid aims to offset that price premium through a two-tiered rebate program that would offer buyers or lessees of electric vehicles rebates of up to $2,500 or $4,500, depending on their income. Dealers would also receive a $50 incentive payment for each car they sold.

The program design hews closely to that put forward by the working group that estimated it would cost $43 million, although Reid said his bill proposes a more scaled-down version. That group, which included not only environmental organizations but auto dealers and state agencies, determined such a program was “feasible and similar to programs that currently operate in other states.”

“We wanted to make it so it’s as simple as possible for the salesperson to use, because we wanted to remove all the barriers or impediments that are either perceived or actual,” said Reid.

Another major barrier, infrastructure, will also be on lawmakers’ agenda in a bill from Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, that would require an analysis of electric vehicle charging infrastructure as part of the state’s energy plan. Currently, as the Automobile Dealers Association pointed out in their December letter, Virginia only has about 2,000 charging stations, a fraction of those found in California. Many of those are clustered in the state’s more populous regions and become more sparse in rural areas.

“It’s going to be very difficult for you to find a great charging station in Bath County,” admitted Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, during the December electric vehicle town hall.

A study of readiness conducted by the Virginia Department of Transportation and recently released to lawmakers “found that we in Virginia, like pretty much everywhere else in the country, are not ready for mass deployment of vehicles,” said Boysko.

“We have a long way to go to get to full capacity and this will get us on track for that,” she said.

The cost conundrum

The biggest question mark in the electric vehicle debate remains cost.

Charging stations offer opportunity for businesses, and a special docket to consider electric vehicles established by the State Corporation Commission this summer revealed an appetite for growth. Electric vehicle proponents also emphasize the job creation potential the market poses, with factories like the Volvo plant in Dublin planning to begin manufacturing new models, while businesses have begun to tout the lifetime savings costs they expect from electrification.

But other efforts, like rebate programs, and the desire to ensure that infrastructure is developed equitably, including in rural areas that might not attract much competition, are likely to require deep pockets  complicated by the hit on the global economy as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As far as the $43 million working group estimate for the rebate program, Reid said that “in today’s environment, I don’t think that money is available.”

“It may be we have to put the program in place this year and then find funding,” he said. “We’re not sure right now how much money is going to come back to the state budget.”

The DMME working group in its final report put forward a range of funding options, including transportation-related taxes and fees, congestion pricing and the highway usage fee.

One potential revenue source is the Transportation and Climate Initiative, a cap-and-invest market similar to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative that would require fuel suppliers to purchase emissions allowances in an auction and then redistribute the proceeds to participating states for reinvestment in clean transportation.

Virginia, however, has hesitated to join TCI. While Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island formally committed to the program this December, Virginia and seven other states merely pledged their ongoing collaboration in efforts to develop the new initiative. At the time, Alena Yarmosky, a spokesperson for Gov. Ralph Northam’s office, said Northam hadn’t ruled out the possibility of full commitment in the future. Clean energy advocates expect the program to come before the General Assembly in 2022, but any such proposal is likely to face fierce resistance from some Republicans and industry groups.

Related bills

Related proposals before the General Assembly this session include:

  • House Bill 2118 from Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, which would create the Electric Vehicle Grant Program to issue competitive grants to school boards to replace diesel school buses with electric ones by 2031, put in place charging infrastructure for the buses and set up educational and workforce development programs to encourage industry growth. The program would be funded with a tax on dyed diesel fuel, a type of diesel identified for nonroad use.
  • House Joint Resolution 542 from Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, to request the Department of Rail and Public Transportation to study transit equity and modernization. Most plans for reducing transportation emissions rely on a dual strategy of converting gas-powered vehicles to electric ones while also reducing the number of vehicle miles traveled through more robust public transit infrastructure.
Virginia’s 100% Clean Energy Law
Green Tech Media, Emma Foehringer MerchantDecember 9, 2020 (Short)

A landmark clean energy law enacted this year in Virginia will only equate to a 26 percent reduction in economy-wide emissions by 2050, according to a new analysis, leaving the state far from the cuts required to stave off the worst effects of climate change.

Gov. Ralph Northam signed Virginia’s Clean Economy Act in April, establishing 100 percent clean energy requirements for the state’s largest utilities just as the U.S. was beginning to recognize the severity of the COVID-19 crisis. At the time, Delegate Richard C. Sullivan, Jr., leader of the House Democratic Caucus, called it a “historic step forward” for the Southern state.

But even the Clean Economy Act’s requirements for 3.1 gigawatts of energy storage, 5.2 gigawatts of offshore wind and 16.1 gigawatts of solar and onshore wind fall short of the action required to wring emissions from the electricity sector, according to an analysis released Wednesday by Rocky Mountain Institute and research firm Energy Innovation.

Comment on article by David Toscano, former Democratic leader, Va. House of Delegates

It is terrific that you and others keep pushing to enact policies addressing climate change. But lets start by acknowledging the significance of this legislation in Virginia. Before the legislative “blue wave” election of 2017, it was almost impossible to have a serious conversation about climate change in the commonwealth. After Dems took control in 2020, things changed dramatically, and the legislation passed this session was nothing short of landmark. Does it do all that needs to be done? Certainly not, but even its proponents will acknowledge that. So lets build on the momentum by acknowledging the bill’s significance and challenging everyone to do more–in areas like transportation, building efficiency. Oh, yes, and maybe use a picture of Virginia’s capitol instead of some nondescript white building.

Climate change is a winning issue. Let’s work together to solve it.
Virginia Mercury, Rose Hendricks and Mark ReynoldsNovember 18, 2020 (Short)

Guest Column(Getty Images)

In the home stretch of the 2020 campaign, presidential candidate Joe Biden leaned hard into the issue of climate change, giving a televised climate speech and running climate-focused ads in swing states. His campaign bet that this issue, once considered politically risky, would now be a winner.

That bet paid off. The votes have been tallied, and candidate Biden is now president-elect Biden. But, as is often the case, his party doesn’t have unified control across the whole federal government. President Biden will govern alongside a Democratic House, a conservative Supreme Court, and a Senate that could either have a slim Republican or Democratic majority. That makes “working together” the order of the day.

Encouragingly, Biden understands that people of any party can and do care about climate change. In a speech this fall, he said, “Hurricanes don’t swerve to avoid red states or blue states. Wildfires don’t skip towns that voted a certain way. The impacts of climate change don’t pick and choose. It’s not a partisan phenomenon, and our response should be the same.”

Some Republicans in the Senate are expressing similar opinions. In October 2020, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) participated in a climate policy webinar with her climate-hawk colleague, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). She noted that bipartisanship gives a policy longevity, so she said, “Let’s work in a way that is going to get the support that you need from both Republicans and Democrats.”

Fortunately, there are effective climate policies with bipartisan support on the table already. One such policy we should enact is a carbon fee. Congress could charge a fee or price on all oil, gas and coal we use in the United States based on the greenhouse gas emissions they produce. Putting that price on pollution will steer our country toward cleaner options, slashing our harmful emissions across many areas of our economy at once. The revenue from this type of policy can even be given to Americans on a regular basis—a “carbon cashback,” if you will, that would put money in people’s pockets while we transition to a clean-energy economy.

Our leaders here in Virginia are signaling their readiness to enact a carbon fee with a dividend. In September, Senator Mark Warner stated “I do believe it’s time to put a price on carbon.”

In October, Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton stated “I think it’s time also that we explore the issue of carbon dividends, to use market forces to incentivize the use of renewable energy over dirty fossil fuel.”

Carbon fee legislation like this exists in Congress now, known as the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (H.R. 763). Congressman Gerry Connolly has co-sponsored H.R. 763, the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, and General Assembly members Ghazala Hashmi, Sam Rasoul, Dave Marsden, Ken Plum, Ibraheem Samirah, Rodney Willett and Dan Helmer have endorsed it.

Virginians are ready for our elected officials to push forward to make this legislation the law of the land. With the incoming president clearly committed to addressing climate change, and millions of Americans eager for solutions, now is the time to act. Congress should seize the opportunity.

Mark Reynolds is the executive director of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a non-partisan, grassroots advocacy organization working to generate the political will for a livable world. Rose Hendricks, PhD, is a volunteer and co-leader of the Fairfax County chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby. She’s a social scientist who has studied climate communications.

Gov. Ralph Northam announces Virginia’s Coastal Resilience Master Planning Framework in Norfolk on Oct. 22, 2020. (Office of the Governor)

Virginia will no longer sidestep recognition that climate change is occurring and poses an existential threat to the state’s way of life, shoreline, economies and resources, a new planning document released by Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration Thursday reveals.

The report, called the Coastal Resilience Master Planning Framework, heralds a shift in the Old Dominion’s approach to an issue on which more than 99 percent of global scientists have reached consensus but is still frequently portrayed as controversial in state and national politics.

“To date, Virginia has slowly advanced efforts to study and mitigate coastal flooding without stating unequivocally that climate change is the root cause of the problem,” the framework announced Tuesday reads. “This approach, born of political necessity, has led to tortured titles like the Center for Recurrent Flooding Resiliency and the Joint Subcommittee to Recommend Short-Term and Long-Term Strategies Minimizing the Impact of Recurrent Flooding and Coastal Storms.

“More importantly,” it continues, “it has hampered honest dialogue and broader understanding of the challenges we face.”

Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources Matt Strickler called the acknowledgement that climate change is the primary driver of sea level rise and other major climatic shifts like increased precipitation, rising temperatures and more frequent and intense storm events like hurricanes a “logical kind of follow” to past policy discussions.

“People who live in coastal Virginia are seeing these impacts every day,” he said. “We felt it was really important to be clear about the science. This is something that we’ve studied a lot and have a high degree of certainty that these impacts are coming and that we need to prepare for them.”

Despite scientific agreement, however, many state and local politicians have been reluctant to openly voice a position on climate change. Virginia Beach officials, the Virginian-Pilot has reported, “rarely, if ever, utter the words ‘climate change’” and “specifically avoid attributing any such change directly to humans.”

In the General Assembly, a joint resolution put forward during the 2020 regular session by Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, that declared “global warming caused by human activity that increases emissions of greenhouse gases has resulted in a climate and ecological emergency” was received along partisan lines in the House, with all support coming from Democrats and all opposition from Republicans. The resolution died in the Senate Rules Committee, where Chair Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, told Guzman the Senate no longer approves resolutions memorializing the legislature’s position or “foreign policy resolutions.”

In a 2017 debate with GOP gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie, Northam noted that semantic changes were key to getting Republican support for more study of how sea-level rise will change Virginia, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.

“They said ‘Ralph, if you mention sea level rise, that equates to climate change and that’s a nonstarter.’ … I went back and rewrote the legislation and called it recurrent flooding and they said, ‘OK. That’s fine,’ ” Northam said. “It’s all about having relationships here in Virginia, it’s about having experience. It’s about agreeing to disagree. … We call that the Virginia Way.”

Michael Allen, a professor and director of the geography program at Old Dominion University in Norfolk whose research is cited throughout the framework, drew a distinction between the recognition that scientists overwhelmingly agree climate change is occurring and opinions on policy approaches to that change.

“We can discuss and debate the ways in which we can address the challenges,” he said. But when it comes to the science, “At some point you just can’t keep beating a dead horse. The science is clear, as clear as the Earth is round and smoking causes cancer.”

A statue of Neptune on Virginia Beach’s oceanfront. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Beach)

Marching orders for combating rising seas

Beyond its policy prescriptions, the Coastal Resilience Master Planning Framework unfurled Thursday lays out a comprehensive plan for how Virginia will move forward in the coming years as sea levels rise along its coasts.

With more than 10,000 miles of shoreline, Virginia’s coastal region is home to about 70 percent of the commonwealth’s population and much of its economic power, from the federal government centers of Northern Virginia to the the sprawling defense installations of Hampton Roads, where Naval Station Norfolk is the world’s largest naval base and enormous quantities of goods and resources like coal regularly transit the Port of Virginia.

Hampton Roads, however, also has the dubious distinction of having the East Coast’s highest rate of sea level rise, due partly to long-term land subsidence linked to tectonic plate shifting and years of heavy groundwater withdrawals in the southern part of the state. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, using data from Virginia’s longest-operating tide gauge at Sewell’s Point in Norfolk, has found that the state has seen more than 18 inches of relative sea level rise in the past 100 years. Agency projections show that under the highest sea level rise scenarios, Sewell’s Point could see water levels rise by almost 6.7 feet by 2100.

These increases will have major — and costly — impacts. Recent estimates from Climate Central find that some 250,000 acres of land, 1,469 miles of roads and $17.4 billion in property lie in areas less than five feet above Virginia’s high tide line.

For many Virginians, such threats aren’t just theoretical. Regional flooding has become more frequent over the past decade in not only Hampton Roads, but the more rural and lower-income peninsular areas including the Northern Neck, Middle Peninsula and Eastern Shore.

Summaries included in the Master Planning Framework detail a staggering array of initiatives and efforts undertaken by local and regional government bodies to combat rising waters. Virginia Beach hired consultant Dewberry to conduct a five-year coastal adaptation study, which was approved by City Council with much fanfare this summer. The Middle Peninsula Chesapeake Bay Public Access Authority has for years been helping property owners turn over threatened land that could provide a buffer in exchange for tax benefits.

The Eastern Shore’s Transportation Infrastructure Inundation Vulnerability Assessment has been working to determine how much of the region’s transportation infrastructure is at risk from sea level rise (one Coastal Management Zone Program study found almost 14 percent of the Shore’s state roads could be permanently inundated by 2060). The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Coastal Storm Risk Management Feasibility Study examines the problem of flooding along parts of the Potomac.

(Virginia Coastal Resilience Master Planning Framework)

The lists go on and on. And with sea level rise accelerating, that multiplicity risks inefficiencies and even could exacerbate some impacts if communities don’t collaborate with each other, the framework points out.

“A huge part of the Planning Framework is trying to align all the efforts that are taking place,” said Strickler. “There’s a real need out there to help localities and at the same time leveraging the federal resources, aligning the state resources in a way that we can help everybody and make sure there aren’t unintended consequences.”

Under the new document’s approach, the regional and planning district commissions that oversee Virginia’s coastal areas will be grouped into four new entities based on ecological, economic and cultural similarities: Hampton Roads; Rural Coastal Virginia, including the Middle Peninsula, Northern Neck and Eastern Shore; Fall Line North, encompassing Northern Virginia south to the Rappahannock; and Fall Line South, including the greater Richmond and Petersburg regions. Each will be charged with identifying and prioritizing projects.

These regions will also play a key role in shaping the next phase of the state’s strategy: the Coastal Resilience Master Plan itself, which the Northam administration expects to be issued by December 2021. While a new technical advisory committee will helm the drafting of that plan, the framework requires not only input from the new regions but the convening of a series of regional roundtables over the next months.

Once completed, the master plan, ordered as part of Northam’s Executive Order 24 in November 2018, will map out the specific projects and programs to be undertaken, as well as how they will be financed. Green, or nature-based, solutions like living shorelines will be prioritized where possible, and consideration of equity issues — who will bear the brunt of adverse impacts or enjoy the benefits of any solutions — will be required.

“We have the information necessary to identify the location of affected communities and the risks they face,” the framework states. “We will work with these communities to plan, implement and support successful and lasting adaptation and protection strategies. We must begin now to develop these strategies.”

Not all will be optimal: numerous times throughout the framework there is acknowledgment that relocations will not only be necessary but inevitable.

“We must recognize that protecting every component of the built environment exactly where it stands today is not realistic,” the framework concludes. “In time, some homes, businesses, roads, and communities will become uninhabitable as sea level rises.”

While Strickler said “it’s clear some areas are going to be permanently inundated,” he also cautioned that “we’re not telling anybody they have to move.”

“We’re trying to assist communities and provide incentives to do smart, long-term planning,” he said. “But we wanted to acknowledge that the realities of climate change and sea level rise are clear, that there are places that are at significant risk.”

With more than 10,000 miles of shoreline, Virginia’s coastal region is home to about 70 percent of the commonwealth’s population and much of its economic power, from the federal government centers of Northern Virginia to the the sprawling defense installations of Hampton Roads, where Naval Station Norfolk is the world’s largest naval base and enormous quantities of goods and resources like coal regularly transit the Port of Virginia.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, using data from Virginia’s longest-operating tide gauge at Sewell’s Point in Norfolk, has found that the state has seen more than 18 inches of relative sea level rise in the past 100 years. Agency projections show that under the highest sea level rise scenarios, Sewell’s Point could see water levels rise by almost 6.7 feet by 2100.

Virginia and College Affordability

After standoff, House and Senate to seal deal to stem college tuition costs
Virginia Mercury, Kate Masters January 12, 2020 (Short)
The Rotunda at the University of Virginia. (Style Weekly)

For the last few days of the 2020 General Assembly session, college tuition freezes were a sticking point for House and Senate budget negotiators. Such a sticking point, in fact, that legislators extended their deadline for reaching a deal.

But a last-minute compromise appeared to offer the best of both worlds for legislators from both chambers. The Senate added roughly $60 million over the next two years for need-based financial aid at Virginia’s publicly funded colleges and universities. And the House added roughly $79.7 million for in-state tuition freezes, something its Higher Education Subcommittee — paraphrasing a quote from Winston Churchill — described as a “tremendous whack” at the problem of college affordability.

“Students and parents across the Commonwealth can breathe a sigh of relief now that the General Assembly has struck a deal that will freeze tuition for the second year in a row,” said Stacie Gordon, advocacy manager for Partners for College Affordability, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that pushes for more affordable college education around the country. “Virginia’s legislators have made it absolutely clear that holding down college costs for hard-working students and their families remains a top priority.”

Much of the debate boiled down to a fundamental disagreement over the merits of another tuition freeze. Del. Ibraheem Samirah, D-Fairfax — a 29-year-old dentist who estimates he still has around $560,000 in student debt — said the House was committed to a solution that would keep colleges more affordable for all Virginia students.

But in their subcommittee report, Senate legislators wrote that across-the-board tuition freezes would “simply perpetuate the past.” Financial aid, including tuition grants for students at private colleges, is a more effective way to leverage state funds for college affordability, they argued.

The House proposal will offer individual colleges optional funding in exchange for freezing tuition at 2020 levels, while the Senate will offer each school more money for need-based aid, regardless of tuition prices.

To at least one policy expert, though, both chambers are wrong. Veronique de Rugy, a senior research fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, has published several papers on federal higher education funding and the declining economic return of a college degree, relative to the cost of obtaining one. She said artificially capping the cost of college — whether through tuition freezes or greater financial aid — does nothing to address the underlying problem of rising prices.

“I think it’s a terrible idea,” de Rugy added. “It doesn’t change all the bad incentives that already exist, most of them created by the government to get more and more students into the system.”

In Virginia, like the rest of the country, de Rugy said tuition increases can be tied to an overall imbalance between supply and demand. Thanks to a significant increase in federal financial aid, which started in the late 1970s, more students are attending college. (According to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, there were a little fewer than 99,000 students enrolled at public four-year schools here in 1992, compared to 142,193 for the current academic year.)

At the same time, the overall number of higher education institutions has remained flat, and universities have an incentive to raise fees to collect more federal aid dollars.

As colleges accept more students, their spending also goes up — on faculty, housing, facilities and other amenities. That’s another reason for higher tuition, de Rugy said. And while costs have increased substantially, wages and job placement have stagnated in many fields, leading to a fundamental mismatch between the investment and payoff of higher education.

“Forty percent of the kids who got out of college, they’re not employed in the area where they got their diploma,” she continued. “We encourage them to go into the system, to accrue debt, to defer deployment, all for a degree they’re not going to use when they get out of school. And making it cheaper is not going to improve the system. It’s going to make it worse.”

That’s not true for all majors. STEM fields still enjoy high wage premiums, de Rugy pointed out in one research paper, as do many advanced degrees that can recoup the cost of additional student debt. And while the debate was ongoing, Samirah said many Virginians were relying on action from the state — regardless of whether it would change the underlying system.

“There’s a good benefit for everyday people at the end of the day,” he said. “Everyday students and everyday parents will benefit from us negotiating on this.

But de Rugy also pointed out that colleges and universities would likely pass in-state tuition freezes onto out-of-state students. She believes a true disruption in tuition costs is mostly likely to come from competing education models, including online coding bootcamps — which are plagued by their own problems with high prices and low placement rates — or increased attendance in community colleges and vocational schools.

A 2014 report by the Joint Legislative Audit Review Commission found that Virginia’s public universities were among the most expensive in the nation. The commission attributed tuition increases to a number of factors, including cuts in state funding and increased spending on non-academic services, especially athletics and real estate and construction. The report estimated 56 percent of the increase in per-student cost between 2002 and 2012 has been for athletics, student housing, dining and security.

In December, Gov. Ralph Northam unveiled his “G3” proposal, with would offer free community college tuition for low- and middle-income students in certain technical and STEM fields. The General Assembly didn’t fully match the entire $145 million he requested for the program, but did allocate $69 million over the next two years.

Free College With Grants for Basic Needs
Inside Higher Ed, Madeline St. AmourJanuary 6, 2020 (Short)

Advocates for increasing college attainment and equity say that free college programs need to cover more than just the cost of tuition.

The Commonwealth of Virginia has a proposal that would do just that, although some are criticizing the proposal’s eligibility restrictions.

Hiring? Post A Job Today!
The Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back, or G3 program, was included in Democratic governor Ralph Northam’s $138 billion biennial budget proposal. The $145 million program would make community college tuition-free for low- and middle-income students, as well as provide grants for other costs like transportation and food.

On Thursday, September 19, 2019 Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust announced the formation of a new policy council to identify solutions to problems of affordability and workforce readiness in Virginia higher education. The council’s membership includes CEOs from various industries, senior executives in finance, technology and energy sectors, nonprofit executives representing small businesses, bankers and other public interests, former college presidents, trustees, senior administrators, and current college students.

“This council brings together the best thinkers and leaders from across the Commonwealth to address one of the most persistent domestic policy issues facing Virginia and the nation,” said Partners president Dr. James Toscano. “Partners is proud to host this important conversation with our all-star council members, and we look forward to learning their unique perspectives and ideas on building a better future for students, families and the public.”

Town Hall Addresses Student Debt Concerns
GMU Fourth EstateSeptember 13, 2019 (04:51:00)

Current Situation:
The data show that Virginia has above-average in-state tuition and below-average per-student tax appropriations. Tuition and fees at Virginia public research, four year, and two year institutions in 2017-2018 are among the highest in the US.

When viewing this post, select the Feature Image to view the chart’s details.

Challenge:
How to make higher education more affordable for Virginia residents particularly lower income students while expanding educational opportunities and controlling costs?

Virginia and Guns

Virginia gun group pressing on with Jan. 18 event, despite violence in D.C.
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw and Ned OliverJanuary 12, 2021 (Medium)
A banner and pro-gun rally attendees line up near Grace and Ninth streets in Downtown Richmond near the Capitol. (Ryan M. Kelly/ For the Virginia Mercury)

The leader of the pro-gun Virginia Citizens Defense League said the group isn’t changing its plans for a Jan. 18 rally in Richmond after right-wing rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol to protest the presidential election.

A year ago, more than 20,000 gun enthusiasts packed the streets around the Virginia Capitol for VCDL’s annual Lobby Day event, a larger-than-normal crowd inspired largely by pro-gun control Democrats winning control of the General Assembly.

Though there were warnings last year’s event could turn violent, there was none of the mayhem seen last week in D.C., where supporters of President Donald Trump attacked police and broke into the Capitol chambers. One U.S. Capitol Police officer died as a result of injuries from the melee, police said, and a Trump supporter was fatally shot by police as she tried to enter a secure area of the building.

A recent FBI memo warned of possible armed protests in all 50 capitals ahead of President-Elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20, according to the Associated Press.

It’s not clear what to expect on Jan. 18 event, but it appears to be the only major event on Virginia law enforcement’s radar.

After being denied a permit to rally on the Virginia Capitol grounds, VCDL has asked supporters to participate in a vehicle caravan in the area. The General Assembly won’t be meeting at the Capitol due to COVID-19 precautions.

In online discussions about the VCDL event, some of the group’s supporters questioned whether it was still wise to proceed in the aftermath of riots at the U.S. Capitol, urging organizers to cancel. They worried the planned format would resemble the “Trump Trains” organized by the president’s most fervent supporters. But other members wrote that cancelling could be perceived as giving in to pro-gun control groups.

Phil Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, speaks to a rally in January 2020 of thousands of gun control opponents on the Capitol grounds. (Ryan M. Kelly/ For the Virginia Mercury)

In an interview, VCDL President Philip Van Cleave seemed firmly in the latter camp.

“What happened in D.C. had nothing whatseover to do with us,” Van Cleave said, adding there have been “unfortunate” acts of political violence “happening around the country.”

He noted Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency ahead of last year’s event and “nothing happened.”

“I can’t guarantee nothing would happen again if somebody’s determined to cause a problem,” Van Cleave said. “But we can’t stop every time there’s a potential threat. They’ll just keep doing it and we won’t be able to ever have an event again of any sort.”

Van Cleave stressed that VCDL cares about one issue, guns, and he wants rallygoers to stick to that message and be peaceful.

“We’ve got police there,” he said. “Their job is to be on the lookout for trouble. And if there’s trouble, their job is to handle it. That’s what we pay them for.”

Hundreds of police officers were on hand for a massive pro-gun rally that drew thousands to the Capitol and surrounding streets last year. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia General Assembly’s 2021 session is set to begin Wednesday. Though Democratic majorities passed most of their major gun-control proposals last year, there could be more in the upcoming session.

Last year’s gun rally featured strict security protocols at the State Capitol, including a ban on firearms and police checkpoints attendees had to go through before entering a fenced-in area on the Capitol grounds. In the runup to the event, the FBI arrested three men with alleged ties to white supremacist groups, accusing them of planning violence at the Richmond rally. Last month, one of the men was sentenced to five years in prison.

Police made just one arrest during the rally, charging a young Richmond woman with violating the state’s anti-mask law even as other masked gun supporters went unbothered. That charge was dropped.

Public safety officials said they’re prepared for this year’s event.

“Virginia Capitol Police have been planning with our law enforcement partners and other stakeholders for quite some time as we prepare for the 2021 General Assembly session and its related activities,” said Virginia Capitol Police spokesman Joe Macenka. “Beyond that, we typically do not share operational details or intelligence information for the simple reason we do not want to endanger either the public or our officers.”

Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran said state officials are in regular communication with the FBI and began preparing for VCDL’s planned car rally weeks ago.

“The events of last Wednesday and now the shutting down of several social media platforms has possibly changed the calculus for purposes of our preparation,” he said. “We’re going to take everything very seriously and prepare accordingly. At this point we’re taking any and all threats seriously.”

On the website for the upcoming rally, VCDL says its events haven’t been violent before.

“And we don’t expect that to change,” the site says. “So pack the family in the car and take a road trip!”

Gov. Ralph Northam has sent 2,000 Virginia National Guard soldiers to Washington since the attack on the Capitol and says they will remain “as long as we are needed.”

A pro-gun demonstrator at a rally on the Capitol grounds in January, held in opposition to proposed new gun control laws, holds a makeshift Gadsen flag. (Ryan M. Kelly/ For the Virginia Mercury)

In early July, Virginia Beach police officers responded to a call about a man threatening to shoot himself in the head in his ex-girlfriend’s driveway after she broke up with him. According to court documents, they found a loaded gun in his car.

Less than a week later, they received a call about a man who allegedly pointed a handgun at his neighbor’s forehead, said “I want to know why this place is creeping on me” and threatened to shoot if he didn’t get an answer. When officers went to the man’s home, they found him driving slowly across his front yard with an assault-style rifle across his chest and a handgun wedged by the passenger seat. At one point he reportedly said: “I could have taken all of you.”

In mid-August, a Virginia Beach officer learned a woman who had previously been diagnosed with PTSD and bipolar disorder had said she had planned to shoot herself at Mount Trashmore Park but didn’t go through with it, explaining that “families started showing up and that it wasn’t her time.” She said she would wait until she officially lost her job, then do it.

All three people had substantial risk orders filed against them under the state’s new red flag law, which lets local authorities temporarily ban people from possessing or buying guns if they’re found to be a safety risk. The orders were filed despite Virginia Beach’s self-professed status as a “Second Amendment Constitutional City,” a moniker approved by its city council via a resolution passed in January under pressure from the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun rights group. The vote drew wide attention, coming about seven months after a mass shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal building that killed 12 people.

Though local politicians in many conservative-leaning Virginia communities voted last year to symbolically declare their opposition to Democratic-supported gun control measures, court records show that law enforcement agencies in some of those localities are already using the red flag law to try to prevent people from hurting themselves or others.

“Clearly the law is working when law enforcement are taking advantage of this tool in so many situations,” said Lori Haas, Virginia director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, which has advocated for the red flag law and numerous other gun restrictions.

Of at least 21 red flag cases filed in July and August, the first two months of the law’s existence, roughly half occurred in counties and cities that passed pro-gun resolutions after the Democratic takeover of the General Assembly in elections last November, court records show.

“I am surprised, quite honestly, that so many have done this,” said Philip Van Cleave, president of Virginia Citizens Defense League, who has argued the state could already take guns from people suffering mental health crises through temporary detention orders. “It just doesn’t make any sense why they’re using it the way they are.”

In July and August, at least five red flag cases were filed in Virginia Beach, the state’s largest independent city. That matched the number filed in Fairfax County, the state’s most populous locality, where officials did not take a stance against new gun restrictions.

The Virginia Beach Police Department said it has confiscated a total of three firearms under the new process, which spokeswoman Linda Kuehn called “a law that we are obligated to enforce.”

“The council’s resolution did not give us any hesitation as the Police Department is guided by the statutory mandate of the General Assembly legislation,” Kuehn said. “Our endeavor will always be to ensure the safety of our community.”

Guns are not seized in every red flag case, and some people subjected to the orders told authorities they didn’t have any firearms to take.

To take someone’s guns under the law, police have to conduct an initial investigation then have a magistrate or judge sign off on an emergency order suspending the subject’s gun rights for up to 14 days. At a court hearing, that person can make a case to restore the guns. If the judge deems the person a threat, the order can be extended for up to 180 days, but additional hearings can be scheduled to extend the order further..

The red flag law — which gained nationwide traction as a way to prevent mass shootings after the 2018 high school shooting in Parkland, Fla. — was one of the most contentious gun proposals passed by the General Assembly earlier this year. Democrats presented it as a common-sense procedure to get guns away from troubled people and reduce gun suicides. Republicans denounced it as constitutionally suspect, saying it allows authorities to effectively strip people of their gun rights without being accused or convicted of a crime.

Opposition to the new, pro-gun control legislature spread throughout the state last year, with local officials in over 100 counties, cities and towns passing resolutions affirming their support of gun rights. Some gun advocates pushed for stronger resistance, suggesting local governments also insist that no local resources be used to enforce new gun laws.

Amherst County residents raise their hands to show support for their county’s “Second Amendment Sanctuary” resolution. November 19, 2019. (Graham Moomaw/ Virginia Mercury)

But those resolutions don’t appear to be an impediment for law enforcement agencies that have to handle troubled people with access to guns.

The Virginia Mercury obtained a list of cases and where they occurred through a Freedom of Information Act request filed with the Supreme Court of Virginia’s Office of the Executive Secretary, which administers and supports the statewide court system.

The accounts of what led up to each red flag order are based on documents obtained from local courthouses. The Mercury is not naming the people who had orders filed against them because it is a civil process, not a criminal charge, and many of the cases appear to involve mental health issues.

Two red flag cases were filed in Colonial Heights, where the city council had passed a resolution stating that city funds should not be used to “unconstitutionally restrict Colonial Heights citizens from bearing arms.”

One of those orders was filed as part of ongoing legal proceedings in the case of a man who called 911 in March, said he was thinking of killing his wife and barricaded himself in his home. He was shot by an officer after he came to the door holding a rifle. As a result of the incident, the man faced misdemeanor charges of brandishing a firearm and reckless handling of a firearm. He and his lawyer consented to the red flag order, which was requested jointly with the local prosecutor.

Ashley Henderson, a deputy commonwealth’s attorney in Colonial Heights, said the two sides negotiated a six-month red flag order as a way to “put safeguards in place” to protect the man and the community by “restricting his access to firearms.”

“Both sides found that this was the most effective way to achieve that,” Henderson said.

Court documents indicate that man is a military veteran struggling with PTSD. Police retrieved 13 firearms from his home. As part of the deal, prosecutors agreed not to pursue the charges.

The other Colonial Heights case involved a man who was arrested in connection with a drunken family fight and said he was “tired of the human race,” threatening to kill himself and/or his brother when he got out of jail. He told authorities he didn’t have any guns.

Some red flag orders haven’t progressed past the initial, 14-day emergency phase.

In Frederick County, an emergency order was issued in an apparent family dispute, but a man’s guns were returned to him after he showed up in court and accused his relatives of lying about him.

“The red flag law is wrong because anybody who is spiteful can have someone’s guns taken from them,” the man told the judge, according to The Winchester Star.

Conservatives opposed to the law had argued it could give rise to mischief by being weaponized in disputes between relatives and neighbors. Van Cleave said he was aware of one case where police had investigated someone for a possible red flag order but didn’t issue one once they realized there was no basis for it. He declined to offer details, saying it could lead to litigation.

The new law isn’t just being used in cities and suburbs.

In Floyd County, a man who allegedly had a history of making threats to officers called the local sheriff’s office to ask for a welfare check on a family member. When he was told someone would have to call him back, he allegedly told the dispatcher deputies should “bring their f—cking guns” when they come. He was charged with making a threat over the airways and numerous other offenses the next day. Though a local law-enforcement officer filed for an emergency order, prosecutors chose not to pursue a long-term order and the case was dismissed.

In far Southwest Virginia, Scott County authorities issued a substantial risk order for an “ex-military person” who appeared disoriented and seemed to be struggling with mental health issues, according Sheriff Jeff Edds. The sheriff said he didn’t see the new process as a significant shift for his office since the state law already banned gun possession for people ordered to undergo involuntary mental health treatment.

“It’s just extra paperwork as far as we look at it,” Edds said. “Just a form.”

In early August, deputies in Isle of Wight County were asked to locate a young man for a welfare check requested by Hampton police. They found him passed out behind the wheel in a parking lot, with an open liquor bottle in the center console and an ammunition box in the passenger seat. A loaded handgun — which the man said he bought the day before after a co-worker accused him of unspecified wrongdoing — was under the driver’s seat, but had jammed.

The man reportedly told deputies “he got drunk and didn’t remember what happened afterward” adding “he could not do it to himself.” An emergency substantial risk order was filed against him, after he was taken to a hospital for immediate treatment.

A Virginia judge has ruled that most of the state’s new law requiring background checks on all gun sales does not violate constitutional rights, except for a wrinkle that effectively bans people between the ages of 18 and 21 from buying handguns.

Rejecting the bulk of a challenge from gun-rights groups, Lynchburg Circuit Court Judge F. Patrick Yeatts ruled that the new law — approved this year by the Democratic-led General Assembly and signed by Gov. Ralph Northam — “does not violate the right to keep and bear arms” when applied to most people.

“Even though private sales and commercial sales are different, the Court is at a loss as to how the historical justifications of preventing felons and the mentally disabled from possessing firearms would allow conditions on commercial sales and not also justify conditions on private sales,” the judge wrote.

But the judge said the law goes beyond that limited purpose for younger gun buyers who could previously buy handguns through private sales but are now automatically rejected through the federal background checks system. Under federal law, licensed gun dealers can sell rifles and shotguns to buyers over 18, but handgun buyers must be at least 21. Federal law does not prohibit people under 21 from buying handguns from unlicensed sellers.

One of the plaintiffs in the case is 18-year-old Wyatt Lowman, who maintains he wants to purchase a handgun from another plaintiff’s private collection.

“Banning types of firearms is a prohibition, not a mere condition, infringing on the right to keep and bear arms and greatly reducing Lowman’s means of self-defense,” the judge wrote.

The judge issued a narrow injunction blocking the state from enforcing the law against 18-,19- and 20-year-olds seeking to buy handguns.

How Virginia plans to let people ban themselves from buying guns
Virginia Mercury, Graham MoomawJuly 6, 2020 (Short)
A potential buyer tries out a gun which is displayed on an exhibitor’s table during the Nation’s Gun Show on November 18, 2016, at Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

It was Frederick Vars’s own experience with bipolar disorder and suicidal thoughts that first got him interested in the idea of letting people ban themselves from buying guns.

To him, the idea of a voluntary do-not-sell list as a preemptive option for people worried about what they might do in darker moments of irrationality seemed like common sense. But would anyone use it?

To answer that question, Vars, a law professor at the University of Alabama, and a team of researchers surveyed 200 psychiatric patients. That 2016 study, published in the peer-reviewed journal of the American Association of Suicidology, found that 46 percent of respondents said they would sign up for a do-not-sell list.

“That was a moment where for me it went from kind of an academic idea into realizing that if you could get a lot of people signing up you really have a chance to save a lot of lives,” Vars said in an interview.

In Virginia, it’s not just an idea anymore.

This year, the Democratic-led General Assembly passed legislation creating the Virginia Voluntary Do Not Sell Firearms List, making Virginia one of the first states to put Vars’s concept into practice. Because the legislation had a delayed effective date, the list – which will tie in to the existing background check system – is scheduled to be up and running in the summer of 2021.

The bill didn’t receive as much attention as other high-profile gun restrictions that took effect last week, like universal background checks, a one-handgun-a-month policy and a red flag law that lets authorities temporarily seize guns from troubled people. But some supporters see it as unique, pitching it as a libertarian-friendly way to address a form of gun violence that’s far more common than the mass shootings that make worldwide headlines.

“It’s voluntary. It’s not the government taking away your rights,” Vars said. “It’s you making that decision.”

Nearly two-thirds of Virginia gun deaths are suicides, according to Virginia Department of Health data presented to policymakers last year. From 2007 to 2018, more than 56 percent of suicides involved guns. In 2018, there were 674 gun-related suicides in the state. The state data shows most firearm suicides involve handguns, and White men are more likely to be victims of gun suicide than other demographic groups.

The new law will allow anyone over 18 to add themselves to the list, designed to be kept confidential, by filling out a form with a copy of their photo ID and mailing it or delivering it to the Virginia State Police. Once a person is on the list, it will be against the law for them to purchase or possess a gun and unlawful for anyone to knowingly sell or give a gun to a person on the list. If someone on the list changes their mind, they can be removed after waiting 21 days.

The concept has drawn comparisons to voluntary gambling exclusion programs, designed to let people ban themselves from casinos if they feel they’re losing control.

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, who sponsored the legislation, said he thought the idea might get bipartisan support, particularly because pro-gun Republicans often say mental health, not lax gun regulation, is the primary problem. He was wrong.

“Here I have a bill that takes the mental health problem head-on and is completely voluntary to the person who’s the subject of it. And you can take yourself off the list whenever you want,” Surovell said. “I thought it would be a no-brainer. But I couldn’t get anybody else on the other side to agree.”

The bill passed both the state Senate and House of Delegates on party-line votes, though Del. Carrie Coyner, a Republican from suburban Chesterfield County who broke with her party on a few other gun issues like banning bump stocks, noted she had intended to vote for it.

The main argument raised against the bill was the fear that people could be added to it without their knowledge or consent.

During debate on the Senate floor in February, Sen. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, said it  could be “probably a lot of fun” because he could conceivably put his Senate seatmate on the list.

“If he happens to leave his wallet and I take his driver’s license and I get a photocopy of that driver’s license, I can actually put this gentleman on the voluntary do not sell me a gun list,” Cosgrove said.

The bill specifies that it’s a criminal offense to fraudulently add someone else to the list.

In Washington, the only other state with a similar law, the process to get on the list is stricter, requiring people to file paperwork in person at their local courthouse, with the clerk verifying their identity.

Darren Wright, a spokesman for the Washington State Patrol, said he did not know of any cases of someone being added to the list without their knowledge.

The Washington program, which passed in 2018, has not seen heavy use. Wright said 13 people have asked to be entered into the system.

Vars called the level of participation in Washington so far “disappointing,” but said it’s important to make people aware of the program and make it easy to sign up for it.

In that regard, Virginia having a mail-in option instead of requiring a trip to the courthouse could encourage more participation.

“Going down there and having to look somebody in the eye and say ‘I don’t think I’m safe, I’ve had suicidal thoughts,’ it’s a barrier,” Vars said. “I think the Virginia bill is better in that way.”

Surovell said he expects people will learn from their mental health providers about the list being an option.

Lauren Cunningham, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, said her agency is “planning to reach out to behavioral health stakeholders well in advance of implementation.”

The law requires several state regulatory agencies – the Board of Counseling, Board of Medicine, Board of Nursing and Board of Psychology –  to formally notify their licensees about the program within 60 days of it taking effect next July.

“The research shows when people are informed about it, it’s attractive to a high percentage,” Vars said.

A potential buyer tries out a gun which is displayed on an exhibitor’s table during the Nation’s Gun Show on November 18, 2016, at Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Two unresolved pieces of Gov. Ralph Northam’s gun policy agenda have cleared the Virginia General Assembly as the legislative session nears its end.

Legislation to require criminal background checks on all gun sales and restore the state’s former one-handgun-a-month rule won final approval Saturday in the state Senate.

The passage of the two bills means seven of the eight proposals Northam called for after last year’s mass shooting in Virginia Beach are heading to his desk to be signed.

“Today, this year, Virginia has said enough is enough. The emergency of gun violence must end. This legislation will help get us there,” Northam said in a statement Saturday afternoon. “Thank you to the many gun violence prevention advocates, some of you still grieving over the loss or injury of a loved one, who have fought for years for today. And thank you to the legislators who finally listened to the voices of Virginians and voted to pass commonsense gun safety legislation.”

Democratic legislators had been negotiating the finer points of the proposals. On both bills, the House of Delegates agreed to more moderate approaches favored by the Senate.

The background checks bill — a top priority Democrats and gun-control advocates have championed for years — would close the so-called gun show loophole that allows private gun sales without no criminal history check required for the buyer. The Northam administration and House Democrats preferred a broader version of the bill that would also cover gun transfers, which supporters said would avoid creating another loophole and reduce the number of guns changing hands with no regulatory oversight.

Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, had argued the House approach was too broad and could potentially trip up gun owners who lend or give a gun to someone else with no nefarious intent.

“Basically, they accepted our position,” Petersen said on the Senate floor Saturday.

One the new law is enacted, private sellers will be required to go through a licensed firearms dealer for a background check, ensuring a would-be buyer can legally own a firearm. Gun dealers would be allowed to charge a fee of up to $15 per for a check performed on a private seller’s behalf.

The second bill would restore the law limiting handgun purchase to one per month, a restriction supporters say will help crack down on gun trafficking to other states. The former law was in effect from 1993 to 2012.

The Senate insisted on including an exemption for concealed-carry permit holders. The legislature is also moving to tighten the process for getting a concealed carry permit by requiring applicants to complete an in-person gun safety course. Under current law, those courses could be taken online.

The other big-ticket gun bills that passed would require people to report stolen firearms, create extreme risk protective orders allowing authorities to temporarily sieze guns from people deemed a threat, give local governments more power to ban guns in public spaces, tighten laws designed to make guns inaccessible to children and prohibit gun possession by people who are subject to permanent protective orders.

A bill Northam backed that would have banned assault-style firearms failed in a Senate committee.

Gun control has been a highly debated and partisan issue across the United States since the Columbine High School massacre of 1999.  In 2007, Virginia experienced its own mass shooting, one of the deadliest in American history, when 33 were shot and killed on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg on April 16, 2007.  The debate on gun control continued to grow in Virginia this year following the mass shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal building on May 31st, 2019, which killed thirteen.

Candidates for the 2019 general assembly were quick to make their positions clear on gun control following the shooting, with many democratic candidates promising to enact gun control legislation should they be elected, while republican candidates vowed to protect the second amendment rights of Virginians.  Since the democratic take over following the elections on November 5th, majority conservative counties have begun to declare themselves as gun sanctuaries in defiance of the gun control promises of the newly elected democratic general assembly. As the new year and the beginning of a new general assembly session grows closer, gun control will surely continue to be a strongly contested matter between the will of the people and their newly elected representatives.

Virginia and Abortion

In Virginia’s budget debate, an unexpected focus on the birds and the bees
Virginia Mercury, Kate MastersOctober 5, 2020 (Short)
Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford, makes remarks during debate of SB5120 dealing with changes to the elections laws as debate continued in the temporary Virginia Senate chamber inside the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond, VA Thursday, August 27, 2020. Listening, right, is Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax.

If state legislators didn’t already know about the birds and the bees, by the end of last week, they definitely knew about the BrdsNBz — a national sexual health textline rolled out in Virginia last year.

The program became an unexpected highlight of the General Assembly’s budget discussions after Republicans in the House and Senate drafted last-minute floor amendments to prohibit state expenditures on the textline, which is currently funded through federal grants for maternal and child health services. While BrdsNBz launched in October 2019, the Virginia Department of Health kicked off a postcard awareness campaign last month — catching the attention of legislators in districts that received the mailers.

The program, developed and administered by the American Sexual Health Association through a contract with the VDH, is intended to give teens a chance to ask potentially embarrassing questions to a trained health educator. Common questions listed on the national BrdsNBz webpage include issues from dating and relationships (“What do I do if my friend likes the same person as me?) to contraception and pregnancy (“Can condoms get inside my uterus?”).

VDH also used federal grant funding intended for abstinence-only education to fund the awareness campaign for the program. This attracted the ire of Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, whose unsuccessful amendment would have gone even further by requiring any responses from the textline to “only include information on the benefits of voluntarily refraining from sexual activity.”

“I’ve been very supportive of sex education for many, many years, but I do not believe that anybody should send a flyer to a young person and encourage them to text them all their questions,” Newman said during a floor debate on Thursday. Other Republican lawmakers — including Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford, who sponsored a similarly unsuccessful amendment in the House — had similar concerns that the awareness campaign and the textline itself violated parental rights by potentially exposing teens to information on sexual identity or abortion.

“Bringing in an anonymous outside voice that may not adhere to a family’s convictions and beliefs is just wrong,” she said before a House vote on the amendment. “A vote to pass this amendment by is a vote to put an anonymous stranger in charge of our children’s sexual education.”

Fred Wyand, ASHA’s director of communications, wrote in a Friday email that the organization’s responses are based on guidance from scientific advisors, which include the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The textline refers users to medical professionals for questions on diagnosable conditions, including sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy, but Wyand said the goal is to provide an alternative to information online, which can be “confusing and often misleading.”

“The value we see in the BrdsNBz service is we respond to users with vetted, reliable sources of information,” he added. “We also offer gentle encouragement to users that they turn to a trusted adult for guidance, specifically parents and medical professionals like school nurses.”

A screenshot from the national website for BrdsNBz, a sexual health textline for teens and young adults that recently launched in Virginia.

Still, in some cases, conservative legislators used the floor session to float more nefarious theories about the textline, which is used in at least seven other states. Four more, including Pennsylvania, Iowa, Minnesota and Rhode Island, offer similar services, according to VDH.

“I can tell you who would love to have a job with this company,” Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, said Thursday. “Every child sexual predator, even the ones we just recently paroled. … We’ve just provided a dream job for child sexual predators.”

Byron, an outspoken opponent of abortion, had previously suggested that the textline was being used as propaganda by Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration and the General Assembly’s new Democratic majority.

“No longer content to indoctrinate our college-aged students, the government appears intent on feeding the values of the extreme left to our children at a very young age,” she said during a House session last week.

“And knowing this governor and the agenda of the Democratic majority, I fear this is just the beginning of many things to come,” she added.

If Democratic legislators could text a response, it would be that BrdsNBz is really NBD. Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Loudoun, pointed out Thursday that VDH has a list of commonly asked questions on its website that address many of her colleagues’ concerns.

From Oct. 1, 2019 to Aug. 31, 2020, the textline only received 295 messages from 98 individuals in Virginia, according to VDH spokeswoman Maria Reppas. But “ASHA has reported a large increase in texts in September following the postcard mailing,” she added in an email, “and VDH is waiting on September’s monthly utilization report.”

According to the department, all of ASHA’s health educators have at least a bachelor’s degree and several years of background in education or health-related fields. “All health educators undergo background checks before they are hired,” the website reads.

As for the postcard campaign, VDH says it targeted households with children between 13 and 17 and 18 to 19 year-old young adults in counties with the highest teen pregnancy rates in Virginia — a total of total of 95,956 households across the state. The decision to launch the textline was driven by a recent needs assessment conducted by the department, which found that only half of sexually active teens and young adults reported using condoms.

“Even less reported using other forms of contraception,” the department reported. “Furthermore, in this needs assessment, young people expressed a desire for more readily available, accurate and inclusive sexual health information.”

VDH pays ASHA $1,500 a month in federal funding to administer the program, according to Reppas. The total cost for running the textline since 2019 has been $16,500, plus $39,814.88 in printing and postage for the postcard awareness campaign — a total of $56,314.88. No state money has gone to BrdsNBz, she added.

The program has been a mainstay even in some states run by conservatives. First developed by a North Carolina nonprofit in 2009, BrdsNBz was run by the same group, now called SHIFT NC, until it was taken over by ASHA in 2018. It remained even after Republicans gained majority of the state’s House and Senate in 2010.

Democratic majorities in the Virginia House and Senate voted down the budget amendments that proposed limiting the program.

It’s a new day for reproductive rights in Virginia
Virginia Mercury, By Jamie Lockhart, Guest columnJuly 1, 2020 (Medium)
Protesters at the Supreme Court in March 2020, when the justices were hearing arguments in June Medical Services LLC v. Russo. (Robin Bravender/ States Newsroom)

By Jamie Lockhart

It’s been horrific to watch politicians across this country use the COVID-19 global pandemic as a vehicle to ban abortion and restrict access to reproductive health care. When the pandemic first hit, seven states included abortion bans in their COVID-19 emergency orders  –– making abortion inaccessible for thousands during a pandemic. And as some state legislatures return to work now, the first item on the docket for politicians in Iowa, Mississippi and Tennessee has been to try and ban abortion.

But it’s not all bad news for reproductive health care and rights. On Monday, the Supreme Court sent a resounding message to politicians all across the country: Stop trying to make abortion inaccessible. And in Virginia, today, our state will roll back decades of roadblocks that anti-abortion politicians put in place.

These huge victories for reproductive health care could not come at a more important time, as the impact of abortion restrictions were even more dangerous for Virginians during the global pandemic.

Before July 1 in Virginia, those who made the decision to end their pregnancy were forced, by law, to a 24-hour mandatory waiting period. This may not sound so restrictive on its face –– but imagine if you live over an hour away from the closest abortion provider. This politician-imposed waiting period would force you to either make two, hour-plus long round trips on back to back days, or book a hotel room. Both require money, time off of work, and a lot of travel during a global pandemic.

No medical professional would prescribe that.

And, to be clear, these restrictions disproportionately impact people of color and people earning low incomes. Racism is a public health crisis, and it can be as overt as police brutality or as subtle as state-sanctioned, anti-abortion restrictions that disproportionately affect Black and Brown communities.

And it doesn’t end there. Before July 1, patients seeking abortion care were forced, by law, to have a mandatory, medically unnecessary ultrasound and undergo biased “counseling,” for the sole purpose of shaming them. This was not prescribed by any health care provider — but rather by anti-abortion laws in our commonwealth.

But starting July 1, thanks to so many advocates in the reproductive health and rights movement and champions in the state legislature, that’s all going to change. Earlier this year, the Virginia General Assembly was finally able to roll back decades of roadblocks their predecessors put up for individuals seeking abortion care. By doing what is right, they have returned decisions about pregnancy from legislators back to clinicians and their patients.

The Capitol at dusk. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Patients will no longer be forced to listen to the state-mandated, biased script that is intended to shame patients and discourage them from seeking abortion. They only need to come in to see an abortion provider one time, cutting in half the need for time off of work, child care, gas money and all of the other obstacles that prevent folks from obtaining an abortion during a pandemic. They can seek abortion care from a qualified nurse practitioner and certified nurse midwives — who go through rigorous post-graduate training and have extensive clinical experience — greatly expanding abortion access in the state. And they are able to seek abortion services from more health centers in rural areas of the commonwealth after changes to medically unnecessary regulations that limited access to abortion.

The anti-abortion movement will twist these victories into suggestions that those seeking care are less safe and being kept from valuable information. The facts are, abortion is health care and it is incredibly safe. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that abortion has over a 99 percent safety record. Just like any health care procedure you would receive from your primary care provider, decisions will be made by you in consultation with your clinician. Removing these onerous restrictions simply affirms that abortion is essential, time-sensitive health care that should be delivered without restrictions or delay.

No matter where we land on our support for abortion rights in the spectrum of justice, we must all agree that it is critical for people seeking abortion care to have medically accurate information about their health and the health of their families.

Virginia is poised for the largest expansion of reproductive health care access in Virginia in decades. But there is more work to be done to ensure everyone has access to abortion care. Virginia can lead the way.

Jamie Lockhart is executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia.

Smaller crowds but continued anger at Virginia’s second March for Life rally
Virginia Mercury, Kate MastersFebruary 13, 2020 (Short)
Roughly 1,000 people took part in the second March for Life Thursday at the Capitol to protest rollbacks of abortion restrictions. (Kate Masters/ Virginia Mercury)

More than a year has passed since video of Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, attempting to explain her ultimately unsuccessful, controversial late-term abortion bill ignited a furor. But outrage was still fresh at Virginia’s second March for Life rally, where many anti-abortion activists cited the legislation as their reason for attending.

“It’s infanticide,” said Noreen Rodgers, who traveled from Virginia Beach to attend the march for the second year in a row. “We hate the governor and we hate the policies he’s pushing.”

Bryant was specifically referring to a firestorm of criticism that erupted last year after Tran told a House committee that her bill would allow a woman to receive an abortion even up to the point when she is about to give birth. Gov. Ralph Northam, a pediatrician, added to the controversy when he tried to describe what would happen after a woman with a nonviable pregnancy went into labor.

Tran later said she misspoke, while a Northam spokeswoman said the governor’s words had been twisted by Republicans. But opponents at the rally said the incident proved abortion was becoming increasingly normalized in the state Capitol.

“It’s become too casual,” said Frank Rodgers of Virginia Beach who joined his wife at the rally. “It’s becoming accepted, even though a lot of us know it’s still wrong.”

Anger over the incident wasn’t enough to draw the same crowds as last year’s rally, which an estimated 6,500 people attended. Capitol Police were holding off on “hard estimates” this year, spokesman Joe Macenka wrote in an email, but said the initial crowd numbered about 1,000 before it quickly dissipated outside the Capitol as rain began to fall.

Speakers still congratulated the hundreds who gathered under umbrellas to protest efforts to loosen restrictions on the procedure. Many said there was a renewed urgency to rally after Democrats assumed the majority in both the House and Senate.

“We’re not worried about rain, are we?” said Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford. “That’s the least of our problems today.”

Like many other speakers, she urged the crowd not to lose sight of current legislation — passed by the House and Senate in late January — that would roll back requirements for an ultra-sound and a 24-hour waiting period prior to an abortion.

The bills would also strike restrictive building code requirements that threatened to shut down many clinics by mandating hospital-style standards including wider hallways and doorways. The state Board of Health never fully implemented the requirements, but they were heavily criticized by pro-choice groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which argue the laws do nothing to protect women’s health.

The Senate bill would add nurse practitioners to the list of providers able to perform abortions. The House version would also add physician’s assistants and certified nurse midwives.

Supporters argue the new regulations would expand access to abortions, reflecting a six-year research study that found the procedure was just as safe when performed by those providers. But critics at the rally railed against the legislation, calling it dangerous for women.

“These are two bills that essentially decrease the requirements for women’s health in the name of abortion access,” said Jeanne Mancini, president of the national March for Life. She urged marchers to text a hotline that would allow them to send messages to their state delegate and senator about the legislation.

“The good news is that Virginia has elections every year,” Mancini said. “And we need to take back the General Assembly in November.”

The next elections for Virginia’s House of Delegates are in 2021.

Virginia lawmakers vote to repeal mandatory ultrasound, waiting period for abortion
Virginia Mercury, Ned OliverJanuary 29, 2020 (Short)
House Speaker Eileen Filler Corn, D-Fairfax, presides over the chamber shortly after being sworn in on the first day of the 2020 session. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

New Democratic majorities in the Virginia House of Delegates and Senate voted this week to roll back abortion restrictions the GOP put in place in 2012 mandating an ultra-sound and 24-hour waiting period.

“These restrictions were not designed to protect women, but rather to suppress their ability to make their own choices regarding their bodies,” said House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, who carried the legislation in the House. “This bill concerns an incredibly important decision that should be left up to a woman and her healthcare provider.”

Among the code sections to be struck is a requirement that women be offered a copy of the ultrasound image and an opportunity to listen to the fetal heartbeat. The legislation would also eliminate heavily-litigated building code restrictions (referred to by opponents as TRAP laws, for “targeted restrictions on abortion providers”) that threatened to shut down many clinics by mandating hospital-style standards including wider hallways and doorways but were never fully implemented by the state Board of Health.

The bills cleared the Senate on Wednesday and the House on Tuesday. They were unanimously opposed by Republicans, who passed the requirements when they last controlled both chambers of the General Assembly and the Executive Mansion — a status currently enjoyed by Democrats following sweeping electoral victories in November.

Two Democrats split with their caucuses to oppose the legislation, Del. Cliff Hayes, D-Chesapeake, in the House and Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, in the Senate, where Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) broke the 20-20 tie vote.

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has endorsed the legislation.

In the House of Delegates, members of the Republican caucus, who opposed a vote to repeal certain abortion restrictions, placed small signs on their desks that read “Life is Beautiful.” (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

In addition to eliminating recent restrictions, the bills would expand who can perform the procedures during the first trimester from just doctors to nurse practitioners. The House version would also allow physicians assistants, language that Democrats in the Senate agreed to strike after two Republican health care professionals in the chamber, Sens. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, and Jen Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach, argued they weren’t qualified to handle the complications that can arise from the procedure.

The legislation does not address late term abortions — a subject of intense debate last year after a Democratic lawmaker acknowledged under questioning by a GOP leader that her bill would allow abortion “up until the moment of birth.” (Late term abortions are already legal, but last year’s bill would have changed the number of doctors required to sign off on the procedure from three to one, among other changes.)

Republicans prompted their own uproar in 2012 when they adopted the restrictions debated this week, which as initially drafted would have required a transvaginal ultrasound — something Democrats in the Senate noted during an impassioned, hour-long floor debate.

“Yes, we were on Saturday Night Live and the Late Show,” said Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, who argued the laws were not intended to protect women but instead to “intimidate, shame and harass.”

Republicans argued the existing rules are prudent, measured steps aimed at ensuring safety while guaranteeing women time to weigh a procedure that can’t be reversed.

“I can tell you personally there is a cost to a rash decision,” said Dunnavant, a practicing OBGYN. “I’ve said many times this is not like a regular procedure and there are different emotional components to it.”

Sen. Jenn McClellan, D-Richmond, who proposed the legislation in the chamber, countered that two major medical groups had endorsed eliminating the requirements: The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Medical Society of Virginia.

“The consensus in the medical community is that they’re not medically necessary,” she said. “The consensus in our medical community is that they put barriers in the way.”

Current Situation: Although the Roe v. Wade landmark supreme court case took place over 40 years ago, abortion is still a highly debated civil rights issue in American and Virginian politics.  Pro life and pro choice activists continue to spar over the perceived benefits and risks of increased access to abortion, and multiple pieces of legislation relating to the topic of abortion are presented in both the Virginia General Assembly and the United States Congress every year.

Abortion is a highly controversial and sensitive topic, and abortion activists on both sides of the aisle have found it hard to achieve common ground on legislation.

Virginia and Immigration

The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. (Susan J. Demas/ Michigan Advance)

In 2016, Virginia-based immigration lawyer Hassan Ahmad sent the University of Michigan a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to access sealed papers donated to the university by John Tanton, a prominent anti-immigration activist from Michigan.

But the public university denied the request until 2035.

After years of lower court battles and lawsuits, the issue went before the Michigan Supreme Court Wednesday.

The initial interest in the boxes of papers stored in the university’s library began when Ahmad saw a photo of former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is known for his strong anti-immigration policies, with then President-elect Donald Trump in 2016. Kobach at the time was vying to be Trump’s pick to head the Department of Homeland Security.

Steve Bannon and Kris Kobach speak at Cobo for a “We Build the Wall” event, March 14, 2019 | Ken Coleman

Ahmad said he feared what Trump’s administration would mean for his clients and what he would be able to do as an immigration attorney.

So Ahmad started looking into who in Trump’s cabinet could affect immigration policies and what they believe.

“Well, if Kris Kobach is going to be the type of person that’s going to be brought into this administration, we need to figure out who else is going to be on there and where they are tied to,” Ahmad said. “And the more you look, all roads lead back to John Tanton.”

So who is John Tanton?

Tanton, who died in 2019 in Petoskey, Michigan, from Parkinson’s disease, is known as the founder of the modern anti-immigration movement.

He was a leader in population-control activism and promoted eugenics, heading organizations like Zero Population Growth. He also chaired Sierra Club’s National Population Committee and founded the Northern Michigan chapter of Planned Parenthood.

Tanton pushed for English to be the only national language of the United States, a border wall with Mexico and a limit on the number of authorized immigrants allowed in the country.

He founded a network of anti-immigration organizations, commonly known as the Tanton Network. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Tanton established seven organizations, including the Center for Immigration Studies, Federation for Anti-Immigration Reform (FAIR) and the Social Contract Press. He also funded another five anti-immigration organizations and sat on the board of Population-Environment Balance.

“They’re the ones that end up filing amicus briefs and advising members of Congress and policy makers and getting quoted in the media as simply the opposing side to immigration,” Ahmad said. “All the while never being taken to task seriously on the fact that their founder and ethos was rooted in eugenics, race science and White nationalism.”

Many of Tanton’s beliefs helped shape core conservative policies on immigration, which Trump campaigned on and pushed for throughout his presidency.

“I knew who [Tanton] was, but I didn’t appreciate the centrality of his role in actually building this entire movement,” Ahmad said. “It was then that I came across for the first time the fact that he had donated his papers to U of M-Ann Arbor. And when I went on to the Bentley Historical Library website, I found curiously that half of his papers were sealed until 2035.”

Tanton donated 25 boxes of documents to the university under the agreement that 10 of the boxes not be “utilized, possessed, or retained in the performance of any official University function.”

Ahmad became invested in finding out what is in those sealed boxes.

The battle for the papers 

Hassan Ahmad

Ahmad submitted a FOIA request to U of M for access to the 10 sealed boxes, thinking that it wouldn’t turn into much of an issue, he said.

But the university fought him tooth and nail, denying his initial request and denying him again when he appealed. So in 2017, Ahmad sued the university.

“I started to think that there must be something here,” Ahmad said. “What’s going on? Why are they fighting so hard to keep these papers secret?”

According to the university’s library, the sealed boxes contain FAIR meeting minutes dating back to 1979, nine folders labelled ‘Pioneer Fund,’ which is a group that promotes eugenics, folders on state-specific immigration policies, information on a number of anti-immigration organizations and Tanton’s private correspondences.

The lawsuit was initially thrown out by the state’s Court of Claims ruling in favor of the university. But in July 2019, the state’s Court of Appeals dismissed the lower court’s decision, ruling that the sealed documents are public records and should be made available.

The university then appealed the case to the Michigan Supreme Court.

“The reason the university appealed this case to the state Supreme Court is because we do not want would-be donors to be deterred from donating private records of historical significance to a historical library at a public university, in this case, the Bentley Historical Library,” U of M spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald said. “That would negate FOIA’s purpose of enhancing public access to information and make it more difficult for scholars, students and the broader public to understand Michigan history, including its flaws and its challenges.”

For Ahmad, the issue with this lawsuit and the challenge from the university is two-fold.

Michigan Supreme Court | Susan J. Demas

Ahmad says the case is a government transparency issue, but he also believes the public deserves how key immigration policies that integrated in our current political climate originated.

“I think it’s problematic. Aside from the public importance of public interest in these papers that shed a light on the intellectual blueprint of the entire movement that has been creating the policies that we’ve seen implemented over the past four years, it’s just a basic issue of government transparency,” Ahmad said. “I mean should a public entity, like the University of Michigan, be allowed to contract this way around FOIA and not even have to show the contract? That’s really what this case is about right now.”

In Ahmad’s lawsuit, he includes a 1989 letter from the Bentley Historical Library asking to preserve Tanton’s papers, where the university states that the papers “reflect his important role in virtually every major contemporary conservation effort in our state and nation.”

“I think it’s a bit disingenuous for the university to now claim that they are worried about the potential chilling effect this could have,” Ahmad said. “Look, there’s a number of different things Tanton and the university could have done if he really was that concerned about not passing on his papers. He knew he was dealing with a public university. He obviously was concerned about who was going to see his papers, and it would have been very easy for him to either bequeath them to the university in his will or to create a trust to have the papers pass after a certain period of time. He did none of that.”

Ahmad believes that under Michigan’s laws, the papers are public records and subject to FOIA because they are possessed by a public entity.

The university isn’t arguing that any FOIA exemptions, such as sensitive law enforcement information, apply to the papers, Ahmad said.

“They’re not saying that any of those apply. What they’re saying is that the papers will not become public record until April 6, 2035,” said Ahmad. “There is no exemption that says that you can contract your way around. The issue is: When does a document that is given to a public entity or created in the public entity become subject to FOIA? And the answer to that question is when it is used as asked or retained by that public entity in furtherance of an official purpose … It’s kind of hard for the university to argue that they weren’t doing it for an official purpose when they were the ones seeking the papers out to begin.”

‘It’s high time’ to trace the history of these policies

“There’s something in there that even Tanton thought was not worthy or needed to be hidden until 2035 when he knew that he was going to be long gone,” Ahmad said.

But there has been a shift in politics in the last four years. An emboldened right-wing has echoed the Tanton-esque policies that energized Trump’s rallies and built his base.

People have asked Ahmad whether or not he would drop the fight now that President-elect Joe Biden is gearing up to take over the White House in a few weeks, but the issue has existed long before Trump’s political power and will likely carry on beyond Biden, Ahmad said.

“I would remind them that [anti-immigration activists] have been able to be successful and push their policies regardless of who’s in the White House. Except now, they have a galvanized and organized base,” he said. “They have succeeded, installing immigration reform under both Democrat and Republican administrations. There is no reason to expect that they will not be able to do the same under Biden.

“So we ignore these groups at our own peril. They are emboldened, they are well funded, they are together, they are coherent. And I think it’s high time that they be called to task for where they actually came from.”

Immigration advocates push Biden to not just bring back DACA but expand it
Virginia Mercury, Ariana Figueroa November 24, 2020 (Medium)
DACA recipients and their supporters rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court on June 18, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Virginia is for Lovers’ just became just a little more real for immigrants
Virginia Mercury, Ariana Figueroa March 20, 2020 (Short)

‘Virginia is for Lovers’ just became just a little more real for immigrants

By Luis Angel Aguilar

As an immigrant growing up undocumented in Virginia, my love for my community was challenged by a slew of anti-immigrant policies on a local and state level that treated me and the powerful undocumented immigrants in my life as subhuman. Although immigrants made enormous contributions to the commonwealth both economically and especially culturally, our elected officials seemed determined to drive us away.

Although it is easy to talk about the turnaround to this saga in the last 60 days of the Virginia General Assembly session, this is really a story that begins in 2017. The first Virginia election after Donald Trump took the White House, emboldened Democrats — including immigrants — ran for election in traditionally Republican seats. We knew the people truly inspiring voters were candidates like Kathy Tran and the Elizabeth Guzman – compelling immigrants who would finally put a face on the emerging political power of my neighbors and friends.

The upside of annual elections in the commonwealth is that every year is an opportunity to win better representation.  Each election cycle has an immigrant story to tell. The 2018 election saw the defeat of Dave Brat, a congressman largely viewed as having been elected in repudiation of Eric Cantor’s comparative openness to immigration reform. The 2019 election truly transformed political power in the commonwealth, not only flipping the state House and Senate but shifting power up and down the ballot. Prince William County – home to Corey Stewart, the worst anti-immigrant official in Virginia – elected a board of supervisors that overnight became majority Democratic and majority African-American.

Immigrants were among the electorate that helped power these shifts. Both by launching aggressive electoral programs like ours and also by voting. By 2018, more than half a million immigrants in Virginia were eligible to vote. And those numbers don’t reflect new voters like my sister Felisa Aguilar, who voted for the first time in 2019 and entered a voting booth focused on achieving justice for our undocumented mother. One in 11 Virginians is a U.S.-born child of an immigrant and like Felisa, they are racing to the voting booth.

Fast forward to the General Assembly session that just ended. Legislators made payment on a moral debt owed for years of immigrant bashing in the commonwealth. Together with partners, our organization successfully fought for driving access for the undocumented community, in-state tuition for undocumented youth, and increased financial support for English learner students in our K-12 system. Other campaigns led by organizations like Legal Aid Justice Center, NAKASEC, and the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy reduced ICE-police collaboration and established an Office of New Americans.

Not bad for 60 days.

Our work isn’t over.

As long as Prince William County and other localities still have 287g agreements under which local law enforcement acts as ICE agents, there is a huge body of work left to be done. And, after all, the election staring us down in 2020, an election that literally, as a DACA-holder, determines my capacity to remain in the United States, may be the most important of my lifetime.

But it is important to take a brief pause and celebrate with our members and neighbors that since January the Virginia is for Lovers tagline became just a little more real for immigrants. We are left with the ultimate lesson taught by Ella Baker that “Give light and people will find the way” and this process has been full of light and hope for our community.

House, Senate pass long-anticipated immigrants’ rights bills
Virginia Mercury, ate Masters and Ned OliverFebruary 12, 2020 (Medium)
The Capitol at dusk. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Legislation extending driver privileges and in-state tuition regardless of immigration status, pushed for years by advocates for Virginia immigrants, cleared both chambers of the General Assembly Tuesday.

“There’s a growing cognizance that these are communities who need licenses and in-state tuition,” said Monica Sarmiento, the executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Immigrant Rights. “They’re filled with talented people who already contribute to the Virginia economy and need a path forward to build their own prosperity.”

Advocates packed the Capitol for the vote on driving privileges, filling an overflow room where an interpreter translated the debate as unfolded on the floor of the Senate.

“It’s very, very important for me – this moment,” said Ingrid Vaca, who immigrated from Bolivia 20 years ago and lives in Alexandria. She teared up as she described deciding between driving without a license illegally, risking arrest and deportation, and spending two-hours traveling by public transit every morning to her job cleaning houses.

“My life was in the hands of all the people who voted today,” she said.

The Senate voted 22-18 to adopt its version of the legislation, which allows undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver privilege card.

To obtain the card, they will have to meet all the requirements necessary for obtaining a standard driver’s license, but must also have filed an income tax return. The cards would have text on the top stating that it is “not valid identification for federal, voting or public benefit purposes.”

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, proposed the measure. He argued many undocumented immigrants are currently driving illegally. Making sure they passed driving tests and are insured will make roads safer. He also described it as a critical quality of life issue.

“People need to be able to get to a job, take their kids to soccer, go to the doctor,” he said. “It’s an absolute necessity. This is one of the few bills we’re going to vote on this session that will change over 100,000 lives the moment it becomes law.”

The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, a nonprofit policy group in Richmond, estimated the new law would result in between 124,500 and 160,792 new drivers being licensed, generating a minimum of $10 million in new title fees, sales tax receipts, license plate fees and new car registrations.

The House’s version of the legislation, proposed by Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, is somewhat more permissive, granting undocumented immigrants the ability to obtain traditional driver’s licenses with no special restrictions. It passed Tuesday on a 57-42 vote.

Under both bills, the credential would not serve as a Real ID, a new standard the federal government is rolling out nationwide, which will be required to board airplanes and enter certain federal facilities.

The House and Senate will now debate the differences between the two versions of the legislation.

‘We invest millions of dollars in these kids’

Both chambers passed another bill on Tuesday that makes undocumented immigrants eligible for in-state tuition.

Del. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington, said he had to hide his tears when his version of the legislation passed the House 56-44 to a round of applause from advocates. (The lone Republican yes vote was Del. John Avoli, the former mayor of Staunton who immigrated to the United States from Italy at age 10.) This was the ninth consecutive year that Lopez introduced the bill and the first year it advanced out of committee onto the House floor.

The bills make all students eligible for in-state college tuition, regardless of immigration or citizenship status, as long as they’ve attended high school in Virginia for at least two years or graduated since July 1, 2008. Students would also be eligible if they’ve passed a high school equivalency exam since 2008.

Undocumented students are currently ineligible both for in-state tuition rates and federal aid programs such as student loans and work-study programs.

“In my neck of the woods, I’ve met students who should be going to MIT and Cal Tech who can’t afford Northern Virginia Community College,” Lopez said. “We invest millions of dollars in these kids and then put up a stop sign saying, ‘No, you can’t go any further.’”

A 2019 report from the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute found that roughly 2,000 undocumented students graduate from Virginia high schools every year, according to the most recently available data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

A fiscal impact statement from the state’s Department of Planning and Budget found the bills would have an undetermined impact on revenue. It would depend on how many undocumented students transition from out-of-state to in-state tuition rates.

Neither the House nor Senate bill would apply to immigrants who temporarily move to the United States for school or temporary work. But the Senate version, which passed Tuesday on a 21-19 party line vote, also allows prospective students or their parents to use Virginia income tax returns to prove they’ve been residing in the state. Undocumented students — or their legal guardians — would be required to submit at least two years of tax returns prior to their date of college enrollment.

In both versions of the bill, students could also use proof of high school enrollment or graduation in Virginia to show they’ve been living in the state.

Under both bills, immigration and citizenship information would only be used for determining in-state tuition eligibility. Both chambers will debate the differences between the two versions of the legislation.

For decades, the issue of Immigration has been a matter of great concern and controversy within the United States political environment.  This discussion has been surrounded with concerns over economic, social, and humanitarian factors which have functioned to sustain the debate surrounding Immigration reform and policy. Policymakers have been unable to draft and reach a consensus on universal Immigration reform.

As a result, Immigration continues to be a hotly contested topic not only at the national level but also at the state level.

Gerrymandering ExploredVirginia and Redistricting

For years, redistricting reform advocates have been arguing something should be done to curb Virginia’s long history of political gerrymandering.

On November 5th, voters overwhelmingly agreed, passing a constitutional amendment that largely strips the General Assembly of its authority to redraw legislative and congressional districts, a historic shift in a system that dates back to Virginia’s colonial beginnings.

Wielding that power instead will be a 16-member, bipartisan redistricting commission made up of both sitting lawmakers and citizens, a panel designed to conduct its business publicly as opposed to the secretive, insider-driven processes of the past.

In a year of intense partisan division, the idea of depoliticizing the redistricting process seemed to draw broad support across parties and regions. With almost 90 percent of expected votes counted early Wednesday morning, about 67 percent of Virginians had voted in favor of the amendment.

From Virginia Mercury article on Nov. 4, 2020 (see Top News for full article)

The U.S. Census Bureau officially announced on Friday that states will not receive their census data – the information that is used to redistrict – until the end of September. This announcement was not a surprise, given the earlier news that the data would be sent to states around July 31 due to COVID delays, but this later date solidifies that new maps will not be ready for this November’s House of Delegates elections in Virginia.

So what does this mean for the current redistricting process?

For candidates for the House of Delegates, this means that they will be running in November on the existing legislative maps. It is not yet known how this decision will officially be reached, since the Virginia Constitution requires elections on new maps in years ending in “1” and that Constitutional deadline will be impossible to meet.

It remains to be seen is whether the Delegate races will have to be held again in 2022 (meaning that they would run three years in a row) or if they will wait until 2023 to utilize the new maps.

One thing is abundantly clear: the ongoing work of the Commission is unchanged by this delay. Their deadlines are contingent on the arrival of the Census data — so while the map-drawing part of their job will start later, the process will remain the same. See our timeline to better understand the sequence of events that will unfold once the Commission receives the Census data.

Most importantly, our work does not change.

Virginia’s new redistricting process creates space, for the first time, for individuals and communities to weigh in on the placement of district boundaries. Consideration of public input – including Communities of Interest – provides Virginians an unprecedented opportunity to tell the mapmakers about their communities.

Our job is to enable people to fill that space. Every group working on this issue will be encouraging and empowering voices that have been historically marginalized in the redistricting process to speak up and use every tool at their disposal to advocate for themselves and their neighbors.

These delays have absolutely nothing to do with the language in the amendment that created the bipartisan commission. In fact, any redistricting scenario would be impacted by a delay of this magnitude. This is the case in every state in the nation — even those without citizen-led commissions.

There is a bright side to this news: In the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic, engaged Virginians have been banding together to create a path forward for those who want our historic commission’s work to produce fair and representative district maps, and now they will have additional time to make sure this decade’s redistricting is done the right way.

Despite lingering, and unfounded, fraud suspicions on the right, a recently issued state report called the 2020 election the “most safe, secure, and successful” in Virginia’s history.

This year, the Democratic-led General Assembly has rejected several Republican proposals to tighten election laws, while preserving several policy changes lawmakers enacted last year on an emergency basis like ballot drop boxes and looser rules for absentee voting.

But another significant election bill has drawn bipartisan support, one that would make it easier for political parties and nonpartisan data analysts to track geographic voting patterns amid a massive increase in absentee ballots.

The 8 citizen members and 8 legislative members of the Virginia Redistricting Commission met for the first time last night, January 21st, for just over an hour and a half where they introduced themselves and expressed their excitement to be contributing to a fair, balanced and impartial redistricting process. For their first order of business, Senator McDougle (SD-4), moved to allow for two citizen co-chairs – one from each party. Senator Barker (SD-39) seconded the motion, and the Commission proceeded to unanimously elect Greta Harris, a Democrat from Richmond, and Mackenzie Babichenko, a Republican from Mechanicsville, after citizen commissioner James Abrenio confirmed the legality of such action with the Department of Legislative Services (DLS).

Meg Lamb, the senior attorney for DLS then spoke to the commission about the delay of census data delivery. She reported that the 2020 census data would likely not be delivered until late summer or early fall, making it unlikely that new districts will be drawn in time for the 2021 elections. In years where new districts are drawn, the primaries are typically moved to August. However, because new districts are unlikely to be ready in time, the 2021 primaries are currently scheduled for June. Senator Barker suggested that in the interim before the data is delivered, the commission can begin its work using preliminary data, noting that population shifts in Virginia haven’t been as large as in the recent past.

Something *very* important for our politics happened on Tuesday
Analysis by Chris Cillizza,January 14, 2021 (Medium)

While the eyes of the world were focused on the impeachment efforts against President Donald Trump in Washington, DC, on Tuesday, Gov. Larry Hogan of neighboring Maryland did something extremely important in beginning the long process of unwinding our current political polarization.

The Republican governor announced that via executive order he had created an independent commission he will task with redrawing the state’s congressional and legislative lines following the decennial reapportionment later this year. Known as the Maryland Citizens Redistricting Commission, the nine-person group will include three Democrats, three Republicans and three independents.

A campaign table at a polling station in Buckingham County, Va., Nov. 3, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce / For the Virginia Mercury)

A Fredericksburg-area Republican picked for one of the citizen seats on Virginia’s new redistricting commission previously made vulgar or degrading online comments about President Donald Trump’s detractors, calling Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn a “bimbo” and actress Jane Fonda a “b*tch c**t.”

Before the November election, Jose Feliciano Jr., a 52-year-old U.S. Marine Corps veteran who listed his current job as an agent in the Federal Communications Commission’s public safety bureau, tweeted a photo of a pro-Trump highway caravan and said the only way the president could lose was a “rigged election.”

Screenshots of the tweets were circulated by the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which works to advance Democratic interests in redistricting processes throughout the country.

In a statement, the NDRC said Feliciano’s online activity shows he is “unfit to serve” on the commission and questioned why Republicans in the House of Delegates would nominate him to fill one of the four citizen seats reserved for the GOP.

The Mercury could not independently review Feliciano’s Twitter account because it was taken down after he was appointed to the redistricting commission last week. Feliciano said he took the account down Saturday “as a protest to them suspending President Trump.” In an email to the Mercury, Feliciano verified the tweets were his. He said that, in anger, he “used some language I should not have used,” adding what’s “done is done.”

“Looks like other posts are singled out because I am pro Trump, well I am pro Trump,” he said.

Twitter suspended Trump’s account over the president’s role in inspiring the attack on the U.S. Capitol last week by the president’s supporters, violence Feliciano said he fully condemns.

Feliciano was among the 16 nominees for the commission put forward by House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah.

His application included a letter of recommendation from Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania, who recently signed on to a letter asking Vice President Mike Pence to overturn Virginia’s 13 Electoral College votes for President-elect Joe Biden based on unfounded fraud suspicions.

House GOP spokesman Garren Shipley declined to comment on Feliciano’s tweets, saying “we don’t comment on redistricting matters.”

Amigo Wade, a legislative staffer who worked with the judges on the process, said the selection committee “will not comment on its decisions regarding the selection of the citizen members.”

The redistricting process hasn’t started yet. The seats on the 16-member commission, approved by voters in November, were just recently filled, with Gilbert and other General Assembly leaders playing a key role in picking which of the more than than 1,200 Virginians who applied were best equipped for the important work of redrawing the state’s legislative and congressional maps in a fair manner.

The eight citizen members were nominated by political leaders in the General Assembly and selected by a panel of retired judges. The other eight seats are reserved for sitting legislators.

Feliciano wasn’t included on the initial shortlist of finalists chosen by the judges, but they added him after realizing their list had no Hispanic members. In his application, Feliciano listed his race as White and Hispanic as his ethnicity.

With eight seats meant to go to Democrats and eight to Republicans, the commission wasn’t designed to be nonpartisan. However, it was generally understood as a way to avoid hyperpartisanship in redistricting.

One of Feliciano’s tweets was directed at the actor Peter Fonda, who made headlines in 2018 for tweeting that Barron Trump, the president’s youngest son, “should be put in a cage with pedophiles,” an apparent response to the controversy over immigrant children being separated from their parents at the southern border. Fonda later apologized for the remark.

In a June 2018 tweet to Fonda, Feliciano said: “you’re a piece of sh*t mother f**ker no different than you b**ch c**t sister!” His post did not use asterisks.

Fonda’s sister is Jane Fonda, an 83-year-old actress and left-wing activist who has sharply criticized Trump.

During the 2018 Winter Olympics, when Vonn failed to win a gold medal after drawing the ire of Trump supporters for saying she wouldn’t visit the White House, Feliciano tweeted to Vonn: “Congratulations great to see that you fell flat on your face, happy losing you losing bimbo.”

On Jan. 5, the day before Trump supporters violently stormed the U.S. Capitol, Feliciano tweeted a video that he suggested showed a police officer giving a “green light” for counter-protesters to “harass and attack Trump supporters.”

In response to a Jan. 5 Trump tweet touting the Jan. 6 rally that devolved into mayhem, Feliciano responded with a photo calling Trump the “GREATEST PRESIDENT IN MODERN DAY HISTORY.”

Felicano said he condemns the violence at the Capitol, calling the events a “complete disgrace.”

“Those criminals put a stain on all the good that has come from the Trump administration, and I hope each and everyone of them is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Feliciano said.

Though the NDRC attempted to portray Feliciano as a conspiracy theorist, some of the posts the group highlighted seem to be fairly typical of online conservative discourse.

For example, the group flagged a Feliciano tweet in which he said former President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign was hit with the heaviest campaign finance fine in American history. That $375,000 fine has been widely described by news outlets as one of the largest ever.

During the Black Lives Matter protests this summer, when U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said America didn’t “inherit” racism and slavery but instead “our founders and our government carefully created it,” Feliciano responded with a tweet saying the Atlantic slave trade predated America and began with Portugal. He said Kaine should “take a history class.”

“Explain to me how we own the slave trade,” he wrote.

A spokeswoman for the NDRC said Feliciano’s “tone on Twitter alone is disqualifying to serve on the powerful bipartisan redistricting commission.”

“How is Feliciano going to act as a commissioner working in good faith and in the best interest for all Virginians when he shares lies, misogyny and questions America’s involvement with slavery?” said NDRC spokeswoman Molly Mitchell.

Feliciano called himself a “descendant of slaves” and said he “in no way” questioned America’s role in slavery.

“I was only pointing out the fact of where and how slavery originated who started it and how it ended up on American shores,” he said.

Of Gilbert’s 16 nominees to the commission, all but Feliciano were White and non-Hispanic.

Feliciano said he was honored to be picked for the commission and plans to work for “all the people of the Commonwealth both Democrat and Republican.”

“I used intemperate language on social media, like millions of others have,” he said. “I regret my choice of words but it has no bearing on my ability to do the job.”

In his letter of recommendation, Cole called Feliciano “hard worker, a person of integrity, and honor.”

“I am confident he would be impartial and do a great job,” Cole wrote.

Cole’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

The commission, which will begin redrawing maps when new U.S. Census date comes in later this year, is scheduled to hold its first meeting by Feb. 1.

Retired judges pick eight citizen members for Virginia redistricting commission
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw January 6, 2021 (Medium)
The Capitol at dusk. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A panel of retired judges on Wednesday picked the eight Virginia citizens who will serve on the state’s new redistricting commission, finalizing the group that will handle the important task of redrawing the state’s political maps when new U.S. Census data arrives.

The judges spent hours trying to solve the puzzle of winnowing more than 60 finalists down to eight people who, by law, were supposed to represent Virginia’s geographic, racial and gender diversity.

“We’ve got to check a number of boxes here,” said retired Judge Pamela Baskervill, who chaired the five-judge panel assembled to choose the citizen members.

More than 1,200 people applied for the eight seats late last year. But the judges could only pick from four lists of 16 finalists submitted by four legislative leaders in the General Assembly.

The judges picked six men and two women to fill the eight citizen seats on the 16-member commission.

Four of the chosen members are White (three non-Hispanic and one Hispanic), two are Black, one is Asian American and one is multi-racial.

Three of the members are from Northern Virginia and two are from the Richmond area. Southwest Virginia, Southside and Hampton Roads will each have one citizen representative on the commission.

The group includes four self-identified Democrats and four who identified as Republicans.

The selected citizen members are:

Nominees of Senate President Pro Tempore Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth:

  • James Abrenio, 37, of Fairfax, a trial lawyer.
  • Sean S. Kumar, 41, of Alexandria, a strategic advisor and lawyer.

Nominees of House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax:

  • Brandon Christopher Hutchins, 39, of Virginia Beach, a military veteran and health care professional.
  • Greta J. Harris, 60, of Richmond, president and CEO of the Better Housing Coalition.

Nominees of Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City:

  • Marvin W. Gilliam Jr., 64, of Bristol, a retired coal mining executive.
  • Richard O. Harrell III, 74, of South Boston, a trucking executive.

Nominees of House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah:

  • Jose A. Feliciano Jr., 52, of Fredericksburg, a military veteran and federal agent with the FCC’s public safety bureau.
  • Mackenzie K. Babichenko, 36, of Mechanicsville, an assistant prosecutor in Hanover County.

(Note: Some applicants were nominated as finalists by multiple legislative leaders, but the judges had to pick two from each leader’s list.)

The other eight seats on the commission will be filled by sitting state legislators.

The commission, approved by voters in a ballot referendum last year, will soon get to work preparing to redraw Virginia’s legislative and congressional districts, a process previously handled wholly by the General Assembly. Because of uncertainty surrounding the 2020 Census data, the exact timeline for the commission’s work is unclear. New maps are supposed to be in place in time for House of Delegates elections this November, but Census delays may make it impossible to redraw the districts in time.

Whenever the state receives solid data on population shifts, the commission’s decisions could impact the partisan tilt of the statehouse and the congressional delegation for the next decade.

Critics of the commission proposal warned that it lacked adequate provisions to ensure a diverse group of people would be at the table for the next redistricting process. But diversity seemed to be a top priority for the judges, with their discussion centering more on whether they were achieving the right balance rather than the backgrounds and qualifications of specific applicants.

Comparing notes on which candidates stood out to them, the judges initially narrowed the finalists down to a group of 19. They then realized their shortlist lacked any Hispanic applicants and didn’t include anyone from the Eastern Shore/Northern Neck region. The panel made a point of adding at least one Hispanic applicant (Feliciano) after retired retired Judge Larry B. Kirksey said he was troubled by the lack of Hispanic representation. But several judges said it was nearly impossible to create a perfectly representative commission given their limited options for just eight slots.

“’We can only work with the list of folks that came to us from the members of the General Assembly,” said retired Judge Joanne F. Alper. “We didn’t have access to the whole 1,200.”

Alper said she felt it was important to include at least one member from the Southside and Southwest regions, even though their shortlist only included White men from those areas.

“You need somebody at least that has some knowledge of that region,” she said.

Some progressives had raised alarms that the pool of applicants was disproportionately White and wealthy, pointing to an analysis by the Virginia Public Access Project.

The application process was open to everyone willing to fill out the form and provide three reference letters, but the judges also grappled with strict, General Assembly-imposed limitations on who was eligible to serve.

To prevent cronyism, the legislature passed rules barring political aides, lobbyists, partisan operatives and family members of elected officials from serving on the commission. But those rules also forced the judges to reluctantly strike one applicant whose wife previously worked on Capitol Hill.

Several judges said they were impressed by both the quantity and quality of the applicants interested in serving on the commission.

“I’m just amazed by the diversity, the energy, the brilliance,” said Kirksey.  “Not just brightness. There is brilliance on this list.”

Va. political leaders name 8 legislators who’ll serve on new redistricting commission
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw December 1, 2020 (Medium)
The Capitol at dusk. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The group of eight Democratic and Republican legislators who will serve on Virginia’s new redistricting commission will be made up of five men and three women, including two senior members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.

The legislative members, who will wield significant power over how legislative and congressional districts are redrawn when new U.S. Census data comes in next year, come from districts that touch most regions of the state, ensuring some level of geographic diversity in the process.

Leaders of the General Assembly’s four political caucuses announced their appointees to the commission this week, filling half the seats on a newly created commission voters approved in a referendum last month. Instead of having the full General Assembly draw new political maps itself, the eight legislators on the 16-person commission will work with eight citizen members to draft new maps for the decade ahead. The application window for citizens who want to serve on the commission opened this week and will close on Dec. 28.

The map-drawing process could shape which party holds power in Richmond, which incumbents can safely win re-election and which might face challenges, and how much clout geographic regions will have in the state legislature.

As they work to set up the commission, Republican and Democratic leaders in the two chambers got to pick two appointees each from their own ranks.

Those appointees are:

House Democrats

  • Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax
  • Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond

House Republicans

  • Del. Les Adams, R-Chatham
  • Del. Margaret Ransone, R-Westmoreland

Senate Democrats

  • Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton
  • Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax

Senate Republicans

  • Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg
  • Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover

Each two-person caucus unit is important because, according to the commission rules, each one could block a map proposal even if the other three groups support it. That system is meant to foster collaboration and bipartisanship, but if the commission fails to approve a plan it would fall to the Supreme Court of Virginia to oversee the creation of maps drawn by appointed experts.

Six of the legislative members supported the commission proposal when it was passed by the General Assembly earlier this year. The two House Democrats did not. Nor did Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, who appointed them.

One of the opponents’ primary concerns was that the commission might not be diverse enough.

“A Redistricting Commission that represents the racial, ethnic, geographic and gender diversity of the commonwealth is necessary to ensure every Virginian has a voice in the redistricting process and in our government,” Filler-Corn said in a statement. “Commissioners will need to be committed to inclusion and dedicated to a fair redistricting process that protects the vote of every Virginian. These are the standards for individuals I am appointing as legislators today and my recommendations for citizen members to the commission moving forward.”

In an interview, Simon, who fought the redistricting amendment hard during the 2020 session and in the run-up to the election, said he expects to “be there to sort of keep an eye on things.”

“I think we want to deliver to voters what they expected,” Simon said. “Which is a fair process and maps that sort of reflect the political makeup of Virginia.”

The Senate’s picks largely reflect seniority. Locke and Barker were major supporters of the redistricting reform push. Locke is chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus, and Barker was a patron of the constitutional amendment creating the commission.

“These two leaders have the experience, knowledge, and historical context of redistricting and also are keenly aware of the importance of making sure we have diverse representation in our Commissioners,” Sen. Louse Lucas, D-Portsmouth, who made the Democrats’ picks as the president pro tempore of the Senate, said in a news release. “Senators Locke and Barker have been involved in this process for years and I know they will be a great addition to the commission.”

McDougle is the Republican caucus chair, and Newman served as president pro tempore of the Senate before Republicans lost their majority last year.

The picks from House Republicans were somewhat surprising. Neither Adams nor Ransone is a member of the House GOP leadership, and neither are seen as particularly outspoken partisan warriors.

In a news release, House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, noted that both Adams and Ransone “supported the creation of the commission throughout.”

“With their combined knowledge and experience, I have no doubt they will help craft what the voters have demanded — fair maps for every Virginian,” Gilbert said.

Virginia General Assembly passes rules for newly approved redistricting commission
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw November 9, 2020 (Short)
Voters cast ballots at Charles M. Johnson Elementary School in Henrico County. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

With Virginia’s redistricting debate now settled by voters, state lawmakers approved a package of rules Monday for how the new, bipartisan map-drawing commission will work next year.

Democrats’ dispute over the redistricting commission, which almost 66 percent of Virginia voters approved last week, delayed the formal conclusion of the special session that began in August. To settle it, legislative leaders and Gov. Ralph Northam agreed to pass a post-election budget amendment allowing the commission to be set up and begin its work next year.

Democrats in the House of Delegates had opposed putting the language in the budget as the session seemed to be coming to a close last month. They argued voters should decide on the constitutional amendment creating the commission as it stood, without any improvements added legislatively.

On Monday, a few House Democrats gave speeches saying they still feel the commission idea is flawed, but will respect the result.

“The people have spoken in great numbers and they wanted to see changes in how the redistricting process happens in Virginia,” said Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, an outspoken critic of the commission proposal who called it “regrettable that there was so much confusion and misinformation” about the redistricting question on the ballot.

The House voted 99-0 to approve the redistricting language. It also easily cleared the Senate.

Proponents of the change have hailed the commission as a much-needed change to a system that has given elected legislators free rein to draw districts to benefit themselves or their party behind closed doors.

“From the start, this movement has been about putting the voices of citizens above politicians and political parties,” the redistricting reform group OneVirginia2021 said in a statement celebrating the commission’s passage.

Voters approved a constitutional amendment creating a 16-person commission with equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats and seats split between sitting legislators and citizen members. Once new U.S. Census data is received in 2021, the commission will redraw Virginia’s congressional and legislative districts, a process that could determine partisan control in Richmond.

The commission’s members will be appointed in the coming weeks, and the panel has to hold its first meeting before Feb. 1.

The budget language approved Monday lays out who is eligible to serve on the commission and the process it will follow.

Among other things, the language:

  • Bans people who hold partisan offices, political aides, campaign employees, lobbyists and others from being appointed to the citizen seats to the commission. It also bans political insiders’ relatives from serving on the commission.
  • Stipulates that the commission’s makeup should reflect Virginia’s “racial, ethnic, geographic and gender diversity.”
  • Declares that the commission’s records, including internal communications, are public and subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.
  • Bans commission members from discussing redistricting-related matters with any third parties “outside of a public meeting or hearing.”
  • Requires the Supreme Court of Virginia to appoint two experts, or special masters, to draw court-overseen maps if the commission and the General Assembly fail to agree on their own. The special masters would be picked from lists submitted by political leaders from both parties.
  • Requires any Supreme Court judge related to a member of Congress or the General Assembly to recuse themselves from any redistricting decision. Current Justice Teresa M. Chafin is the sister of state Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Lebanon.
In historic change, Virginia voters approve bipartisan commission to handle political redistricting
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw et al.November 4, 2020 (Medium)
Voters arrive at the Taylor Masonic Lodge in Scottsville, Va., Nov. 3, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce / For the Virginia Mercury)

For years, redistricting reform advocates have been arguing something should be done to curb Virginia’s long history of political gerrymandering.

On Tuesday, voters overwhelmingly agreed, passing a constitutional amendment that largely strips the General Assembly of its authority to redraw legislative and congressional districts, a historic shift in a system that dates back to Virginia’s colonial beginnings.

Wielding that power instead will be a 16-member, bipartisan redistricting commission made up of both sitting lawmakers and citizens, a panel designed to conduct its business publicly as opposed to the secretive, insider-driven processes of the past.

In a year of intense partisan division, the idea of depoliticizing the redistricting process seemed to draw broad support across parties and regions. With almost 90 percent of expected votes counted early Wednesday morning, about 67 percent of Virginians had voted in favor of the amendment.

Though some votes were still uncounted, FairMapsVA, the anti-gerrymandering group pushing for the amendment with its parent organization OneVirginia2021, declared victory around 12:40 a.m., saying the result came after six years of work.

“Tonight, we celebrate the formation of Virginia’s first citizen-led redistricting commission; and tomorrow, we get back to work to ensure the commission’s work is successful,” the group said in a statement.

The outcome ensures that the next redistricting process — which could determine how much representation Virginia communities have, which political party is likely to hold power in Richmond and which incumbents are or aren’t safe from election challenges — will have at least some direct citizen involvement for the first time ever.

Once a decade, the state uses new U.S. Census data to redraw legislative and congressional maps to ensure each district has roughly the same population. How those districts are drawn can have far-reaching impacts, affecting which party can win a majority of the seats, electoral competitiveness, how much political power minority communities have and which individual politicians get to represent a particular area. So it’s no surprise that changing who draws those maps was a contentious endeavor.

The vote on the redistricting question, coupled with strong Democratic victories in Tuesday’s statewide races, reveals a disconnect between some Democratic leaders and the party’s voters.

Many Democrats in the House of Delegates voted against the commission proposal this year after voting for it in 2019, a reversal they said came after they had more time to consider its flaws. The Democratic Party of Virginia also officially opposed the initiative despite the fact that it was supported by senior Virginia Democrats like U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner. Had the amendment failed, the Democratic-led General Assembly and Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam would have the final say on new maps.

Fair Districts VA, an advocacy group formed by Democrats opposed to the ballot question, conceded defeat early Wednesday morning, saying it had been “fighting an uphill battle.” The group demanded that more be done to pursue stronger redistricting reform going forward.

“The people who pushed Amendment 1 know of its flaws – and it is now incumbent upon them to seek real solutions to fix those flaws,” Fair Districts said in a news release.

The proposal was supported by national good-government groups as well as the ACLU of Virginia, the League of Women Voters of Virginia and the Virginia Chamber of Commerce. But it fell short of what many redistricting reformers envisioned: a fully independent commission that gives incumbent politicians no power whatsoever to draw their own districts.

Because Virginia has no process for citizen-initiated constitutional amendments, it’s always been up to state lawmakers to willingly give up their redistricting power. In previous years, the Republican-led House of Delegates routinely blocked redistricting reform efforts. But GOP leaders changed their position in 2019 after federal courts redrew some House districts to correct Republican-led racial gerrymandering, a development that helped put the House GOP majority in jeopardy heading into the 2019 elections.

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, argued unsuccessfully in March for an alternative redistricting amendment that was supported by a majority of Democrats in the House of Delegates. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Reserving half the seats for legislators was seen as a compromise that still gives General Assembly leaders a hand in redistricting, which can have career-ending consequences for incumbents whose districts change dramatically.

Maps produced by the new commission will go to the General Assembly for an up-or-down vote. If the commission can’t agree on maps or the General Assembly rejects the commission’s maps, the Supreme Court of Virginia would conduct a court-supervised redistricting process.

Opponents have also argued the commission proposal lacks explicit protections for minority communities. Supporters say the amendment achieves that by referencing the federal Voting Rights Act and specifying that districts will allow “opportunities for racial and ethnic communities to elect candidates of their choice.”

The insidery arguments about the commission’s particulars seemed to escape many Virginians.

Some voters said they hadn’t heard about the redistricting amendment until they saw it on their ballot Tuesday, drawing disparate conclusions about its potential impact from the one-paragraph description they read in the voting booth.

At a polling place in downtown Richmond, none sounded especially confident in their interpretations.

“It’s so convoluted if you read it from the back of a voter ballot,” said Patrick Ogden, who ultimately decided to vote no because he opposed the idea of stripping the governor of his authority to veto redistricting plans and giving the unelected members of the Supreme Court of Virginia a role in the process. “I believe the governor should have a little more say. At least that’s what I read from it.”

Sasha Atkins, who also voted no, said the explanation on the ballot made her worry the amendment wouldn’t give regular citizens enough of a say in the redistricting process. “We should be representing ourselves,” she said.

Another voter at the same polling place said she voted for the measure, but only because she thought it addressed how local school districts redraw their boundaries.

In Southwest Virginia’s Franklin County, Gary Holden of Ferrum said he supported the commission while voting “straight-ticket Democrat.” He said he saw the commission as preferable to the current system “so long as it’s made up of equal parties.”

In Virginia Beach, 44-year-old schoolteacher Scott Parker said he voted for the redistricting amendment because he wanted to bring more logic to the process.

At the same polling place, Janise Jenkins, a 39-year-old property manager, also said the amendment would be an improvement on the status quo.

“It will be fair, more reasonable,” she said.

The commission was approved just in time to handle the redistricting process scheduled for 2021, but pandemic-related delays with the census data could create severe timing issues. With all 100 seats in the House of Delegates up for election next year, officials will have to rush to get new districts in place in time for late-summer primaries and a shortened general-election cycle.

If the delays make it impossible to draw new districts in time, the House elections could potentially be run using existing district lines. The state could also be left scrambling if there appear to be major problems with the census count conducted in such a chaotic year.

In the short term, officials will get to work setting up the commission and deciding who will serve on it. By Nov. 15, the state Supreme Court is supposed to submit a list of retired judges willing to serve on a selection committee that will pick the citizen members from nominees floated by General Assembly leaders. The commission’s eight legislative members are scheduled to be appointed by Dec. 1.

The commission has to hold its first public meeting by Feb. 1.

First, the General Assembly will reconvene to pass additional rules for how the commission will work. Those rules were being considered for inclusion in the state budget during the recent special session, but the fierce intraparty debate among Democrats over the amendment led lawmakers to keep the budget process open until after the outcome was known.

With the amendment approved by voters, the legislature is set to return next week to finish that work.

Top News

The U.S. Census Bureau officially announced on Friday that states will not receive their census data – the information that is used to redistrict – until the end of September. This announcement was not a surprise, given the earlier news that the data would be sent to states around July 31 due to COVID delays, but this later date solidifies that new maps will not be ready for this November’s House of Delegates elections in Virginia.

So what does this mean for the current redistricting process?

For candidates for the House of Delegates, this means that they will be running in November on the existing legislative maps. It is not yet known how this decision will officially be reached, since the Virginia Constitution requires elections on new maps in years ending in “1” and that Constitutional deadline will be impossible to meet.

It remains to be seen is whether the Delegate races will have to be held again in 2022 (meaning that they would run three years in a row) or if they will wait until 2023 to utilize the new maps.

One thing is abundantly clear: the ongoing work of the Commission is unchanged by this delay. Their deadlines are contingent on the arrival of the Census data — so while the map-drawing part of their job will start later, the process will remain the same. See our timeline to better understand the sequence of events that will unfold once the Commission receives the Census data.

Most importantly, our work does not change.

Virginia’s new redistricting process creates space, for the first time, for individuals and communities to weigh in on the placement of district boundaries. Consideration of public input – including Communities of Interest – provides Virginians an unprecedented opportunity to tell the mapmakers about their communities.

Our job is to enable people to fill that space. Every group working on this issue will be encouraging and empowering voices that have been historically marginalized in the redistricting process to speak up and use every tool at their disposal to advocate for themselves and their neighbors.

These delays have absolutely nothing to do with the language in the amendment that created the bipartisan commission. In fact, any redistricting scenario would be impacted by a delay of this magnitude. This is the case in every state in the nation — even those without citizen-led commissions.

There is a bright side to this news: In the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic, engaged Virginians have been banding together to create a path forward for those who want our historic commission’s work to produce fair and representative district maps, and now they will have additional time to make sure this decade’s redistricting is done the right way.

Despite lingering, and unfounded, fraud suspicions on the right, a recently issued state report called the 2020 election the “most safe, secure, and successful” in Virginia’s history.

This year, the Democratic-led General Assembly has rejected several Republican proposals to tighten election laws, while preserving several policy changes lawmakers enacted last year on an emergency basis like ballot drop boxes and looser rules for absentee voting.

But another significant election bill has drawn bipartisan support, one that would make it easier for political parties and nonpartisan data analysts to track geographic voting patterns amid a massive increase in absentee ballots.

The 8 citizen members and 8 legislative members of the Virginia Redistricting Commission met for the first time last night, January 21st, for just over an hour and a half where they introduced themselves and expressed their excitement to be contributing to a fair, balanced and impartial redistricting process. For their first order of business, Senator McDougle (SD-4), moved to allow for two citizen co-chairs – one from each party. Senator Barker (SD-39) seconded the motion, and the Commission proceeded to unanimously elect Greta Harris, a Democrat from Richmond, and Mackenzie Babichenko, a Republican from Mechanicsville, after citizen commissioner James Abrenio confirmed the legality of such action with the Department of Legislative Services (DLS).

Meg Lamb, the senior attorney for DLS then spoke to the commission about the delay of census data delivery. She reported that the 2020 census data would likely not be delivered until late summer or early fall, making it unlikely that new districts will be drawn in time for the 2021 elections. In years where new districts are drawn, the primaries are typically moved to August. However, because new districts are unlikely to be ready in time, the 2021 primaries are currently scheduled for June. Senator Barker suggested that in the interim before the data is delivered, the commission can begin its work using preliminary data, noting that population shifts in Virginia haven’t been as large as in the recent past.

Something *very* important for our politics happened on Tuesday
Analysis by Chris Cillizza,January 14, 2021 (Medium)

While the eyes of the world were focused on the impeachment efforts against President Donald Trump in Washington, DC, on Tuesday, Gov. Larry Hogan of neighboring Maryland did something extremely important in beginning the long process of unwinding our current political polarization.

The Republican governor announced that via executive order he had created an independent commission he will task with redrawing the state’s congressional and legislative lines following the decennial reapportionment later this year. Known as the Maryland Citizens Redistricting Commission, the nine-person group will include three Democrats, three Republicans and three independents.

A campaign table at a polling station in Buckingham County, Va., Nov. 3, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce / For the Virginia Mercury)

A Fredericksburg-area Republican picked for one of the citizen seats on Virginia’s new redistricting commission previously made vulgar or degrading online comments about President Donald Trump’s detractors, calling Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn a “bimbo” and actress Jane Fonda a “b*tch c**t.”

Before the November election, Jose Feliciano Jr., a 52-year-old U.S. Marine Corps veteran who listed his current job as an agent in the Federal Communications Commission’s public safety bureau, tweeted a photo of a pro-Trump highway caravan and said the only way the president could lose was a “rigged election.”

Screenshots of the tweets were circulated by the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which works to advance Democratic interests in redistricting processes throughout the country.

In a statement, the NDRC said Feliciano’s online activity shows he is “unfit to serve” on the commission and questioned why Republicans in the House of Delegates would nominate him to fill one of the four citizen seats reserved for the GOP.

The Mercury could not independently review Feliciano’s Twitter account because it was taken down after he was appointed to the redistricting commission last week. Feliciano said he took the account down Saturday “as a protest to them suspending President Trump.” In an email to the Mercury, Feliciano verified the tweets were his. He said that, in anger, he “used some language I should not have used,” adding what’s “done is done.”

“Looks like other posts are singled out because I am pro Trump, well I am pro Trump,” he said.

Twitter suspended Trump’s account over the president’s role in inspiring the attack on the U.S. Capitol last week by the president’s supporters, violence Feliciano said he fully condemns.

Feliciano was among the 16 nominees for the commission put forward by House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah.

His application included a letter of recommendation from Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania, who recently signed on to a letter asking Vice President Mike Pence to overturn Virginia’s 13 Electoral College votes for President-elect Joe Biden based on unfounded fraud suspicions.

House GOP spokesman Garren Shipley declined to comment on Feliciano’s tweets, saying “we don’t comment on redistricting matters.”

Amigo Wade, a legislative staffer who worked with the judges on the process, said the selection committee “will not comment on its decisions regarding the selection of the citizen members.”

The redistricting process hasn’t started yet. The seats on the 16-member commission, approved by voters in November, were just recently filled, with Gilbert and other General Assembly leaders playing a key role in picking which of the more than than 1,200 Virginians who applied were best equipped for the important work of redrawing the state’s legislative and congressional maps in a fair manner.

The eight citizen members were nominated by political leaders in the General Assembly and selected by a panel of retired judges. The other eight seats are reserved for sitting legislators.

Feliciano wasn’t included on the initial shortlist of finalists chosen by the judges, but they added him after realizing their list had no Hispanic members. In his application, Feliciano listed his race as White and Hispanic as his ethnicity.

With eight seats meant to go to Democrats and eight to Republicans, the commission wasn’t designed to be nonpartisan. However, it was generally understood as a way to avoid hyperpartisanship in redistricting.

One of Feliciano’s tweets was directed at the actor Peter Fonda, who made headlines in 2018 for tweeting that Barron Trump, the president’s youngest son, “should be put in a cage with pedophiles,” an apparent response to the controversy over immigrant children being separated from their parents at the southern border. Fonda later apologized for the remark.

In a June 2018 tweet to Fonda, Feliciano said: “you’re a piece of sh*t mother f**ker no different than you b**ch c**t sister!” His post did not use asterisks.

Fonda’s sister is Jane Fonda, an 83-year-old actress and left-wing activist who has sharply criticized Trump.

During the 2018 Winter Olympics, when Vonn failed to win a gold medal after drawing the ire of Trump supporters for saying she wouldn’t visit the White House, Feliciano tweeted to Vonn: “Congratulations great to see that you fell flat on your face, happy losing you losing bimbo.”

On Jan. 5, the day before Trump supporters violently stormed the U.S. Capitol, Feliciano tweeted a video that he suggested showed a police officer giving a “green light” for counter-protesters to “harass and attack Trump supporters.”

In response to a Jan. 5 Trump tweet touting the Jan. 6 rally that devolved into mayhem, Feliciano responded with a photo calling Trump the “GREATEST PRESIDENT IN MODERN DAY HISTORY.”

Felicano said he condemns the violence at the Capitol, calling the events a “complete disgrace.”

“Those criminals put a stain on all the good that has come from the Trump administration, and I hope each and everyone of them is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Feliciano said.

Though the NDRC attempted to portray Feliciano as a conspiracy theorist, some of the posts the group highlighted seem to be fairly typical of online conservative discourse.

For example, the group flagged a Feliciano tweet in which he said former President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign was hit with the heaviest campaign finance fine in American history. That $375,000 fine has been widely described by news outlets as one of the largest ever.

During the Black Lives Matter protests this summer, when U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said America didn’t “inherit” racism and slavery but instead “our founders and our government carefully created it,” Feliciano responded with a tweet saying the Atlantic slave trade predated America and began with Portugal. He said Kaine should “take a history class.”

“Explain to me how we own the slave trade,” he wrote.

A spokeswoman for the NDRC said Feliciano’s “tone on Twitter alone is disqualifying to serve on the powerful bipartisan redistricting commission.”

“How is Feliciano going to act as a commissioner working in good faith and in the best interest for all Virginians when he shares lies, misogyny and questions America’s involvement with slavery?” said NDRC spokeswoman Molly Mitchell.

Feliciano called himself a “descendant of slaves” and said he “in no way” questioned America’s role in slavery.

“I was only pointing out the fact of where and how slavery originated who started it and how it ended up on American shores,” he said.

Of Gilbert’s 16 nominees to the commission, all but Feliciano were White and non-Hispanic.

Feliciano said he was honored to be picked for the commission and plans to work for “all the people of the Commonwealth both Democrat and Republican.”

“I used intemperate language on social media, like millions of others have,” he said. “I regret my choice of words but it has no bearing on my ability to do the job.”

In his letter of recommendation, Cole called Feliciano “hard worker, a person of integrity, and honor.”

“I am confident he would be impartial and do a great job,” Cole wrote.

Cole’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

The commission, which will begin redrawing maps when new U.S. Census date comes in later this year, is scheduled to hold its first meeting by Feb. 1.

Retired judges pick eight citizen members for Virginia redistricting commission
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw January 6, 2021 (Medium)
The Capitol at dusk. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A panel of retired judges on Wednesday picked the eight Virginia citizens who will serve on the state’s new redistricting commission, finalizing the group that will handle the important task of redrawing the state’s political maps when new U.S. Census data arrives.

The judges spent hours trying to solve the puzzle of winnowing more than 60 finalists down to eight people who, by law, were supposed to represent Virginia’s geographic, racial and gender diversity.

“We’ve got to check a number of boxes here,” said retired Judge Pamela Baskervill, who chaired the five-judge panel assembled to choose the citizen members.

More than 1,200 people applied for the eight seats late last year. But the judges could only pick from four lists of 16 finalists submitted by four legislative leaders in the General Assembly.

The judges picked six men and two women to fill the eight citizen seats on the 16-member commission.

Four of the chosen members are White (three non-Hispanic and one Hispanic), two are Black, one is Asian American and one is multi-racial.

Three of the members are from Northern Virginia and two are from the Richmond area. Southwest Virginia, Southside and Hampton Roads will each have one citizen representative on the commission.

The group includes four self-identified Democrats and four who identified as Republicans.

The selected citizen members are:

Nominees of Senate President Pro Tempore Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth:

  • James Abrenio, 37, of Fairfax, a trial lawyer.
  • Sean S. Kumar, 41, of Alexandria, a strategic advisor and lawyer.

Nominees of House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax:

  • Brandon Christopher Hutchins, 39, of Virginia Beach, a military veteran and health care professional.
  • Greta J. Harris, 60, of Richmond, president and CEO of the Better Housing Coalition.

Nominees of Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City:

  • Marvin W. Gilliam Jr., 64, of Bristol, a retired coal mining executive.
  • Richard O. Harrell III, 74, of South Boston, a trucking executive.

Nominees of House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah:

  • Jose A. Feliciano Jr., 52, of Fredericksburg, a military veteran and federal agent with the FCC’s public safety bureau.
  • Mackenzie K. Babichenko, 36, of Mechanicsville, an assistant prosecutor in Hanover County.

(Note: Some applicants were nominated as finalists by multiple legislative leaders, but the judges had to pick two from each leader’s list.)

The other eight seats on the commission will be filled by sitting state legislators.

The commission, approved by voters in a ballot referendum last year, will soon get to work preparing to redraw Virginia’s legislative and congressional districts, a process previously handled wholly by the General Assembly. Because of uncertainty surrounding the 2020 Census data, the exact timeline for the commission’s work is unclear. New maps are supposed to be in place in time for House of Delegates elections this November, but Census delays may make it impossible to redraw the districts in time.

Whenever the state receives solid data on population shifts, the commission’s decisions could impact the partisan tilt of the statehouse and the congressional delegation for the next decade.

Critics of the commission proposal warned that it lacked adequate provisions to ensure a diverse group of people would be at the table for the next redistricting process. But diversity seemed to be a top priority for the judges, with their discussion centering more on whether they were achieving the right balance rather than the backgrounds and qualifications of specific applicants.

Comparing notes on which candidates stood out to them, the judges initially narrowed the finalists down to a group of 19. They then realized their shortlist lacked any Hispanic applicants and didn’t include anyone from the Eastern Shore/Northern Neck region. The panel made a point of adding at least one Hispanic applicant (Feliciano) after retired retired Judge Larry B. Kirksey said he was troubled by the lack of Hispanic representation. But several judges said it was nearly impossible to create a perfectly representative commission given their limited options for just eight slots.

“’We can only work with the list of folks that came to us from the members of the General Assembly,” said retired Judge Joanne F. Alper. “We didn’t have access to the whole 1,200.”

Alper said she felt it was important to include at least one member from the Southside and Southwest regions, even though their shortlist only included White men from those areas.

“You need somebody at least that has some knowledge of that region,” she said.

Some progressives had raised alarms that the pool of applicants was disproportionately White and wealthy, pointing to an analysis by the Virginia Public Access Project.

The application process was open to everyone willing to fill out the form and provide three reference letters, but the judges also grappled with strict, General Assembly-imposed limitations on who was eligible to serve.

To prevent cronyism, the legislature passed rules barring political aides, lobbyists, partisan operatives and family members of elected officials from serving on the commission. But those rules also forced the judges to reluctantly strike one applicant whose wife previously worked on Capitol Hill.

Several judges said they were impressed by both the quantity and quality of the applicants interested in serving on the commission.

“I’m just amazed by the diversity, the energy, the brilliance,” said Kirksey.  “Not just brightness. There is brilliance on this list.”

Va. political leaders name 8 legislators who’ll serve on new redistricting commission
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw December 1, 2020 (Medium)
The Capitol at dusk. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The group of eight Democratic and Republican legislators who will serve on Virginia’s new redistricting commission will be made up of five men and three women, including two senior members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.

The legislative members, who will wield significant power over how legislative and congressional districts are redrawn when new U.S. Census data comes in next year, come from districts that touch most regions of the state, ensuring some level of geographic diversity in the process.

Leaders of the General Assembly’s four political caucuses announced their appointees to the commission this week, filling half the seats on a newly created commission voters approved in a referendum last month. Instead of having the full General Assembly draw new political maps itself, the eight legislators on the 16-person commission will work with eight citizen members to draft new maps for the decade ahead. The application window for citizens who want to serve on the commission opened this week and will close on Dec. 28.

The map-drawing process could shape which party holds power in Richmond, which incumbents can safely win re-election and which might face challenges, and how much clout geographic regions will have in the state legislature.

As they work to set up the commission, Republican and Democratic leaders in the two chambers got to pick two appointees each from their own ranks.

Those appointees are:

House Democrats

  • Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax
  • Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond

House Republicans

  • Del. Les Adams, R-Chatham
  • Del. Margaret Ransone, R-Westmoreland

Senate Democrats

  • Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton
  • Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax

Senate Republicans

  • Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg
  • Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover

Each two-person caucus unit is important because, according to the commission rules, each one could block a map proposal even if the other three groups support it. That system is meant to foster collaboration and bipartisanship, but if the commission fails to approve a plan it would fall to the Supreme Court of Virginia to oversee the creation of maps drawn by appointed experts.

Six of the legislative members supported the commission proposal when it was passed by the General Assembly earlier this year. The two House Democrats did not. Nor did Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, who appointed them.

One of the opponents’ primary concerns was that the commission might not be diverse enough.

“A Redistricting Commission that represents the racial, ethnic, geographic and gender diversity of the commonwealth is necessary to ensure every Virginian has a voice in the redistricting process and in our government,” Filler-Corn said in a statement. “Commissioners will need to be committed to inclusion and dedicated to a fair redistricting process that protects the vote of every Virginian. These are the standards for individuals I am appointing as legislators today and my recommendations for citizen members to the commission moving forward.”

In an interview, Simon, who fought the redistricting amendment hard during the 2020 session and in the run-up to the election, said he expects to “be there to sort of keep an eye on things.”

“I think we want to deliver to voters what they expected,” Simon said. “Which is a fair process and maps that sort of reflect the political makeup of Virginia.”

The Senate’s picks largely reflect seniority. Locke and Barker were major supporters of the redistricting reform push. Locke is chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus, and Barker was a patron of the constitutional amendment creating the commission.

“These two leaders have the experience, knowledge, and historical context of redistricting and also are keenly aware of the importance of making sure we have diverse representation in our Commissioners,” Sen. Louse Lucas, D-Portsmouth, who made the Democrats’ picks as the president pro tempore of the Senate, said in a news release. “Senators Locke and Barker have been involved in this process for years and I know they will be a great addition to the commission.”

McDougle is the Republican caucus chair, and Newman served as president pro tempore of the Senate before Republicans lost their majority last year.

The picks from House Republicans were somewhat surprising. Neither Adams nor Ransone is a member of the House GOP leadership, and neither are seen as particularly outspoken partisan warriors.

In a news release, House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, noted that both Adams and Ransone “supported the creation of the commission throughout.”

“With their combined knowledge and experience, I have no doubt they will help craft what the voters have demanded — fair maps for every Virginian,” Gilbert said.

Virginia General Assembly passes rules for newly approved redistricting commission
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw November 9, 2020 (Short)
Voters cast ballots at Charles M. Johnson Elementary School in Henrico County. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

With Virginia’s redistricting debate now settled by voters, state lawmakers approved a package of rules Monday for how the new, bipartisan map-drawing commission will work next year.

Democrats’ dispute over the redistricting commission, which almost 66 percent of Virginia voters approved last week, delayed the formal conclusion of the special session that began in August. To settle it, legislative leaders and Gov. Ralph Northam agreed to pass a post-election budget amendment allowing the commission to be set up and begin its work next year.

Democrats in the House of Delegates had opposed putting the language in the budget as the session seemed to be coming to a close last month. They argued voters should decide on the constitutional amendment creating the commission as it stood, without any improvements added legislatively.

On Monday, a few House Democrats gave speeches saying they still feel the commission idea is flawed, but will respect the result.

“The people have spoken in great numbers and they wanted to see changes in how the redistricting process happens in Virginia,” said Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, an outspoken critic of the commission proposal who called it “regrettable that there was so much confusion and misinformation” about the redistricting question on the ballot.

The House voted 99-0 to approve the redistricting language. It also easily cleared the Senate.

Proponents of the change have hailed the commission as a much-needed change to a system that has given elected legislators free rein to draw districts to benefit themselves or their party behind closed doors.

“From the start, this movement has been about putting the voices of citizens above politicians and political parties,” the redistricting reform group OneVirginia2021 said in a statement celebrating the commission’s passage.

Voters approved a constitutional amendment creating a 16-person commission with equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats and seats split between sitting legislators and citizen members. Once new U.S. Census data is received in 2021, the commission will redraw Virginia’s congressional and legislative districts, a process that could determine partisan control in Richmond.

The commission’s members will be appointed in the coming weeks, and the panel has to hold its first meeting before Feb. 1.

The budget language approved Monday lays out who is eligible to serve on the commission and the process it will follow.

Among other things, the language:

  • Bans people who hold partisan offices, political aides, campaign employees, lobbyists and others from being appointed to the citizen seats to the commission. It also bans political insiders’ relatives from serving on the commission.
  • Stipulates that the commission’s makeup should reflect Virginia’s “racial, ethnic, geographic and gender diversity.”
  • Declares that the commission’s records, including internal communications, are public and subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.
  • Bans commission members from discussing redistricting-related matters with any third parties “outside of a public meeting or hearing.”
  • Requires the Supreme Court of Virginia to appoint two experts, or special masters, to draw court-overseen maps if the commission and the General Assembly fail to agree on their own. The special masters would be picked from lists submitted by political leaders from both parties.
  • Requires any Supreme Court judge related to a member of Congress or the General Assembly to recuse themselves from any redistricting decision. Current Justice Teresa M. Chafin is the sister of state Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Lebanon.
In historic change, Virginia voters approve bipartisan commission to handle political redistricting
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw et al.November 4, 2020 (Medium)
Voters arrive at the Taylor Masonic Lodge in Scottsville, Va., Nov. 3, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce / For the Virginia Mercury)

For years, redistricting reform advocates have been arguing something should be done to curb Virginia’s long history of political gerrymandering.

On Tuesday, voters overwhelmingly agreed, passing a constitutional amendment that largely strips the General Assembly of its authority to redraw legislative and congressional districts, a historic shift in a system that dates back to Virginia’s colonial beginnings.

Wielding that power instead will be a 16-member, bipartisan redistricting commission made up of both sitting lawmakers and citizens, a panel designed to conduct its business publicly as opposed to the secretive, insider-driven processes of the past.

In a year of intense partisan division, the idea of depoliticizing the redistricting process seemed to draw broad support across parties and regions. With almost 90 percent of expected votes counted early Wednesday morning, about 67 percent of Virginians had voted in favor of the amendment.

Though some votes were still uncounted, FairMapsVA, the anti-gerrymandering group pushing for the amendment with its parent organization OneVirginia2021, declared victory around 12:40 a.m., saying the result came after six years of work.

“Tonight, we celebrate the formation of Virginia’s first citizen-led redistricting commission; and tomorrow, we get back to work to ensure the commission’s work is successful,” the group said in a statement.

The outcome ensures that the next redistricting process — which could determine how much representation Virginia communities have, which political party is likely to hold power in Richmond and which incumbents are or aren’t safe from election challenges — will have at least some direct citizen involvement for the first time ever.

Once a decade, the state uses new U.S. Census data to redraw legislative and congressional maps to ensure each district has roughly the same population. How those districts are drawn can have far-reaching impacts, affecting which party can win a majority of the seats, electoral competitiveness, how much political power minority communities have and which individual politicians get to represent a particular area. So it’s no surprise that changing who draws those maps was a contentious endeavor.

The vote on the redistricting question, coupled with strong Democratic victories in Tuesday’s statewide races, reveals a disconnect between some Democratic leaders and the party’s voters.

Many Democrats in the House of Delegates voted against the commission proposal this year after voting for it in 2019, a reversal they said came after they had more time to consider its flaws. The Democratic Party of Virginia also officially opposed the initiative despite the fact that it was supported by senior Virginia Democrats like U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner. Had the amendment failed, the Democratic-led General Assembly and Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam would have the final say on new maps.

Fair Districts VA, an advocacy group formed by Democrats opposed to the ballot question, conceded defeat early Wednesday morning, saying it had been “fighting an uphill battle.” The group demanded that more be done to pursue stronger redistricting reform going forward.

“The people who pushed Amendment 1 know of its flaws – and it is now incumbent upon them to seek real solutions to fix those flaws,” Fair Districts said in a news release.

The proposal was supported by national good-government groups as well as the ACLU of Virginia, the League of Women Voters of Virginia and the Virginia Chamber of Commerce. But it fell short of what many redistricting reformers envisioned: a fully independent commission that gives incumbent politicians no power whatsoever to draw their own districts.

Because Virginia has no process for citizen-initiated constitutional amendments, it’s always been up to state lawmakers to willingly give up their redistricting power. In previous years, the Republican-led House of Delegates routinely blocked redistricting reform efforts. But GOP leaders changed their position in 2019 after federal courts redrew some House districts to correct Republican-led racial gerrymandering, a development that helped put the House GOP majority in jeopardy heading into the 2019 elections.

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, argued unsuccessfully in March for an alternative redistricting amendment that was supported by a majority of Democrats in the House of Delegates. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Reserving half the seats for legislators was seen as a compromise that still gives General Assembly leaders a hand in redistricting, which can have career-ending consequences for incumbents whose districts change dramatically.

Maps produced by the new commission will go to the General Assembly for an up-or-down vote. If the commission can’t agree on maps or the General Assembly rejects the commission’s maps, the Supreme Court of Virginia would conduct a court-supervised redistricting process.

Opponents have also argued the commission proposal lacks explicit protections for minority communities. Supporters say the amendment achieves that by referencing the federal Voting Rights Act and specifying that districts will allow “opportunities for racial and ethnic communities to elect candidates of their choice.”

The insidery arguments about the commission’s particulars seemed to escape many Virginians.

Some voters said they hadn’t heard about the redistricting amendment until they saw it on their ballot Tuesday, drawing disparate conclusions about its potential impact from the one-paragraph description they read in the voting booth.

At a polling place in downtown Richmond, none sounded especially confident in their interpretations.

“It’s so convoluted if you read it from the back of a voter ballot,” said Patrick Ogden, who ultimately decided to vote no because he opposed the idea of stripping the governor of his authority to veto redistricting plans and giving the unelected members of the Supreme Court of Virginia a role in the process. “I believe the governor should have a little more say. At least that’s what I read from it.”

Sasha Atkins, who also voted no, said the explanation on the ballot made her worry the amendment wouldn’t give regular citizens enough of a say in the redistricting process. “We should be representing ourselves,” she said.

Another voter at the same polling place said she voted for the measure, but only because she thought it addressed how local school districts redraw their boundaries.

In Southwest Virginia’s Franklin County, Gary Holden of Ferrum said he supported the commission while voting “straight-ticket Democrat.” He said he saw the commission as preferable to the current system “so long as it’s made up of equal parties.”

In Virginia Beach, 44-year-old schoolteacher Scott Parker said he voted for the redistricting amendment because he wanted to bring more logic to the process.

At the same polling place, Janise Jenkins, a 39-year-old property manager, also said the amendment would be an improvement on the status quo.

“It will be fair, more reasonable,” she said.

The commission was approved just in time to handle the redistricting process scheduled for 2021, but pandemic-related delays with the census data could create severe timing issues. With all 100 seats in the House of Delegates up for election next year, officials will have to rush to get new districts in place in time for late-summer primaries and a shortened general-election cycle.

If the delays make it impossible to draw new districts in time, the House elections could potentially be run using existing district lines. The state could also be left scrambling if there appear to be major problems with the census count conducted in such a chaotic year.

In the short term, officials will get to work setting up the commission and deciding who will serve on it. By Nov. 15, the state Supreme Court is supposed to submit a list of retired judges willing to serve on a selection committee that will pick the citizen members from nominees floated by General Assembly leaders. The commission’s eight legislative members are scheduled to be appointed by Dec. 1.

The commission has to hold its first public meeting by Feb. 1.

First, the General Assembly will reconvene to pass additional rules for how the commission will work. Those rules were being considered for inclusion in the state budget during the recent special session, but the fierce intraparty debate among Democrats over the amendment led lawmakers to keep the budget process open until after the outcome was known.

With the amendment approved by voters, the legislature is set to return next week to finish that work.

Summary

For years, redistricting reform advocates have been arguing something should be done to curb Virginia’s long history of political gerrymandering.

On November 5th, voters overwhelmingly agreed, passing a constitutional amendment that largely strips the General Assembly of its authority to redraw legislative and congressional districts, a historic shift in a system that dates back to Virginia’s colonial beginnings.

Wielding that power instead will be a 16-member, bipartisan redistricting commission made up of both sitting lawmakers and citizens, a panel designed to conduct its business publicly as opposed to the secretive, insider-driven processes of the past.

In a year of intense partisan division, the idea of depoliticizing the redistricting process seemed to draw broad support across parties and regions. With almost 90 percent of expected votes counted early Wednesday morning, about 67 percent of Virginians had voted in favor of the amendment.

From Virginia Mercury article on Nov. 4, 2020 (see Top News for full article)

About

Background

Redistricting in the United States is the process of drawing electoral district boundaries. A congressional act enacted in 1967 requires that representatives be elected from single-member districts, except when a state has a single representative, in which case one state-wide at-large election be held.

Redistricting criteria

From Wikipedia
The Reapportionment Act of 1929 withdrew the size and population requirements for Congressional districts, last stated in the Apportionment Act of 1911. The previous apportionment acts required districts be contiguous, compact, and equally populated.

Each state can set its own standards for Congressional and legislative districts. In addition to equalizing the population of districts and complying with federal requirements, criteria may include attempting to create compact, contiguous districts, trying to keep political units and communities within a single district, and avoiding the drawing of boundaries for purposes of partisan advantage or incumbent protection.

Redistricting may follow other criteria depending on State and local laws:

  1. compactness
  2. contiguity
  3. equal population
  4. preservation of existing political communities
  5. partisan fairness
  6. racial fairness

Gerrymandering

From Wikipedia

Gerrymandering in the United States has been used to increase the power of a political party. The term “gerrymandering” was coined by a review of Massachusetts’s redistricting maps of 1812 set by Governor Elbridge Gerry that was named because one of the districts looked like a salamander.

Gerrymandering, in other words, is the practice of setting boundaries of electoral districts to favor specific political interests within legislative bodies, often resulting in districts with convoluted, winding boundaries rather than compact areas.

In the United States, redistricting takes place in each state about every ten years, after the decennial census. It defines geographical boundaries, with each district within a state being geographically contiguous and having about the same number of state voters. The resulting map affects the elections of the state’s members of the US House of Representatives and the state legislative bodies. Redistricting has always been regarded as a political exercise and in most states, it is controlled by state legislators and governor. When one party controls the state’s legislative bodies and governor’s office, it is in a strong position to gerrymander district boundaries to advantage its side and to disadvantage its political opponents. Since 2010, detailed maps and high-speed computing have facilitated gerrymandering by political parties in the redistricting process, in order to gain control of state legislation and congressional representation, and to potentially maintain that control over several decades even against shifting political changes in a state’s population. Gerrymandering has been sought as unconstitutional in many instances, but it has made many elections more representative[citation needed]. Even as redistricting can advantage the party in control of the process, political science research suggests that its effects are not as large as critics may say. It does not necessarily “advantage incumbents, reduce competitiveness, or exacerbate political polarization.”

Typical gerrymandering cases in the United States take the form of partisan gerrymandering, which is aimed at favor in one political party or weaken another; bipartisan gerrymandering, which is aimed at protecting incumbents by multiple political parties; and racial gerrymandering, which is aimed at weakening the power of minority voters.

Gerrymandering can also recreate districts with the aim of maximizing the number of racial minorities to assist particular nominees, who are minorities themselves. In some other cases that have the same goal of diluting the minority vote, the districts are reconstructed in a way that packs minority voters into a smaller or limited number of districts.

2000-2010
The potential to gerrymander a district map has been aided by advances in computing power and capabilities. Using geographic information system and census data as input, mapmakers can use computers to process through numerous potential map configurations to achieve desired results, including partisan gerrymandering.[Computers can assess voter preferences and use that to “pack” or “crack” votes into districts. Packing votes refers to concentrating voters in one voting district by redrawing congressional boundaries so that those in opposition of the party in charge of redistricting are placed into one larger district, therefore reducing the party’s congressional representation. Cracking refers to diluting the voting power of opposition voters across many districts by redrawing congressional boundaries so that voting minority populations in each district are reduced, therefore lowering the chance of a district-oriented congressional takeover. Both techniques lead to what the Times describes as “wasted votes,” which are votes that do not supply a party with any victory. These can either be a surplus of votes in one district for one party that are above the threshold needed to win, or any vote that has resulted in a loss. A study done by the University of Delaware mentions situations in which an incumbent that is required to live in the district they represent can be “hijacked” or “kidnapped” into a neighboring district due to the redrawing of congressional boundaries, subsequently placing them in districts that are more difficult for them to win in.Partisan gerrymandering oftentimes leads to benefits for a particular political party, or, in some cases, a race.

2010-2020
In the lead-up to the 2010 United States elections, the Republican party initiated a program called REDMAP, the Redistricting Majority Project, which recognized that the party in control of state legislatures would have the ability to set their congressional and legislative district maps based on the pending 2010 United States Census in manner to assure that party’s control over the next ten years. The Republicans took significant gains from the 2010 elections across several states, and by 2011 and 2012, some of the new district maps showed Republican advantage through perceived partisan gerrymandering. This set the stage for several legal challenges from voters and groups in the court system, including several heard at the Supreme Court level.

In 2015, Thomas Hofeller was hired by the Washington Free Beacon to analyze what would happen if political maps were drawn based on the population of U.S. citizens of voting age rather than on the total population. He concluded that doing so “would be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.” Although the study was not published, it was discovered after his death in 2018.[19] Attorney General William P. Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur L. Ross Jr. have refused to cooperate with an investigation into why the Trump administration added a U.S. citizenship question to the 2020 census and specifically whether it seeks to benefit Republicans as suggested by Hofeller’s study.

Several state court rulings found partisan gerrymandering to be impermissible under state constitutions, and several state ballot measures passed in 2018 that require non-partisan commissions for the 2020 redistricting cycle.

 

Congress

Redistricting Bills – 116th Congress

While states are responsible for drawing congressional districts every ten years, Congress has the power under the Constitution’s Elections Clause (Art. I, sec. 4) to set rules governing how states draw districts. Congress has used this power in the past, for example, to mandate that states use single-member districts.

Below are the redistricting and census-related bills that members have filed during the 116th Congress. For information on redistricting and census-related bills filed in state legislatures, please visit our State Redistricting Bill Tracker.

_____

H.R. 1: Bill to enact various democracy reforms, including requiring states to create fifteen-member independent commissions to draw congressional districts and establishing redistricting criteria

  • Ranked criteria include racial fairness provision, protection for communities of interest, and ban on partisan gerrymandering
  • Requires at least three public hearings before and after a plan is drafted; requires the commission to submit a report that includes responses to public comment alongside the final plan

H.R. 4: Bill revising the coverage formula for jurisdictions that must preclear election law changes – including redistricting plans – under Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965

H.R. 36: Bill expressing sense of Congress that partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts should be banned

H.R. 44: Bill prohibiting states from carrying out mid-decade congressional redistricting

H.R. 124: Bill prohibiting states from carrying out mid-decade congressional redistricting, requiring states to create political appointee commissions for congressional redistricting, and establishing redistricting criteria

  • Criteria partially ranked
  • Requires commission to create a website for public notice and input

H.R. 130: Identical bill to H.R. 124

H.R. 131: Bill requiring certain measures of transparency during congressional redistricting, requiring state redistricting entities to:

  • Create a website for public notice and input
  • Hold at least one public hearing on both the preliminary and final plans
  • Release a report accompanying the final plan explaining the reasons for adoption

H.R. 163: Bill requiring states to create commissions and implement open primaries for federal elections

H.R. 181: Bill limiting the penalty imposed on individuals who refuse to answer questions on the decennial census

H.R. 732: Bill prohibiting the Secretary of Commerce from implementing a design feature or adding any question not tested for at least three years to the decennial census

H.R. 794: Bill directing the Secretary of Commerce to adjust federal census population data to reflect incarcerated persons’ pre-incarceration residential addresses

H.R. 1320: Bill requiring the decennial census to include a citizenship question

H.R. 1612: Bill to enact various democracy reforms, including requiring states to create fifteen-member independent commissions to draw congressional districts and establishing redistricting criteria

  • Ranked criteria, including racial fairness provision, protection for communities of interest, and ban on partisan gerrymandering
  • Requires at least three public hearings before and after a plan is drafted; requires the commission to submit a report that includes responses to public comment alongside the final plan

H.R. 1734: Bill prohibiting the inclusion of citizenship, nationality, or immigration status questions on the decennial census

H.R. 1799: Bill revising the coverage formula for determining the jurisdictions that must preclear election law changes – including redistricting plans – under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965

H.R. 2057: Bill directing the Attorney General to enter into an agreement with the National Academies to study and recommend best congressional redistricting practices to Congress

H.R. 3572: Bill requiring states to create fifteen-member independent commissions to draw congressional districts and establishing redistricting criteria

  • Ranked criteria include racial fairness provision, protection for communities of interest, and a ban on partisan gerrymandering
  • Requires at least three public hearings before and after a plan is drafted; requires the commission to submit a report that includes responses to public comment alongside the final plan

H.R. 3765: Companion bill to S. 1358

H.R. 4000: Bill enacting ranked choice voting and multimember congressional districts, creating fifteen-member independent commissions to draw congressional districts, and establishing redistricting criteria

  • Ranked criteria, including racial fairness provision and ban on statewide partisan gerrymandering
  • Requires at least three public hearings before and after a plan is drafted; requires the commission to submit a report that includes responses to public comment alongside the final plan

H.R. 4412: Bill prohibiting the U.S. Census Bureau from including citizenship information in the population data reported to states for legislative redistricting

S. 201: Bill requiring the decennial census to count the total number of people in each state and prohibiting the addition of citizenship or immigration status questions

S. 358: Companion bill to H.R. 732

S. 561: Companion bill to H.R. 4

S. 949: Bill to enact various democracy reforms, including requiring states to create fifteen-member independent commissions to draw congressional districts and establishing redistricting criteria

  • Ranked criteria, including racial fairness provision, protection for communities of interest, and ban on partisan gerrymandering
  • Requires at least three public hearings before and after a plan is drafted; requires the commission to submit a report that includes responses to public comment alongside the final plan

S. 1358: Bill requiring the decennial census to include a citizenship question

S. 1972: Bill establishing redistricting criteria

  • Congressional districts only
  • Unranked criteria, including racial fairness provision, protection for communities of interests, and ban on partisan gerrymandering
  • Provides for the right of any eligible voter in a state to contest a gerrymandered map

S.2068: Bill prohibiting the Secretary of Commerce from including citizenship information in the population data reported to states for legislative redistricting

S.2233: Bill nullifying the effect of Executive Order 13880 (“Collecting Information About Citizenship Status in Connection With the Decennial Census”)

S. 2226: Bill requiring states to create fifteen-member independent commissions to draw congressional districts and establishing redistricting criteria

  • Ranked criteria include racial fairness provision, protection for communities of interest, and a ban on partisan gerrymandering
  • Requires at least three public hearings before and after a plan is drafted; requires the commission to submit a report that includes responses to public comment alongside the final plan

 

Fair Representation Act

Congressman Don Beyer has led the US House efforts to enact the Fair Representation Act.

Below is a summary of these efforts from Don Beyer’s government website.

Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) and a group of House Democrats today introduced the Fair Representation Act, an election reform bill to change the way U.S. Representatives are elected. The bill, which includes a provision requiring that all Congressional districts be drawn by independent commissions to prevent gerrymandering, came soon after the Supreme Court’s decision in Rucho v. Common Cause, which upheld political gerrymandering.

“The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold political gerrymandering is the latest in a series of terrible setbacks for our democracy, and our legislation would help put the country back on the right track,” said Rep. Beyer. “At a time when Americans have waning faith in institutions and political leadership, the Fair Representation Act would help restore the trust which so many have lost in our political system. This bill would ensure that every voter has their voice represented in Congress, and make real progress towards bipartisan focus on getting results for the American people.”

Beyer was joined in introducing the bill by Representatives Jamie Raskin (D-MD), Ro Khanna (D-CA), Jim Cooper (D-TN), and Jim McGovern (D-MA).

“American democracy needs a new engine, which is embodied in this legislation,“ said Rep. Raskin. “I’m proud to cosponsor the Fair Representation Act to make our elections more positive and our government more representative. Let’s open up American politics to new voices, new choices and representation for all.”

“Reforming Congress will empower citizens to reclaim our democracy,” said Rep. Khanna. “The Fair Representation Act would help increase representation for communities left out of our political system and open up the two-party system to much-needed choice for voters. I thank Representative Beyer for his courage in reintroducing such a bold solution to reform American elections.”

The Fair Representation Act would move US House elections into multi-member districts drawn by independent redistricting commissions and elected through ranked choice voting. Taken together, these three measures would incentivize congressional candidates to appeal to a broader range of voters.

“Partisan politics and gerrymandering have taken over our elections and helped create the gridlock we’re seeing in Congress,” Rep. Cooper said. “This bill will allow the voices of more Americans to be heard.”

“Our democracy is in serious jeopardy. Right now, we have a system in many states where our representatives are picking the people who vote for them instead of the other way around. If that weren’t bad enough, last month the Supreme Court further undermined faith in our government by upholding this awful practice,” said Rep. McGovern. “I’m proud to join with Representative Beyer to introduce this critical bill, and I’m grateful for his leadership to ensure that every voice is heard and every vote matters.”

The Fair Representation Act was hailed by nonpartisan organizations FairVote, RepresentWomen, and Feminist Majority Foundation.

“Congress must fix partisan gerrymandering, yet can’t stop with independent commissions. We must replace winner-take-all elections with the Fair Representation Act to represent the millions of voters who, defying partisan stereotypes, could bridge our seemingly unbridgeable political divides. Ensuring every voter matters in every election is the best way to reverse what has become quite literally a death spiral for our constitutional order,” said Rob Richie, President and CEO of FairVote.

“Despite gains for women in the 2018 midterm elections, women remain under-represented at every level of government. I support the Fair Representation Act because it will help to elect significantly more women to Congress by opening up the political process so that more women can run and win,” said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation.

“No single reform would create more opportunities for women and people of color from across the spectrum to compete in fair elections,” said Cynthia Richie Terrell, founder of RepresentWomen. “It is central to our vision of how we achieve parity for women in congressional elections.”

Full text of the Fair Representation Act may be found here, and more resources, including factsheets and FAQ’s, are available from FairVote here.

 

Redistricting Commission

From OneVirginia2021 Foundation webpage

On November 3, 2020, Virginia voters approved an amendment to the state constitution, which will create the first Virginia Redistricting Commission.
See the full text of the amendment here.

The General Assembly also passed enabling legislation in the state budget that elaborates on how the commission will operate, who will be eligible to serve, the diversity requirements throughout the process, and the rules by which the Supreme Court of Virginia must abide should they end up needing to establish the maps.
See the full text of the budget language here.

To view the full timeline for the 2021 redistricting process, click here.

To visit the new Virginia Redistricting website to learn more and see updated information and interactive maps, click here.

If you have further questions about the process or the eligibility requirements, email varedist@dls.virginia.gov.

The members of the first Virginia Redistricting Commission are:

Del. Les Adams (R, Chatham)
James Abrenio (D, Fairfax)
Mackenzie K. Babichenko (R, Mechanicsville)
Sen. George Barker (D, Fairfax)
Jose A. Feliciano, Jr. (R, Fredericksburg)
Marvin W. Gilliam (R, Bristol)
Richard O. Harrell, III (R, South Boston)
Greta J. Harris (D, Richmond)
Brandon Hutchins (D, Virginia Beach)
Sean S. Kumar (D, Alexandria)
Sen. Mamie Locke (D, Hampton)
Sen. Ryan McDougle (R, Mechanicsville)
Del. Delores McQuinn (D, Richmond)
Sen. Steve Newman (R, Forest)
Del. Margaret Ransone (R, Kinsale)
Del. Marcus Simon (D, Falls Church)

HOW WERE THE COMMISSIONERS CHOSEN?

Districts will be drawn by a commission composed of 8 citizens and 8 legislators, with one of the citizens serving as the Chair. The citizen selection process – which was recently completed – was politically balanced, and the final determination of who serves was made by a panel of five retired circuit court judges (see below.)

In making its selections, the selection committee was required to give consideration to the racial, ethnic, geographic, and gender diversity of the Commonwealth.

See VPAP’s visual guide to the full process here.

WHO IS ON THE SELECTION COMMITTEE?

The judges chosen by legislative leaders from both parties to be on the Redistricting Selection Committee are:
The Hon. Pamela Baskervill (Chair – Petersburg)
The Hon. Joanne F. Alper (Arlington)
The Hon. William C. Andrews, III (Williamsburg)
The Hon. Larry B. Kirksey (Bristol)
The Hon. David Pugh (Newport News)

Click here for the video of their first public meeting.

Community Mapping

From Monday Jan. 11, 2021 OneVirginia2021 email

Now that the Virginia Redistricting Commission members have been selected, we are looking ahead at the public input part of the process. The new redistricting laws say that those drawing the maps must consider communities of interest in their decisions, which begs the question, how do they know what those communities are?

The short answer is: the public has to tell them! Our focus going forward is to empower citizens to provide information about their communities to the Commission in a clear and usable way. The primary tool we have to offer is community mapping programs. These websites (Districtr, created by Tufts University, and Representable, created by Princeton University) do not require the user to create an account or download anything – they simply allow any member of the public to submit a map that shows a community that should be kept together in the new district maps.

You probably have lots of questions about this, and the best way to get answers is to attend the trainings this week! See our events page for a full listing of this week’s Representable and Districtr training sessions hosted by the League of Women Voters of Virginia, as well as the sign up links.

We’re looking forward to this next phase of the process and the historic opportunity for Virginians to make their voices heard in the redistricting process.

X
Virginia and Covid-19Virginia and Covid-19
Big uptick in vaccine supplies for states expected
Virginia Mercury, Laura OlsonFebruary 24, 2021 (Short)

Executives from five COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers told Congress Tuesday that they expect to significantly boost the number of shots delivered to states in the coming weeks.

Pfizer will increase weekly shipments to more than 13 million doses by mid-March, an increase from the 4 to 5 million doses shipped weekly in early February, the company’s chief business officer, John Young, told a U.S. House panel.

Moderna, the other vaccine that has received federal authorization for emergency use, expects to double its monthly vaccine deliveries by April to more than 40 million doses per month.

Fairfax County is ranked as one of the wealthiest communities in Virginia. It’s also one of the healthiest.

As of 2020, Fairfax led the state in measures including length of life, access to exercise opportunities and low rates of poor health indicators such as smoking and adult obesity, according to annual rankings by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. From 2015 to 2019, the county’s median household income was $124,831 (nationally, it’s around $68,703, according to the U.S. Census Bureau).

Currently, Fairfax County is also leading Virginia in vaccine distribution. In late January, health officials shifted the state’s strategy, routing doses through local health districts based on their percentage of the state’s population. As Virginia’s largest locality with more than 1.1 million residents, that left Fairfax with the largest share.

Even before then, the Fairfax County Health Department had requested — and received — more than eight times as many shots as other local health districts, according to data from the Virginia Department of Health. From Dec. 22 to Jan. 23, Fairfax received a total of 74,625 doses. Over the same time period, the Richmond-Henrico Health District, received a total of 19,550 doses for both localities, which have a combined population of nearly 560,000.

In the early weeks of Virginia’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout, hospital systems in five local health districts requested, and received, tens of thousands of doses — a disproportionately larger share than pharmacies, community health clinics and even the local health departments charged with overseeing the state’s immunization plan.

In Chesterfield, for example, HCA Virginia requested 27,775 first doses from Dec. 14 to Dec. 20 and ultimately received 18,275 — more than enough to vaccinate what Jeff Caldwell, the system’s vice president of communications, described as more than 17,000 total employees across the state. VCU Health in Richmond requested and received 20,050 first doses within the first three weeks of the state’s rollout — far more than its roughly 13,000 employees (spokeswoman Alex Nowak said the health system also has more than 10,000 “affiliated team members,” which include residents, medical students and food service workers, but not every direct or affiliated employee is involved in patient care.)

The Mercury obtained detailed distribution data for the Richmond, Henrico, Chesterfield, Fairfax and Central Shenandoah health districts from a reader, who noticed that the Virginia Department of Health’s public vaccine dashboard initially allowed the public to download spreadsheets showing how many doses were delivered to individual facilities.

Feds boost state vaccine shipments to 11 million doses next week
Virginia Mercury, Laura OlsonFebruary 9, 2021 (Short)

States will see another increase in the COVID-19 vaccine doses they receive, with President Joe Biden’s administration announcing Tuesday that the federal government will distribute 11 million doses next week.

That’s an increase from 10.5 million doses this week, and 8.6 million during the week President Joe Biden took office last month. Those increases were attributed to boosted production by vaccine manufacturers.

The administration has not published a state-by-state breakdown on how many doses are distributed each week. Iowa Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley, both Republicans, have questioned whether Iowa is receiving a fair share of doses under that formula, and wrote to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday, asking CDC officials to release the weekly formula for allocating vaccines to states.

State officials say they’re confident that no COVID-19 vaccines are going to waste in Virginia.

But seven weeks into the state’s vaccine rollout, the Virginia Department of Health won’t release data on wastage, which vaccinators are required to report under a provider agreement distributed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The document, which providers must fill out in order to administer vaccines, requires them to report the number of doses that were “unused, spoiled, expired, or wasted as required by the relevant jurisdiction.” In practice, that means hospitals, pharmacies and other administrators should be reporting the data to VDH, which then passes the information onto the CDC.

The Mercury first requested the data from VDH in late January, after Dr. Danny Avula, the state’s vaccine coordinator, stated in a telebriefing that the reporting was required but that he didn’t have information on wastage in Virginia.

Gov. Ralph Northam speaks at a news conference in August. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Here we go again, Virginia, trailing the pack at yet another critical turn in combating the global coronavirus pandemic — the rollout of the lifesaving vaccine that could finally break the back of COVID-19. And if you’re a Democrat in Virginia, particularly one who’s seeking statewide office this fall, this isn’t what you had hoped to see.

It feels like last March, when the coronavirus caught the commonwealth flat-footed and plodding in its initial mobilization against the novel and then-mysterious plague, forcing Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration to play catch-up.

Yes, catch up Virginia did. Eventually. Northam, the only physician governor of any U.S. state, finally issued forceful and unambiguous orders to kick Virginia’s protective response into the same high gear that Maryland, Ohio, New York and other states had already hit. Schools closed, as did most businesses not deemed essential. Home sheltering, working and learning remotely, social distancing, hand washing and mask wearing were the order of the day. Literally.

City streets fell silent and abandoned. For weeks on end, springtime gusts whistled across sprawling, empty shopping mall parking lots. Small businesses — and even some large ones — took it in the neck, particularly mom-and-pop restaurants, bars, retailers, gyms and cinemas. A chilling number of those shops and offices and eateries died, in many cases taking family livelihoods and life savings with them, and they will never be resurrected. Those were lifesaving steps Virginia had to take and the government was justified in taking them.

Friends Torin Enevoldsen and Taylor Little have a picnic in the parking lot with food they picked up from The Cheesecake Factory at Short Pump Town Center in Henrico, Va., May 16, 2020. Little said her mother originally suggested meeting friends for take-out lunches, while dining in most restaurants is still prohibited. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury

Even then, just when Northam had emphatically laid down the law on requiring the use of face coverings, he undermined his own messaging when photographs of him laughing it up unmasked and huddled close with others for selfies on Virginia Beach’s Boardwalk began trending across social media.

By summer, Virginia had ramped up testing, plateaued its numbers of COVID-19 cases and related deaths, and driven down the percentages of positive coronavirus tests. Restrictions were eased. By autumn, ours was among the states faring the best with the coronavirus. But getting there was like pulling teeth.

For reasons still not clear, Northam’s Department of Health balked at making public the granular coronavirus testing data for extended care facilities that families of elderly, ailing and vulnerable people could use to make informed decisions about their loved ones. That was particularly galling after an outbreak at a Henrico County nursing home was among the nation’s deadliest in the early weeks of the pandemic. Eventually, faced with withering media coverage and public outrage, the administration relented and, without explanation, made the data available.

The VDH’s reluctance to provide specific, actionable guidance last summer to school districts on whether, when and how to reopen classrooms or continue virtual schooling created chaos and conflict among faculty, administrators and parents within school divisions and resulted in a crazy-quilt patchwork of differing regimens across the state.

And so it goes.

Last Thursday, with the respected Becker’s Hospital Review ranking Virginia’s vaccination effort the fifth least effective in the nation, Northam found himself promising to jump-start a torpid immunization effort one month after Virginia got the first of its nearly 846,000 vaccine doses. According to Becker’s, only about 218,000 — barely over one-fourth — of those doses have been injected into the arms of Virginians.

Compare that to West Virginia, which has dispensed nearly 70 percent of its approximately 161,000 doses — the nation’s best rate. Maryland and North Carolina have each dispensed about 32 percent of their vaccine allotments, while Kentucky and Tennessee have injected 43 percent and 44 percent, respectively, of their doses. Idaho, Hawaii, Alabama and Georgia (the nation’s worst at just under 20 percent) were the only four states that performed worse than Virginia.

At Thursday’s news conference, Dr. Danny Avula, Northam’s newly appointed vaccine czar, said that to achieve a pace that puts the commonwealth ahead of the virus and returns life to normal sooner rather than later, Virginia needs to dispense about 50,000 doses daily. Last week, the state was at about 30 percent of that pace. As of Friday, 88 of the state’s 133 localities remained mired in Phase 1A, the first phase of the vaccine rollout that includes frontline healthcare workers, first-responders and nursing home residents. Only one-third of the localities, clustered mostly in Southwest Virginia, the Eastern Shore and Northern Virginia, had advanced to Phase 1B, which includes people 65 and older, police and firefighters, teachers, grocery workers and essential government workers.

Northam said he was “pleased” with a pace in which only one out of every four doses the state received a month ago has been injected.

“Everyone will need to be patient. It’s going to happen as fast as it can be done and it’s moving faster every day,” he said Thursday. “Monday, we vaccinated more than 15,000 people. Tuesday, it was more than 17,000.”

When Virginia is the laggard behind every one of its contiguous neighbors, isn’t it fair to ask why? Two weeks ago in Tennessee, for instance, officials in Sullivan County opened a max vaccination site at the Bristol Motor Speedway Dragway, a 10-minute drive from the Virginia border. On its first day, Jan. 7, the site ran out of doses by noon. Vaccinations are scheduled for four days starting this week at Richmond’s enormous car-racing venue. The sprawling NASCAR stadium in Martinsville also volunteered to be a mass-vaccination venue if needed, but thus far has no takers.

Patience, your excellency, is in short supply. After a life-altering (and, in more than 5,600 cases in Virginia and nearly 400,000 nationally, life-ending) 11 months of pandemic, a searing summer of racial unrest, an election from hell and an even worse post-election in which a defeated president instigated the attempted violent overthrow of Congress in a vain effort to keep the victor from taking office, this might not be the most opportune time to prescribe a chill pill.

And, boy, did Virginia’s out-of-power, victory-starved Republicans notice.

Del. Kirk Cox, a conservative former House speaker and a declared GOP candidate for governor, assailed the Northam administration’s lethargic response in a statement.

“While … it’s good news that he’s trying to speed up vaccine distribution, the truth is ‘better late than never’ just doesn’t cut it,” Cox said, adding that he urged Northam “to take decisive action over a week ago.”

Northam could still turn around Virginia’s thus-far inauspicious vaccine deployment, just as his administration eventually energized Virginia’s leisurely initial response to the pandemic last spring. But if he doesn’t, it could hand Republicans another significant election-year bouquet.

This year, the GOP won’t run in the shadow of a president so polarizing that he just cost once-ruby-red Georgia both of its Republican U.S. senators, flipping control of the Senate to the Democrats. They’ll also have a raft of brochure issues courtesy of Virginia Democrats, including proposals to end the death penalty and legalize marijuana, plus last year’s parole board debacle. Those issues resonate among conservatives and many centrists and could buttress a GOP argument that Democrats have gone too far left for an electorate that traditionally rewards moderation.

That said, Republicans haven’t found an opportunity over the past dozen years they couldn’t squander. They could do it again by nominating Amanda Chase, a Trump-style nationalist who urged the president to declare martial law to stay in power and whose incendiary claims have gotten her suspended from Facebook and ostracized by her own party.

The vaccine issue is one that voters will remember in November. The vaccine represents a genuine human triumph, our deliverance from the pain and loss that the past year has inflicted upon us. Government must get this right, and those in charge of it should answer for the consequences if it doesn’t.

Exhausted vaccine reserve could unravel plans for Phase 1b expansion in Virginia
Virginia Mercury, Kate MastersJanuary 15, 2021 (Short)
A provider with Augusta Health administers a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine this week. (Courtesy of Augusta Health)

News that the federal government has already exhausted its supply of “reserve” COVID-19 vaccines sent Virginia officials scrambling on Friday — less than 24 hours after Gov. Ralph Northam outlined plans to expand vaccine eligibility.

The Washington Post reported Friday that there was no federal stockpile of additional vaccines, despite an announcement earlier this week by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who told states the Trump administration would begin distributing those doses immediately. Previously, the administration said it was holding back the vaccines to ensure a second dose for everyone who had already received a first shot.

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines — the only ones currently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — require a two-shot schedule.

Northam, along with multiple other Democratic governors, first asked HHS to begin releasing the reserve doses earlier this month. Virginia, like other states, has attributed its slower-than-expected vaccine rollout in part to the limited supply coming from the federal government.

HHS initially appeared unwilling to acquiesce to the request, according to reporting from Politico. But the administration’s Operation Warp Speed reversed that stance soon after President-elect Joe Biden announced he would begin releasing reserve doses to states after taking office.

Northam was one of many public officials to celebrate the arrival of additional vaccines. In his State of the Commonwealth address Wednesday, the governor announced that Virginia would begin vaccinating residents aged 65 and older — a direct response to Azar, who told states to expand their vaccination eligibility to speed up the pace of administration.

Gov. Ralph Northam at a press conference in October. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

At a news briefing the next day, Northam announced that Virginians aged 65 and older, and those 65 and under with underlying medical conditions (including asthma, heart conditions and obesity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), would be moved into Phase 1b of the state’s vaccination plan — the second stage of prioritization after health care providers and long-term care residents.

“This means about half of Virginia is now eligible to receive the vaccine,” he said Thursday. “That’s a major logistical effort, and it’s not going to happen overnight.”

But with Friday’s report, the timeline — and whether those expanded populations will still be eligible for Phase 1b — is even more unclear. Last week, the Virginia Department of Health announced that 11 local districts were moving into the second stage of the state’s campaign (two more — Pittsylvania-Danville and Southside — later this week). At his briefing, Northam said the rest of Virginia would move into Phase 1b by the end of January, and some local health districts have already announced plans for delivering vaccines to the expanded population.

The governor’s office couldn’t immediately confirm whether the reported lack of reserve vaccines would affect plans to expand 1b. “Honestly, right now we’re just trying to get clear answers from the federal government,” spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky wrote in an email on Friday.

But the Post reported that vaccine shipments, for all states, would likely stay flat if no additional doses had been held in stockpile. For Virginia, that’s roughly 110,000 doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccine a week.

If that distribution remained the same, it would take around 39 weeks to vaccinate roughly half of all Virginians who fall into the expanded 1b category — which also includes teachers, first responders, and other essential workers. That’s a rough estimate, not accounting for new vaccines that may enter the supply chain and assuming that the state was also administering 110,000 doses a week.

At the same time, Virginia is still struggling to administer the vaccine doses it does have available. As of Friday, the state had only administered about 28 percent of the 943,400 total doses distributed to hospitals, local health departments and other medical facilities, according to date from the Virginia Department of Health’s vaccine reporting dashboard.

State health officials have said the dashboard is undercounting vaccines, partially due to lags or glitches in its electronic reporting system. But the CDC currently ranks Virginia 43 out of 50 states and Washington, D.C., when it comes to the number of doses administered per 100,000 people.

Dr. Danny Avula, the director of the Richmond-Henrico Health District who was recently appointed to head the state’s vaccine efforts, said officials were actively working to speed up the pace of vaccinations — including plans to establish large, free-standing vaccine clinics across the state.

But any mass immunization efforts will be hindered if vaccine supply remains low. Yarmosky said it was just one more frustration in trying to coordinate a COVID-19 response with the federal government.

“Once again, the Trump administration cannot seem to provide basic facts and truths,” she wrote Friday. “On Tuesday, governors were told explicitly that we would be provided additional doses — Virginia immediately pivoted and we moved quickly to expand eligibility and increase access.

“Now, the news media is reporting that the exact opposite may be true,” she said. “We’re frankly trying to gather as much information as possible right now — like every American, we need to understand what is going on, so we can plan accordingly. While astonishing, this is hardly surprising. What we’re seeing is fully in line with the dysfunction that has characterized the Trump administration’s entire response to COVID-19. President-elect Biden cannot be sworn in fast enough.”

Children head to school in Goochland County. (NBC12 via Goochland County Public Schools) Gov. Ralph Northam’s latest message to local school systems is to start thinking about reopening — and soon. “In the short term, all of our school divisions need to be making plans for how to reopen,” he said at a news briefing on Thursday. “It’s not going to happen next week. But I want our schools to come from this starting point: how do we get schools open safely?” Some division leaders said the new directive — accompanied by interim guidance from the Virginia Department of Health and Department of Education — represented a significant departure from the state’s earlier messaging on in-person instruction. Virginia’s initial guidance, released in July, emphasized that the final decision on reopening laid “squarely in the hands of local school boards” amid uncertain evidence on the role of children in COVID-19 transmission. But a new letter from Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane and state Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver assured superintendents, school leadership and local health departments that “data increasingly suggest that school reopenings are unlikely to contribute significantly to community transmission when rates of community transmission are low and schools have infection prevention measures in place.” The accompanying guidance includes a decision-making matrix that elevates individual mitigation measures over levels of community transmission. In a separate briefing later on Thursday, Lane said many divisions have been basing their reopening decisions primarily on top indicators from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which advise schools to consider community case rates and the percentage of positive tests over the last two weeks. New guidance from the Virginia Department of Education urges schools to consider individual COVID-19 mitigation measures over community transmission when making decisions on reopening. But Lane said heavier consideration should go to the ability of local schools to implement mitigation measures such as mask usage, sanitation and social distancing. Other main considerations include whether there’s evidence of spread within school buildings themselves, as well as the impact that school closures have had on the surrounding community. “Even if they’re in the highest category of community transmission — and even more so for low and moderate — we recommend that they maximize in-person learning as much as possible,” Lane said. The recommendations also call on schools to prioritize instruction for more vulnerable students, including young learners, students with disabilities and English language learners. And instead of making district-wide and long-term decisions — opting for remote learning over an entire quarter or semester, for example — officials say schools should have the flexibility to phase out decisions after a few weeks. “If there’s low absenteeism, there’s no case transmission in buildings, your staff capacity isn’t strained — that school should have some in-person options,” Lane said. “If there’s an outbreak in a school, certainly think of closing for some time. But if there are no outbreaks and no transmission in the school community, we’re saying you should open as long as you can do mitigation strategies.” However, as contact tracing resources have grown increasingly strained, most local health departments are prioritizing outbreaks and other cases that pose a significant public health risk. If multiple students or staff members test positive after close contact or sharing a potential exposure, health officials will likely investigate to determine if there was in-school transmission. But there’s little data on how most individual cases were contracted, and many local health officials have warned it’s become increasingly difficult to catch infected students or staff before they enter school buildings. Reopening decisions have sparked fierce debate in local communities since Northam first announced a framework to bring students back to the classroom — four months after becoming one of the first governors in the country to close schools for the remainder of the spring semester. Lane emphasized that the state never required schools to adopt remote instruction after releasing its first round of guidance in July. But those guidelines heavily emphasized CDC recommendations and asked schools to notify VDOE if they planned to deviate from the state’s framework. THE MORNING NEWSLETTER Subscribe now. By early September, the majority of local school divisions — 67 in total — had chosen to begin the fall semester remotely. As of Thursday, that number had dropped to 52. But Keith Perrigan, the superintendent for Bristol Public Schools in Southwest Virginia, said much of the ongoing caution stemmed from the original guidance, which took a more incremental approach to bringing students back to the classroom. “This is a huge change,” he said. “The previous phase guidance, it was probably more of a recommendation to be cautious. And I think the new guidance is to try your very best to reopen. If you can mitigate appropriately, you ought to do what you can to get back in school.” There’s still no mandate for school divisions to follow the state’s revised guidance. Lane said Thursday that the Virginia Constitution left the final decision with local school boards. But education officials also faced heavy criticism from some superintendents earlier this year for allowing local divisions to deviate from the original plan. State Superintendent James Lane in 2016, when he was named superintendent for Chesterfield Public Schools. (NBC12) Some school systems have already made the decision to stay closed until at least the early spring — something Lane said he’d recommend reconsidering in light of the new guidance and the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines. But there are also continued debates even in districts that have prioritized in-person learning. In Chesterfield County, which announced plans to bring back elementary students next month, parents launched a petition calling on the school system to reverse the decision and keep schools mostly closed until teachers are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Both Northam and Lane faced significant questioning over the timing of the new guidelines, given that many schools have already announced reopening decisions for the spring. Virginia is also experiencing an ongoing surge of COVID-19 which some models suggest could continue until February. Rates of community transmission are consistently higher across Virginia than they’ve been at any other point during the pandemic. Daily new cases have risen in all five geographic regions throughout the early days of January, and hospitalizations are at an all-time high. Many health systems have voluntarily canceled elective surgeries or announced new surge plans to boost capacity for an ongoing influx of cases. Lane said announcing the new guidance would give school districts the opportunity to prepare their plans in the coming weeks — even as Virginia contemplates longer-term changes such as year-round instruction to make up for learning loss during the pandemic. Northam also touted the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines as an important step in returning students safely to the classroom. “While getting everyone vaccinated isn’t necessary to reopening schools, it will make it a lot easier,” he said. Eleven local health districts have begun vaccinating educators — or plan to start soon — after moving into Phase 1b of the state’s vaccine campaign. Students at Watkins Elementary in Chesterfield County attend class wearing masks. Chesterfield returned to all virtual learning after Thanksgiving. (Chesterfield County Public Schools) But the timeline for the rest of the state remains unclear. As of Thursday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranked Virginia in the low bottom third of all U.S. states when it came to immunizing residents. The same day, VDH’s vaccine reporting dashboard showed that only about 25 percent of shots distributed across the state had made their way into patients’ arms. And throughout November and December, some health districts advised in-person schools to again close their buildings, warning that the surging cases made it impossible for them to trace and investigate new infections. In Bristol, Perrigan said it was the first dose of vaccines — administered by the local health department earlier this week — that helped reassure teachers more than anything else. “That’s what had the biggest impact — the availability of vaccines,” he said. “I think a lot of pressure was released once our staff was able to get that first round.”
Virginia Mercury, Kate MastersJanuary 15, 2021 (Medium)
Children head to school in Goochland County. (NBC12 via Goochland County Public Schools)

Gov. Ralph Northam’s latest message to local school systems is to start thinking about reopening — and soon.

“In the short term, all of our school divisions need to be making plans for how to reopen,” he said at a news briefing on Thursday. “It’s not going to happen next week. But I want our schools to come from this starting point: how do we get schools open safely?”

Some division leaders said the new directive — accompanied by interim guidance from the Virginia Department of Health and Department of Education — represented a significant departure from the state’s earlier messaging on in-person instruction. Virginia’s initial guidance, released in July, emphasized that the final decision on reopening laid “squarely in the hands of local school boards” amid uncertain evidence on the role of children in COVID-19 transmission.

But a new letter from Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane and state Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver assured superintendents, school leadership and local health departments that “data increasingly suggest that school reopenings are unlikely to contribute significantly to community transmission when rates of community transmission are low and schools have infection prevention measures in place.”

The accompanying guidance includes a decision-making matrix that elevates individual mitigation measures over levels of community transmission. In a separate briefing later on Thursday, Lane said many divisions have been basing their reopening decisions primarily on top indicators from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which advise schools to consider community case rates and the percentage of positive tests over the last two weeks.

New guidance from the Virginia Department of Education urges schools to consider individual COVID-19 mitigation measures over community transmission when making decisions on reopening.

But Lane said heavier consideration should go to the ability of local schools to implement mitigation measures such as mask usage, sanitation and social distancing. Other main considerations include whether there’s evidence of spread within school buildings themselves, as well as the impact that school closures have had on the surrounding community.

“Even if they’re in the highest category of community transmission — and even more so for low and moderate — we recommend that they maximize in-person learning as much as possible,” Lane said.

The recommendations also call on schools to prioritize instruction for more vulnerable students, including young learners, students with disabilities and English language learners. And instead of making district-wide and long-term decisions — opting for remote learning over an entire quarter or semester, for example — officials say schools should have the flexibility to phase out decisions after a few weeks.

“If there’s low absenteeism, there’s no case transmission in buildings, your staff capacity isn’t strained — that school should have some in-person options,” Lane said. “If there’s an outbreak in a school, certainly think of closing for some time. But if there are no outbreaks and no transmission in the school community, we’re saying you should open as long as you can do mitigation strategies.”

However, as contact tracing resources have grown increasingly strained, most local health departments are prioritizing outbreaks and other cases that pose a significant public health risk. If multiple students or staff members test positive after close contact or sharing a potential exposure, health officials will likely investigate to determine if there was in-school transmission. But there’s little data on how most individual cases were contracted, and many local health officials have warned it’s become increasingly difficult to catch infected students or staff before they enter school buildings.

Reopening decisions have sparked fierce debate in local communities since Northam first announced a framework to bring students back to the classroom — four months after becoming one of the first governors in the country to close schools for the remainder of the spring semester.

Lane emphasized that the state never required schools to adopt remote instruction after releasing its first round of guidance in July. But those guidelines heavily emphasized CDC recommendations and asked schools to notify VDOE if they planned to deviate from the state’s framework.

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By early September, the majority of local school divisions — 67 in total — had chosen to begin the fall semester remotely. As of Thursday, that number had dropped to 52. But Keith Perrigan, the superintendent for Bristol Public Schools in Southwest Virginia, said much of the ongoing caution stemmed from the original guidance, which took a more incremental approach to bringing students back to the classroom.

“This is a huge change,” he said. “The previous phase guidance, it was probably more of a recommendation to be cautious. And I think the new guidance is to try your very best to reopen. If you can mitigate appropriately, you ought to do what you can to get back in school.”

There’s still no mandate for school divisions to follow the state’s revised guidance. Lane said Thursday that the Virginia Constitution left the final decision with local school boards. But education officials also faced heavy criticism from some superintendents earlier this year for allowing local divisions to deviate from the original plan.

State Superintendent James Lane in 2016, when he was named superintendent for Chesterfield Public Schools. (NBC12)

Some school systems have already made the decision to stay closed until at least the early spring — something Lane said he’d recommend reconsidering in light of the new guidance and the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines. But there are also continued debates even in districts that have prioritized in-person learning. In Chesterfield County, which announced plans to bring back elementary students next month, parents launched a petition calling on the school system to reverse the decision and keep schools mostly closed until teachers are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Both Northam and Lane faced significant questioning over the timing of the new guidelines, given that many schools have already announced reopening decisions for the spring. Virginia is also experiencing an ongoing surge of COVID-19 which some models suggest could continue until February. Rates of community transmission are consistently higher across Virginia than they’ve been at any other point during the pandemic. Daily new cases have risen in all five geographic regions throughout the early days of January, and hospitalizations are at an all-time high. Many health systems have voluntarily canceled elective surgeries or announced new surge plans to boost capacity for an ongoing influx of cases.

Lane said announcing the new guidance would give school districts the opportunity to prepare their plans in the coming weeks — even as Virginia contemplates longer-term changes such as year-round instruction to make up for learning loss during the pandemic. Northam also touted the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines as an important step in returning students safely to the classroom.

“While getting everyone vaccinated isn’t necessary to reopening schools, it will make it a lot easier,” he said. Eleven local health districts have begun vaccinating educators — or plan to start soon — after moving into Phase 1b of the state’s vaccine campaign.

Students at Watkins Elementary in Chesterfield County attend class wearing masks. Chesterfield returned to all virtual learning after Thanksgiving. (Chesterfield County Public Schools)

But the timeline for the rest of the state remains unclear. As of Thursday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranked Virginia in the low bottom third of all U.S. states when it came to immunizing residents. The same day, VDH’s vaccine reporting dashboard showed that only about 25 percent of shots distributed across the state had made their way into patients’ arms.

And throughout November and December, some health districts advised in-person schools to again close their buildings, warning that the surging cases made it impossible for them to trace and investigate new infections. In Bristol, Perrigan said it was the first dose of vaccines — administered by the local health department earlier this week — that helped reassure teachers more than anything else.

“That’s what had the biggest impact — the availability of vaccines,” he said. “I think a lot of pressure was released once our staff was able to get that first round.”

Virginia pushes back estimate for vaccinating all residents for COVID-19
Virginia Mercury, Kate Masters January 11, 2021 (Medium)
Gov. Ralph Northam speaks at a news conference in August. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Every Virginian vaccinated by early to mid-summer?

Many experts say it’s no longer likely. Gov. Ralph Northam has also readjusted earlier — and more optimistic — estimates from late November, when he spoke to NPR about the state’s COVID-19 vaccination plans.

“Phase three will be the general population and hopefully by, you know, early to midsummer have everybody in Virginia vaccinated,” he said at the time. But after a slower-than-expected rollout — both in Virginia and across the country — the administration has slightly revised its targets.

“The governor is still hopeful that everyone will have the opportunity to be vaccinated by mid-summer to fall,” spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky wrote in an email on Tuesday. The administration’s prospective timeline includes a few caveats, including the fact that children under 16 — or roughly 2 million Virginians — won’t be included in the overall total because a vaccine hasn’t yet been approved for them.

The goal also assumes that some of the state’s residents will decline the vaccine (“although we’re hopeful that is not a large percentage and will decrease further as this process continues,” Yarmosky wrote). And ultimately, it means Virginia will need to be administering at least 50,000 doses a day, which is contingent on new vaccines entering the market and an increase in federal shipments.

Yarmosky pointed to recent changes that have inspired optimism from state leaders across the country. One, announced Friday, is that the Biden administration plans to begin releasing available vaccines immediately, rather than holding back a second dose from shipments from Pfizer and Moderna.

But even with the change in administration, many experts say there needs to be a rapid shift in how COVID-19 vaccines are distributed and administered in order to meet a late-summer to fall target. Mark Capofari — who worked for Pfizer and spent more than a decade as the director of global logistics at Merck before becoming a full-time lecturer at Penn State — thinks vaccinations will be ongoing well into the third quarter of the year, which stretches from July to September.

Thomas Denny, the chief operating officer of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute, said it might take even longer for most of the public to get inoculated — possibly not until October or November.

“I got a bit more optimistic when it looked like vaccines were coming and we’d have a good number of doses to start out with,” he said. “But then in between late December and so far in January, just about every place has missed its mark with using the amount of doses they’ve gotten.”

“I’m now back to thinking that it’s not likely by the summer that we’ll achieve it,” he continued.

When the vaccine will be accessible to most Virginians has been a major question since the state received its first doses in mid-December. The Northam administration has tentatively predicted that Phase 1a — when vaccines are prioritized for health care providers and long-term care facilities — could conclude by the end of this month. But there’s already been some overlap with Phase 1b, which includes first responders, correction officers and teachers, followed by other frontline personnel such as grocery store clerks and mail carriers.

On Friday, the Virginia Department of Health announced that 11 local districts across the state were beginning Phase 1b early after vaccinating the majority of their medical workers and long-term care residents. Scheduling an appointment would “depend on the supply of vaccine available,” the department warned, and the phase is likely to take “several weeks to months” even with an early start.

But at a briefing last week, Northam also outlined prioritization plans for Phase 1c, the next step of the state’s vaccine campaign, which will include other essential workers in construction, transportation and utilities.

Providing a clear timeline for all the different subgroups can be complicated. VDH guidelines set a clear order for frontline workers in Phase 1b “because there is not sufficient supply at this time to vaccinate everyone at the same time.” But Virginians aged 75 and older are also included in Phase 1b, and it’s unclear where they fall in the order of prioritization.

Northam emphasized flexibility in his briefing last week, saying he’d rather see providers administer more doses than hew strictly to the state’s guidance. But given the state’s current pace, it’s unclear when the next two phases — which cover about half of the state’s roughly 8.5 million residents — will fully get underway.

As of Friday, the state had received 481,550 doses of vaccine and administered nearly 150,000, or about 30 percent of its total allocation. Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said Tuesday that the Virginia Department of Health’s vaccine reporting dashboard could be undercounting anywhere from 35,000 to 55,000, which would push the state’s total closer to 40 percent.

Bloomberg’s vaccine tracker ranks Virginia above nearby states including Pennsylvania, North Carolina and South Carolina, but below neighbors such as Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia (which has an administration rate more than double the Old Dominion’s). And some experts, including Denny and Bruce Y. Lee, a professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy, say the haphazard rollout of vaccines across the country is mainly attributable to poor federal planning.

“When it comes right down to it, very few states have the wherewithal or the resources for the kind of coordination that’s required,” said Lee, who also works as the executive director of CUNY’s Public Health Computational and Operations Research. “That needed to come from the federal government.”

But Capofari said that state planning also played a major role, pointing to sometimes drastically different vaccination rates across the country. Funding makes a major difference, as does intensive planning and coordination between different agencies and providers.

He pointed to hospitals and local health departments — two settings where the state has routed a significant number of vaccines, though the Virginia Department of Health still can’t say which vaccines went where. If hospitals are going to play a role in vaccinating groups other than their own employees, Capofari said they need clear guidance on who to prioritize and how to reach them. And if hospitals are expected to transport any surplus doses to other settings, there needs to be clear communication and a plan of action, from which facility is responsible for transporting the vaccine to the equipment they’ll use to preserve the doses to when the delivery will be made.

“I think there’s still a lot of uncertainty still as to what the plans are and even where to do the inoculations and how to go about it,” he said.

Regulators want to extend Virginia’s expiring pandemic workplace safety rules
Virginia Mercury, Ned OliverJanuary 11, 2021 (Medium)

Brandon

 

Gov. Ralph Northam at a press conference in October. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Gov. Ralph Northam acknowledged Wednesday that Virginia needs to speed up the pace of its COVID-19 vaccinations, announcing a “you use it or you lose it policy” prodding health care providers to administer the shots to more residents.

“I want you to empty those freezers and get shots in arms,” he said. “When you have vials, give out shots until they’re gone. No one wants to see any supplies sitting unused.”

The governor’s news briefing — his first in nearly a month — came as Virginia experiences its worst COVID-19 caseload than at any other point in the pandemic. The statewide percent positivity rate rose to nearly 17 percent on Wednesday, and Northam pointed out that daily case numbers are currently four times higher than they were in the spring — an average of more than 4,700 new infections every day.

At the same time, Virginia has been grappling with a sluggish rollout of a vaccine described by the governor as “the most powerful tool — the one that’s going to literally change things.” Northam has not announced new restrictions since early December, but has described COVID-19 vaccines as a ray of hope in the ongoing pandemic.

Many states have struggled with administering the shots after the federal government shipped out early doses in mid-December. But until recently, Virginia ranked 46th in the country when it came to the percentage of vaccines administered among states, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported. The state’s rating has improved, but thousands of vaccines still have yet to make their way into the arms of Virginians.

State health officials also elaborated on reporting issues that have prevented administered doses from appearing on the Virginia Department of Health’s vaccine reporting dashboard. Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said Wednesday that the department updated its internal immunization reporting system in anticipation of the COVID-19 vaccine, but that some providers, as a result, have struggled to enter data in a timely manner. There have also been technical glitches that have prevented some health systems’ vaccines from hitting the dashboard.

Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, said that in some cases, providers are reporting vaccinations but the data is appearing inaccurately in the state’s system, requiring VDH employees to go back and verify the numbers. As a result of all the problems, Oliver said that the state’s totals could be undercounting anywhere from 35,000 to 55,000 doses.

“We’re actually doing better than we appear,” he said after the briefing. But even if 55,000 was added to the state’s total number of administered vaccines, it would mean that health providers have given out around 171,247 of the 481,550 doses delivered to the state — around 35 percent.

To address the slow rollout, Northam announced several steps the administration plans to take over the next several weeks.

A provider with Augusta Health administers a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine this week. (Courtesy of Augusta Health)

New goals for administering the vaccine

Northam outlined new goals for giving out the vaccine as one of the first steps in his plan to ramp up administration. Currently, he said the state receives roughly 110,000 doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccine a week, which equates to an immediate goal of delivering 14,000 shots a day to fully use up that supply.

On Wednesday, VDH reported that 2,695 doses had been administered in the last 24 hours. That daily increase has been as high as 12,000 in recent days, but Yarmosky said the large jump was the result of backlogged data. Current reporting delays make it difficult for the department to assess daily progress, which is why resolving those issues is an instrumental part of achieving the governor’s goal, she added.

Longer-term, Northam said he’d like to build up to 25,000 daily doses — a number that also depends on federal officials ramping up shipments to states. Oliver later said the goal was achievable if President-elect Joe Biden delivered on his promise to distribute 100 million shots within his first 100 days in office. Yarmosky also said the state’s daily goal would increase with the greater supply.

‘Lose it or lose it’

Northam’s newly announced policy is directed at health systems, local health departments and other clinical settings that receive doses of the vaccine. The governor said with the next shipment of Pfizer and Moderna doses, VDH would expand its reporting so Virginians can see where vaccines are delivered and how quickly they’re being used.

“Virginians, you deserve this transparency,” he said. State officials will also monitor usage, and sites that don’t fully use their allocated doses could face reduced shipments going forward.

“Don’t save anything,” Northam said. “You’re going to get every dose you need because more is coming. But if you’re not using what you receive, you must be getting too much.”

A plan for next phases

The governor also unveiled priority groups for Phase 1b and 1c,  the next stages in the state’s vaccination campaign. According to Yarmosky, the current phase — 1a, which includes medical workers and long-term care facilities — should be finished by late January. VDH spokeswoman Erin Beard told the Mercury yesterday that moving onto later phases is based on whether “vaccine supply significantly increases” and “if vaccine demand is less than supply.”

Phase 1b will include essential and frontline workers — “people who work in jobs that keep society functioning,” Northam said. That includes roughly 285,000 teachers and childcare providers, along with first responders, mail carriers, corrections officers and grocery store workers. Essential workers in manufacturing and food production will also be included, as will public transit employees.

All adults aged 75 or older will also be included in phase 1b.

Phase 1c will cover essential workers in construction, transportation, and food service, such as restaurant servers, as well as adults aged 65 or older and all Virginians between 16 and 65 with high-risk medical conditions. The two groups — phase 1b and 1c — cover about half of the state’s roughly 8.5 million residents, Northam said, before the vaccine will move to the general public.

But the logistics of moving onto different phases — and the details of how state officials will ensure quicker innoculation — are largely unclear. Northam appointed Dr. Danny Avula, the director of the Richmond-Henrico Health Department, to oversee and coordinate statewide vaccination efforts, saying more details would become available in the coming weeks.

Dr. Danny Avula speaks at an event in 2018 during which he was named director of both the Richmond and Henrico County health departments. (Katie O’Connor/Virginia Mercury)

But as the Mercury has reported, some large health systems are vaccinating non-clinical employees who have worked from home since the start of the pandemic — even as some community providers struggle to book appointments with their local health departments.

Northam emphasized Wednesday that distribution sites should err on the side of vaccinating Virginians rather than holding doses based on prioritization. But Oliver also said that sites should follow the state’s guidance whenever possible “because that’s been well thought through” (he later added that VDH advised against giving out doses to Virginians who aren’t frontline workers, including anyone who can work from home).

What’s not clear is how Virginians in phase 1b and 1c will be notified that they’re eligible for the vaccine and when it becomes available. It’s also still unclear how health systems will manage excess doses. Northam said his administration hasn’t heard of vaccines being wasted, but Oliver later said anecdotal data suggests that only 60 percent of EMS workers and nurses have opted for vaccination.

Whether health systems will assist in vaccinating other priority groups remains to be seen. Oliver said it would require close collaboration with local health departments so that hospitals could redistribute unused doses to other settings.

“Maybe they vaccinate, maybe they just provide the supplies,” he said. “And we would shift the allocations if they weren’t using them.”

 

Virginia state senator dies of COVID-19 complications
Virginia Mercury, Robert ZulloJanuary 1, 2021 (Short)
Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Russell. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Virginia State Sen. A. Benton “Ben” Chafin Jr., R-Russell, has died of COVID-19, the Senate Republican leadership announced Friday evening.

“Tonight, as the Senate of Virginia comes to grips with this tremendous and untimely loss caused by COVID-19, our sympathy and prayers are with Ben’s wife, Lora Lee, their children and grandchildren, and Ben’s mother and his sister, Justice Teresa Chafin,” Senate Republican Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, said in a statement.

Chafin, 60, was born in Abingdon and was briefly a member of the House of Delegates before winning a special election to the Senate in 2014. He is the first Virginia lawmaker to die from the virus, though several have had bouts with COVID-19, as has Gov. Ralph Northam and his wife, Pam.

“Ben was deeply and wholeheartedly committed to the commonwealth, and especially to the people of Southwest Virginia. A community leader in Russell, Ben rose to prominence in the fields of law, banking and agriculture long before his neighbors elected him to the General Assembly,” Norment said.

“First as delegate and then senator, Ben relentlessly promoted and fought for the interests and values of Southwest. He put the interests of those he was entrusted to serve first, cherishing the people of the region he proudly called ‘home.’”

Northam, a Democrat and former state senator who also presided over the chamber as lieutenant governor, said Southwest Virginia had “lost a strong advocate — and we have all lost a good man.”

“I knew Ben as a lawmaker, an attorney, a banker, and a farmer raising beef cattle in Moccasin Valley, working the land just as generations of his family had done before him. He loved the outdoors, and he loved serving people even more. He pushed hard to bring jobs and investment to his district, and I will always be grateful for his courageous vote to expand health care for people who need it,” Northam said, referring to Chafin’s vote to expand Medicaid in 2018. Northam has ordered the state flag to be lowered to half-staff.

“Pam and I are praying for Lora and their children. … This is sad news to begin a new year with the loss of a kind and gracious man. May we all recommit to taking extra steps to care for one another,” Northam said.

The Roanoke Times reported that Chafin had tested positive for the virus in December but that his family kept the diagnosis private for weeks.

Democratic House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, said she was “deeply saddened” by Chafin’s death, which comes less than two weeks before the General Assembly is scheduled to convene on Jan. 13.

“I respected his commitment to the people of the 38th senatorial district and his strong advocacy on their behalf,” she said.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, said Chafin “epitomized the Virginia gentleman — he was compassionate, thoughtful and cared deeply for his district and all Virginians. We will miss him dearly.”

The consequences of rugged individualism in a pandemic
Virginia Mercury, Roger Chesley October 29, 2020 (Short)
A masked protester near the Virginia State Capitol during a “Reopen Virginia Rally” in Richmond, Va., April 22, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Americans can be a selfish lot. Not everybody, of course. But too many people couldn’t care less about taking the necessary steps to keep deaths and infections from COVID-19 at bay.

It’s not that hard: Stay at home as much as possible. Wear a mask out in public and in buildings. Wash your hands. Avoid situations where you can’t stay at least 6 feet apart. Treat workers with respect and deference who must come into contact with consumers. Limit the number of people at social gatherings.

Folks, none of these are Herculean tasks. We’re not being asked to climb mountains, mine for ore or donate a kidney just to survive.

Yet several months into this raging pandemic, the “me-first” mentality is readily apparent, in the commonwealth and elsewhere:

• The Virginia Department of Health issued a news release last week noting COVID-19 cases were surging in Norton city and Lee, Scott and Wise counties. “Keep in mind that your behavior can help protect yourself and others — or put you and them at increased risk,” said Dr. Sue Cantrell, a director of health districts in the area. (I tried to interview Cantrell about whether resistance to mask-wearing contributed to the numbers, but I couldn’t reach her.)

• A mid-October wedding at Wintergreen Resort forced several employees to quarantine because of possible exposure to COVID-19, an official said. Some staffers tested positive. Weddings are special, but shouldn’t couples limit the number of guests because of the times we’re in? Even then, you don’t know if all the well-wishers had recent tests confirming they were free of the virus.

• Lynchburg General Hospital’s acute care facilities were “strained,” a top official said, because of an influx of coronavirus patients last week.

• Despite new restrictions imposed by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker prohibiting indoor dining in specific communities, a throng of customers showed up and packed a restaurant in defiance of the guidelines, the Chicago Tribune reported. The restaurant’s social media post said it was opening “out of survival and to help our staff pay their bills.” Yet Pritzker this week warned “there seems to be a COVID storm coming.”

The United States has proved the days of exceptionalism are over — unless you’re talking about leading everybody else with more than 226,000 deaths. By mid-October, the United States had the highest numbers of COVID-19 infections and deaths, and officials said we’ve entered a third peak of cases in many states.

We don’t have a vaccine. So why is it so hard for Americans to do what medical experts advise to fight this thing?

University professors I interviewed and scholarly articles suggested several reasons: Partisanship, since many Republicans followed President Donald Trump’s lead in downplaying or even denying the coronavirus’ existence, and they resisted wearing masks. A rugged individualism — baked into the nation’s founding — over working for the common good. And pandemic fatigue, even as there’s no end in sight to the carnage.

“We are a country that values individualism, materialism and wealth over the well-being of our neighbors,” Tim Goler, assistant professor of sociology and urban affairs at Norfolk State University, told me. He’s one of the researchers overseeing a pandemic study of older adults.

Goler added that people are fed up with being at home, especially if they haven’t been directly affected by deaths or illnesses: “They’re willing to sacrifice people dying.” You saw indications of this even earlier this year, when protesters demanded states to reopen their economies — even as spikes of infections continued.

“The pandemic has exposed the extent to which we do not live in a ‘United States of America,’ ” said Ernestine Duncan, a psychology professor at NSU. She noted people in other nations have accepted strong restrictions on movements and behavior, and they’re faring better than the U.S.

Clearly, we’re an individualistic society, Duncan noted.

It made me wonder about the last time our sprawling, populous country really sacrificed as a whole for the common good. Historians might point to World War II, in which food, gasoline and clothes were rationed.

Officials and residents collected scrap metal and rubber for the war effort. Women entered defense plants to work because so many men had joined the military and people grew “Victory Gardens” in large numbers to supplement their meals.

The circumstances, though, aren’t totally analogous. Back then, Americans were forced into rationing because of governmental mandates; that hasn’t always been the case this time. Trump has hesitated to restrict the movements and actions of citizens in spite of the way the coronavirus is transmitted.

In the 21st century, our rugged, go-it-alone mentality has horrific consequences. We shouldn’t be surprised by the ever-rising COVID-19 death toll if we continue to be more concerned about individual comfort rather than our collective safety.

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy — an awful one.

Virginia COVID-19 Briefing
VPMOctober 28, 2020 (59:00)
Virginia health officials issue COVID-19 warning over small gatherings
NBC29.com, Adrianna Hargrove and Henry Graff October 28, 2020 (Short)

Virginia Health Officials are warning about small gatherings. It’s part of the concern over rising numbers in southwest Virginia but the message goes to the entire state as we head into the holidays.

“Coming together as an extended family as if you are in one household does present risk,” said Dr. Daniel Carey, Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources.

During a COVID-19 briefing Wednesday, Governor Ralph Northam said those gatherings are the reason behind a percent positivity climb from 5% to 8% in southwest Virginia.

“I know that many people are tired of COVID restrictions. We are all tired of not having social get togethers, not going to see sports or shows, not having the regular interactions that we count on in our lives,” said Northam.

Virginia COVID-19 Briefing
VPMOctober 13, 2020 (54:00)
Virginia COVID-19 Briefing
VPMSeptember 15, 2020 (40:00)
Virginia COVID-19 Briefing
VPMSeptember 1, 2020
Virginia COVID-19 Briefing
VPMAugust 5, 2020 (01:00:00)
Virginia COVID-19 Briefing
VPMJuly 28, 2020 (55:00)

To understand the mind of a teacher, those of us who do other things for a living must attempt some mental gymnastics.

Let’s imagine a professional passion so acute that when the coronavirus shuttered classrooms, they pivoted with little warning or rehearsal to digitally link dozens of children from home and continue daily instruction remotely.

Close your eyes and comprehend a devotion to students so strong that you spend your personal money to supplement classroom supplies as eclectic as sanitizing wipes and Elmer’s glue, crepe paper and whiteboard markers.

Now, as days start shortening and summer bends toward autumn and a new academic calendar, imagine balancing your innate yearning for the classroom with a well-reasoned fear of a monstrously contagious, potentially deadly virus that medicine still can’t control and science doesn’t fully understand.

Finally, overlay that against the backdrop of political conflict and chaos that multiplies by the day.

Virginia prison system says active COVID-19 cases down to 22
Virginia Mercury, Ned OliverJuly 13, 2020 (Short)

The Virginia Department of Corrections says it’s down to 22 active cases of COVID-19 among inmates in the 40 prisons it operates around the state.

Gov. Ralph Northam’s secretary of public safety, Brian Moran, touted the figures Friday, which include six hospitalized prisoners and 16 still being held at various correctional facilities. He emphasized the latter number in a presentation to lawmakers.

“We have 16, let me repeat, 16 active cases in all of our correctional facilities,” he said during a joint meeting of the Senate’s judiciary and social services committees. “That’s out of 28,000 inmates, 40 correctional facilities. Sixteen — one six — active cases.”

Virginia is refusing to release information on COVID-19 outbreaks at poultry processing plants on the grounds of privacy concerns, despite a June decision to provide such data for long-term care facilities.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Mercury in June after Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration began releasing facility-specific data for nursing homes, the Virginia Department of Health said it would not provide the same information for poultry processing plants “in order to ensure that VDH is able to preserve the anonymity of individuals whose medical records have been examined during the investigation of COVID-19.”

“VDH is considering how to make the information you have requested available at the health district and/or regional level,” wrote VDH Deputy Commissioner for Governmental and Regulatory Affairs Joseph Hilbert in an email.

Neither a followup request to Hilbert nor an inquiry to the governor’s office about the justification for releasing such information for nursing homes but not poultry plants were answered.

Top News

Big uptick in vaccine supplies for states expected
Virginia Mercury, Laura OlsonFebruary 24, 2021 (Short)

Executives from five COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers told Congress Tuesday that they expect to significantly boost the number of shots delivered to states in the coming weeks.

Pfizer will increase weekly shipments to more than 13 million doses by mid-March, an increase from the 4 to 5 million doses shipped weekly in early February, the company’s chief business officer, John Young, told a U.S. House panel.

Moderna, the other vaccine that has received federal authorization for emergency use, expects to double its monthly vaccine deliveries by April to more than 40 million doses per month.

Fairfax County is ranked as one of the wealthiest communities in Virginia. It’s also one of the healthiest.

As of 2020, Fairfax led the state in measures including length of life, access to exercise opportunities and low rates of poor health indicators such as smoking and adult obesity, according to annual rankings by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. From 2015 to 2019, the county’s median household income was $124,831 (nationally, it’s around $68,703, according to the U.S. Census Bureau).

Currently, Fairfax County is also leading Virginia in vaccine distribution. In late January, health officials shifted the state’s strategy, routing doses through local health districts based on their percentage of the state’s population. As Virginia’s largest locality with more than 1.1 million residents, that left Fairfax with the largest share.

Even before then, the Fairfax County Health Department had requested — and received — more than eight times as many shots as other local health districts, according to data from the Virginia Department of Health. From Dec. 22 to Jan. 23, Fairfax received a total of 74,625 doses. Over the same time period, the Richmond-Henrico Health District, received a total of 19,550 doses for both localities, which have a combined population of nearly 560,000.

In the early weeks of Virginia’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout, hospital systems in five local health districts requested, and received, tens of thousands of doses — a disproportionately larger share than pharmacies, community health clinics and even the local health departments charged with overseeing the state’s immunization plan.

In Chesterfield, for example, HCA Virginia requested 27,775 first doses from Dec. 14 to Dec. 20 and ultimately received 18,275 — more than enough to vaccinate what Jeff Caldwell, the system’s vice president of communications, described as more than 17,000 total employees across the state. VCU Health in Richmond requested and received 20,050 first doses within the first three weeks of the state’s rollout — far more than its roughly 13,000 employees (spokeswoman Alex Nowak said the health system also has more than 10,000 “affiliated team members,” which include residents, medical students and food service workers, but not every direct or affiliated employee is involved in patient care.)

The Mercury obtained detailed distribution data for the Richmond, Henrico, Chesterfield, Fairfax and Central Shenandoah health districts from a reader, who noticed that the Virginia Department of Health’s public vaccine dashboard initially allowed the public to download spreadsheets showing how many doses were delivered to individual facilities.

Feds boost state vaccine shipments to 11 million doses next week
Virginia Mercury, Laura OlsonFebruary 9, 2021 (Short)

States will see another increase in the COVID-19 vaccine doses they receive, with President Joe Biden’s administration announcing Tuesday that the federal government will distribute 11 million doses next week.

That’s an increase from 10.5 million doses this week, and 8.6 million during the week President Joe Biden took office last month. Those increases were attributed to boosted production by vaccine manufacturers.

The administration has not published a state-by-state breakdown on how many doses are distributed each week. Iowa Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley, both Republicans, have questioned whether Iowa is receiving a fair share of doses under that formula, and wrote to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday, asking CDC officials to release the weekly formula for allocating vaccines to states.

State officials say they’re confident that no COVID-19 vaccines are going to waste in Virginia.

But seven weeks into the state’s vaccine rollout, the Virginia Department of Health won’t release data on wastage, which vaccinators are required to report under a provider agreement distributed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The document, which providers must fill out in order to administer vaccines, requires them to report the number of doses that were “unused, spoiled, expired, or wasted as required by the relevant jurisdiction.” In practice, that means hospitals, pharmacies and other administrators should be reporting the data to VDH, which then passes the information onto the CDC.

The Mercury first requested the data from VDH in late January, after Dr. Danny Avula, the state’s vaccine coordinator, stated in a telebriefing that the reporting was required but that he didn’t have information on wastage in Virginia.

Gov. Ralph Northam speaks at a news conference in August. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Here we go again, Virginia, trailing the pack at yet another critical turn in combating the global coronavirus pandemic — the rollout of the lifesaving vaccine that could finally break the back of COVID-19. And if you’re a Democrat in Virginia, particularly one who’s seeking statewide office this fall, this isn’t what you had hoped to see.

It feels like last March, when the coronavirus caught the commonwealth flat-footed and plodding in its initial mobilization against the novel and then-mysterious plague, forcing Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration to play catch-up.

Yes, catch up Virginia did. Eventually. Northam, the only physician governor of any U.S. state, finally issued forceful and unambiguous orders to kick Virginia’s protective response into the same high gear that Maryland, Ohio, New York and other states had already hit. Schools closed, as did most businesses not deemed essential. Home sheltering, working and learning remotely, social distancing, hand washing and mask wearing were the order of the day. Literally.

City streets fell silent and abandoned. For weeks on end, springtime gusts whistled across sprawling, empty shopping mall parking lots. Small businesses — and even some large ones — took it in the neck, particularly mom-and-pop restaurants, bars, retailers, gyms and cinemas. A chilling number of those shops and offices and eateries died, in many cases taking family livelihoods and life savings with them, and they will never be resurrected. Those were lifesaving steps Virginia had to take and the government was justified in taking them.

Friends Torin Enevoldsen and Taylor Little have a picnic in the parking lot with food they picked up from The Cheesecake Factory at Short Pump Town Center in Henrico, Va., May 16, 2020. Little said her mother originally suggested meeting friends for take-out lunches, while dining in most restaurants is still prohibited. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury

Even then, just when Northam had emphatically laid down the law on requiring the use of face coverings, he undermined his own messaging when photographs of him laughing it up unmasked and huddled close with others for selfies on Virginia Beach’s Boardwalk began trending across social media.

By summer, Virginia had ramped up testing, plateaued its numbers of COVID-19 cases and related deaths, and driven down the percentages of positive coronavirus tests. Restrictions were eased. By autumn, ours was among the states faring the best with the coronavirus. But getting there was like pulling teeth.

For reasons still not clear, Northam’s Department of Health balked at making public the granular coronavirus testing data for extended care facilities that families of elderly, ailing and vulnerable people could use to make informed decisions about their loved ones. That was particularly galling after an outbreak at a Henrico County nursing home was among the nation’s deadliest in the early weeks of the pandemic. Eventually, faced with withering media coverage and public outrage, the administration relented and, without explanation, made the data available.

The VDH’s reluctance to provide specific, actionable guidance last summer to school districts on whether, when and how to reopen classrooms or continue virtual schooling created chaos and conflict among faculty, administrators and parents within school divisions and resulted in a crazy-quilt patchwork of differing regimens across the state.

And so it goes.

Last Thursday, with the respected Becker’s Hospital Review ranking Virginia’s vaccination effort the fifth least effective in the nation, Northam found himself promising to jump-start a torpid immunization effort one month after Virginia got the first of its nearly 846,000 vaccine doses. According to Becker’s, only about 218,000 — barely over one-fourth — of those doses have been injected into the arms of Virginians.

Compare that to West Virginia, which has dispensed nearly 70 percent of its approximately 161,000 doses — the nation’s best rate. Maryland and North Carolina have each dispensed about 32 percent of their vaccine allotments, while Kentucky and Tennessee have injected 43 percent and 44 percent, respectively, of their doses. Idaho, Hawaii, Alabama and Georgia (the nation’s worst at just under 20 percent) were the only four states that performed worse than Virginia.

At Thursday’s news conference, Dr. Danny Avula, Northam’s newly appointed vaccine czar, said that to achieve a pace that puts the commonwealth ahead of the virus and returns life to normal sooner rather than later, Virginia needs to dispense about 50,000 doses daily. Last week, the state was at about 30 percent of that pace. As of Friday, 88 of the state’s 133 localities remained mired in Phase 1A, the first phase of the vaccine rollout that includes frontline healthcare workers, first-responders and nursing home residents. Only one-third of the localities, clustered mostly in Southwest Virginia, the Eastern Shore and Northern Virginia, had advanced to Phase 1B, which includes people 65 and older, police and firefighters, teachers, grocery workers and essential government workers.

Northam said he was “pleased” with a pace in which only one out of every four doses the state received a month ago has been injected.

“Everyone will need to be patient. It’s going to happen as fast as it can be done and it’s moving faster every day,” he said Thursday. “Monday, we vaccinated more than 15,000 people. Tuesday, it was more than 17,000.”

When Virginia is the laggard behind every one of its contiguous neighbors, isn’t it fair to ask why? Two weeks ago in Tennessee, for instance, officials in Sullivan County opened a max vaccination site at the Bristol Motor Speedway Dragway, a 10-minute drive from the Virginia border. On its first day, Jan. 7, the site ran out of doses by noon. Vaccinations are scheduled for four days starting this week at Richmond’s enormous car-racing venue. The sprawling NASCAR stadium in Martinsville also volunteered to be a mass-vaccination venue if needed, but thus far has no takers.

Patience, your excellency, is in short supply. After a life-altering (and, in more than 5,600 cases in Virginia and nearly 400,000 nationally, life-ending) 11 months of pandemic, a searing summer of racial unrest, an election from hell and an even worse post-election in which a defeated president instigated the attempted violent overthrow of Congress in a vain effort to keep the victor from taking office, this might not be the most opportune time to prescribe a chill pill.

And, boy, did Virginia’s out-of-power, victory-starved Republicans notice.

Del. Kirk Cox, a conservative former House speaker and a declared GOP candidate for governor, assailed the Northam administration’s lethargic response in a statement.

“While … it’s good news that he’s trying to speed up vaccine distribution, the truth is ‘better late than never’ just doesn’t cut it,” Cox said, adding that he urged Northam “to take decisive action over a week ago.”

Northam could still turn around Virginia’s thus-far inauspicious vaccine deployment, just as his administration eventually energized Virginia’s leisurely initial response to the pandemic last spring. But if he doesn’t, it could hand Republicans another significant election-year bouquet.

This year, the GOP won’t run in the shadow of a president so polarizing that he just cost once-ruby-red Georgia both of its Republican U.S. senators, flipping control of the Senate to the Democrats. They’ll also have a raft of brochure issues courtesy of Virginia Democrats, including proposals to end the death penalty and legalize marijuana, plus last year’s parole board debacle. Those issues resonate among conservatives and many centrists and could buttress a GOP argument that Democrats have gone too far left for an electorate that traditionally rewards moderation.

That said, Republicans haven’t found an opportunity over the past dozen years they couldn’t squander. They could do it again by nominating Amanda Chase, a Trump-style nationalist who urged the president to declare martial law to stay in power and whose incendiary claims have gotten her suspended from Facebook and ostracized by her own party.

The vaccine issue is one that voters will remember in November. The vaccine represents a genuine human triumph, our deliverance from the pain and loss that the past year has inflicted upon us. Government must get this right, and those in charge of it should answer for the consequences if it doesn’t.

Exhausted vaccine reserve could unravel plans for Phase 1b expansion in Virginia
Virginia Mercury, Kate MastersJanuary 15, 2021 (Short)
A provider with Augusta Health administers a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine this week. (Courtesy of Augusta Health)

News that the federal government has already exhausted its supply of “reserve” COVID-19 vaccines sent Virginia officials scrambling on Friday — less than 24 hours after Gov. Ralph Northam outlined plans to expand vaccine eligibility.

The Washington Post reported Friday that there was no federal stockpile of additional vaccines, despite an announcement earlier this week by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who told states the Trump administration would begin distributing those doses immediately. Previously, the administration said it was holding back the vaccines to ensure a second dose for everyone who had already received a first shot.

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines — the only ones currently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — require a two-shot schedule.

Northam, along with multiple other Democratic governors, first asked HHS to begin releasing the reserve doses earlier this month. Virginia, like other states, has attributed its slower-than-expected vaccine rollout in part to the limited supply coming from the federal government.

HHS initially appeared unwilling to acquiesce to the request, according to reporting from Politico. But the administration’s Operation Warp Speed reversed that stance soon after President-elect Joe Biden announced he would begin releasing reserve doses to states after taking office.

Northam was one of many public officials to celebrate the arrival of additional vaccines. In his State of the Commonwealth address Wednesday, the governor announced that Virginia would begin vaccinating residents aged 65 and older — a direct response to Azar, who told states to expand their vaccination eligibility to speed up the pace of administration.

Gov. Ralph Northam at a press conference in October. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

At a news briefing the next day, Northam announced that Virginians aged 65 and older, and those 65 and under with underlying medical conditions (including asthma, heart conditions and obesity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), would be moved into Phase 1b of the state’s vaccination plan — the second stage of prioritization after health care providers and long-term care residents.

“This means about half of Virginia is now eligible to receive the vaccine,” he said Thursday. “That’s a major logistical effort, and it’s not going to happen overnight.”

But with Friday’s report, the timeline — and whether those expanded populations will still be eligible for Phase 1b — is even more unclear. Last week, the Virginia Department of Health announced that 11 local districts were moving into the second stage of the state’s campaign (two more — Pittsylvania-Danville and Southside — later this week). At his briefing, Northam said the rest of Virginia would move into Phase 1b by the end of January, and some local health districts have already announced plans for delivering vaccines to the expanded population.

The governor’s office couldn’t immediately confirm whether the reported lack of reserve vaccines would affect plans to expand 1b. “Honestly, right now we’re just trying to get clear answers from the federal government,” spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky wrote in an email on Friday.

But the Post reported that vaccine shipments, for all states, would likely stay flat if no additional doses had been held in stockpile. For Virginia, that’s roughly 110,000 doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccine a week.

If that distribution remained the same, it would take around 39 weeks to vaccinate roughly half of all Virginians who fall into the expanded 1b category — which also includes teachers, first responders, and other essential workers. That’s a rough estimate, not accounting for new vaccines that may enter the supply chain and assuming that the state was also administering 110,000 doses a week.

At the same time, Virginia is still struggling to administer the vaccine doses it does have available. As of Friday, the state had only administered about 28 percent of the 943,400 total doses distributed to hospitals, local health departments and other medical facilities, according to date from the Virginia Department of Health’s vaccine reporting dashboard.

State health officials have said the dashboard is undercounting vaccines, partially due to lags or glitches in its electronic reporting system. But the CDC currently ranks Virginia 43 out of 50 states and Washington, D.C., when it comes to the number of doses administered per 100,000 people.

Dr. Danny Avula, the director of the Richmond-Henrico Health District who was recently appointed to head the state’s vaccine efforts, said officials were actively working to speed up the pace of vaccinations — including plans to establish large, free-standing vaccine clinics across the state.

But any mass immunization efforts will be hindered if vaccine supply remains low. Yarmosky said it was just one more frustration in trying to coordinate a COVID-19 response with the federal government.

“Once again, the Trump administration cannot seem to provide basic facts and truths,” she wrote Friday. “On Tuesday, governors were told explicitly that we would be provided additional doses — Virginia immediately pivoted and we moved quickly to expand eligibility and increase access.

“Now, the news media is reporting that the exact opposite may be true,” she said. “We’re frankly trying to gather as much information as possible right now — like every American, we need to understand what is going on, so we can plan accordingly. While astonishing, this is hardly surprising. What we’re seeing is fully in line with the dysfunction that has characterized the Trump administration’s entire response to COVID-19. President-elect Biden cannot be sworn in fast enough.”

Children head to school in Goochland County. (NBC12 via Goochland County Public Schools) Gov. Ralph Northam’s latest message to local school systems is to start thinking about reopening — and soon. “In the short term, all of our school divisions need to be making plans for how to reopen,” he said at a news briefing on Thursday. “It’s not going to happen next week. But I want our schools to come from this starting point: how do we get schools open safely?” Some division leaders said the new directive — accompanied by interim guidance from the Virginia Department of Health and Department of Education — represented a significant departure from the state’s earlier messaging on in-person instruction. Virginia’s initial guidance, released in July, emphasized that the final decision on reopening laid “squarely in the hands of local school boards” amid uncertain evidence on the role of children in COVID-19 transmission. But a new letter from Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane and state Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver assured superintendents, school leadership and local health departments that “data increasingly suggest that school reopenings are unlikely to contribute significantly to community transmission when rates of community transmission are low and schools have infection prevention measures in place.” The accompanying guidance includes a decision-making matrix that elevates individual mitigation measures over levels of community transmission. In a separate briefing later on Thursday, Lane said many divisions have been basing their reopening decisions primarily on top indicators from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which advise schools to consider community case rates and the percentage of positive tests over the last two weeks. New guidance from the Virginia Department of Education urges schools to consider individual COVID-19 mitigation measures over community transmission when making decisions on reopening. But Lane said heavier consideration should go to the ability of local schools to implement mitigation measures such as mask usage, sanitation and social distancing. Other main considerations include whether there’s evidence of spread within school buildings themselves, as well as the impact that school closures have had on the surrounding community. “Even if they’re in the highest category of community transmission — and even more so for low and moderate — we recommend that they maximize in-person learning as much as possible,” Lane said. The recommendations also call on schools to prioritize instruction for more vulnerable students, including young learners, students with disabilities and English language learners. And instead of making district-wide and long-term decisions — opting for remote learning over an entire quarter or semester, for example — officials say schools should have the flexibility to phase out decisions after a few weeks. “If there’s low absenteeism, there’s no case transmission in buildings, your staff capacity isn’t strained — that school should have some in-person options,” Lane said. “If there’s an outbreak in a school, certainly think of closing for some time. But if there are no outbreaks and no transmission in the school community, we’re saying you should open as long as you can do mitigation strategies.” However, as contact tracing resources have grown increasingly strained, most local health departments are prioritizing outbreaks and other cases that pose a significant public health risk. If multiple students or staff members test positive after close contact or sharing a potential exposure, health officials will likely investigate to determine if there was in-school transmission. But there’s little data on how most individual cases were contracted, and many local health officials have warned it’s become increasingly difficult to catch infected students or staff before they enter school buildings. Reopening decisions have sparked fierce debate in local communities since Northam first announced a framework to bring students back to the classroom — four months after becoming one of the first governors in the country to close schools for the remainder of the spring semester. Lane emphasized that the state never required schools to adopt remote instruction after releasing its first round of guidance in July. But those guidelines heavily emphasized CDC recommendations and asked schools to notify VDOE if they planned to deviate from the state’s framework. THE MORNING NEWSLETTER Subscribe now. By early September, the majority of local school divisions — 67 in total — had chosen to begin the fall semester remotely. As of Thursday, that number had dropped to 52. But Keith Perrigan, the superintendent for Bristol Public Schools in Southwest Virginia, said much of the ongoing caution stemmed from the original guidance, which took a more incremental approach to bringing students back to the classroom. “This is a huge change,” he said. “The previous phase guidance, it was probably more of a recommendation to be cautious. And I think the new guidance is to try your very best to reopen. If you can mitigate appropriately, you ought to do what you can to get back in school.” There’s still no mandate for school divisions to follow the state’s revised guidance. Lane said Thursday that the Virginia Constitution left the final decision with local school boards. But education officials also faced heavy criticism from some superintendents earlier this year for allowing local divisions to deviate from the original plan. State Superintendent James Lane in 2016, when he was named superintendent for Chesterfield Public Schools. (NBC12) Some school systems have already made the decision to stay closed until at least the early spring — something Lane said he’d recommend reconsidering in light of the new guidance and the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines. But there are also continued debates even in districts that have prioritized in-person learning. In Chesterfield County, which announced plans to bring back elementary students next month, parents launched a petition calling on the school system to reverse the decision and keep schools mostly closed until teachers are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Both Northam and Lane faced significant questioning over the timing of the new guidelines, given that many schools have already announced reopening decisions for the spring. Virginia is also experiencing an ongoing surge of COVID-19 which some models suggest could continue until February. Rates of community transmission are consistently higher across Virginia than they’ve been at any other point during the pandemic. Daily new cases have risen in all five geographic regions throughout the early days of January, and hospitalizations are at an all-time high. Many health systems have voluntarily canceled elective surgeries or announced new surge plans to boost capacity for an ongoing influx of cases. Lane said announcing the new guidance would give school districts the opportunity to prepare their plans in the coming weeks — even as Virginia contemplates longer-term changes such as year-round instruction to make up for learning loss during the pandemic. Northam also touted the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines as an important step in returning students safely to the classroom. “While getting everyone vaccinated isn’t necessary to reopening schools, it will make it a lot easier,” he said. Eleven local health districts have begun vaccinating educators — or plan to start soon — after moving into Phase 1b of the state’s vaccine campaign. Students at Watkins Elementary in Chesterfield County attend class wearing masks. Chesterfield returned to all virtual learning after Thanksgiving. (Chesterfield County Public Schools) But the timeline for the rest of the state remains unclear. As of Thursday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranked Virginia in the low bottom third of all U.S. states when it came to immunizing residents. The same day, VDH’s vaccine reporting dashboard showed that only about 25 percent of shots distributed across the state had made their way into patients’ arms. And throughout November and December, some health districts advised in-person schools to again close their buildings, warning that the surging cases made it impossible for them to trace and investigate new infections. In Bristol, Perrigan said it was the first dose of vaccines — administered by the local health department earlier this week — that helped reassure teachers more than anything else. “That’s what had the biggest impact — the availability of vaccines,” he said. “I think a lot of pressure was released once our staff was able to get that first round.”
Virginia Mercury, Kate MastersJanuary 15, 2021 (Medium)
Children head to school in Goochland County. (NBC12 via Goochland County Public Schools)

Gov. Ralph Northam’s latest message to local school systems is to start thinking about reopening — and soon.

“In the short term, all of our school divisions need to be making plans for how to reopen,” he said at a news briefing on Thursday. “It’s not going to happen next week. But I want our schools to come from this starting point: how do we get schools open safely?”

Some division leaders said the new directive — accompanied by interim guidance from the Virginia Department of Health and Department of Education — represented a significant departure from the state’s earlier messaging on in-person instruction. Virginia’s initial guidance, released in July, emphasized that the final decision on reopening laid “squarely in the hands of local school boards” amid uncertain evidence on the role of children in COVID-19 transmission.

But a new letter from Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane and state Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver assured superintendents, school leadership and local health departments that “data increasingly suggest that school reopenings are unlikely to contribute significantly to community transmission when rates of community transmission are low and schools have infection prevention measures in place.”

The accompanying guidance includes a decision-making matrix that elevates individual mitigation measures over levels of community transmission. In a separate briefing later on Thursday, Lane said many divisions have been basing their reopening decisions primarily on top indicators from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which advise schools to consider community case rates and the percentage of positive tests over the last two weeks.

New guidance from the Virginia Department of Education urges schools to consider individual COVID-19 mitigation measures over community transmission when making decisions on reopening.

But Lane said heavier consideration should go to the ability of local schools to implement mitigation measures such as mask usage, sanitation and social distancing. Other main considerations include whether there’s evidence of spread within school buildings themselves, as well as the impact that school closures have had on the surrounding community.

“Even if they’re in the highest category of community transmission — and even more so for low and moderate — we recommend that they maximize in-person learning as much as possible,” Lane said.

The recommendations also call on schools to prioritize instruction for more vulnerable students, including young learners, students with disabilities and English language learners. And instead of making district-wide and long-term decisions — opting for remote learning over an entire quarter or semester, for example — officials say schools should have the flexibility to phase out decisions after a few weeks.

“If there’s low absenteeism, there’s no case transmission in buildings, your staff capacity isn’t strained — that school should have some in-person options,” Lane said. “If there’s an outbreak in a school, certainly think of closing for some time. But if there are no outbreaks and no transmission in the school community, we’re saying you should open as long as you can do mitigation strategies.”

However, as contact tracing resources have grown increasingly strained, most local health departments are prioritizing outbreaks and other cases that pose a significant public health risk. If multiple students or staff members test positive after close contact or sharing a potential exposure, health officials will likely investigate to determine if there was in-school transmission. But there’s little data on how most individual cases were contracted, and many local health officials have warned it’s become increasingly difficult to catch infected students or staff before they enter school buildings.

Reopening decisions have sparked fierce debate in local communities since Northam first announced a framework to bring students back to the classroom — four months after becoming one of the first governors in the country to close schools for the remainder of the spring semester.

Lane emphasized that the state never required schools to adopt remote instruction after releasing its first round of guidance in July. But those guidelines heavily emphasized CDC recommendations and asked schools to notify VDOE if they planned to deviate from the state’s framework.

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By early September, the majority of local school divisions — 67 in total — had chosen to begin the fall semester remotely. As of Thursday, that number had dropped to 52. But Keith Perrigan, the superintendent for Bristol Public Schools in Southwest Virginia, said much of the ongoing caution stemmed from the original guidance, which took a more incremental approach to bringing students back to the classroom.

“This is a huge change,” he said. “The previous phase guidance, it was probably more of a recommendation to be cautious. And I think the new guidance is to try your very best to reopen. If you can mitigate appropriately, you ought to do what you can to get back in school.”

There’s still no mandate for school divisions to follow the state’s revised guidance. Lane said Thursday that the Virginia Constitution left the final decision with local school boards. But education officials also faced heavy criticism from some superintendents earlier this year for allowing local divisions to deviate from the original plan.

State Superintendent James Lane in 2016, when he was named superintendent for Chesterfield Public Schools. (NBC12)

Some school systems have already made the decision to stay closed until at least the early spring — something Lane said he’d recommend reconsidering in light of the new guidance and the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines. But there are also continued debates even in districts that have prioritized in-person learning. In Chesterfield County, which announced plans to bring back elementary students next month, parents launched a petition calling on the school system to reverse the decision and keep schools mostly closed until teachers are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Both Northam and Lane faced significant questioning over the timing of the new guidelines, given that many schools have already announced reopening decisions for the spring. Virginia is also experiencing an ongoing surge of COVID-19 which some models suggest could continue until February. Rates of community transmission are consistently higher across Virginia than they’ve been at any other point during the pandemic. Daily new cases have risen in all five geographic regions throughout the early days of January, and hospitalizations are at an all-time high. Many health systems have voluntarily canceled elective surgeries or announced new surge plans to boost capacity for an ongoing influx of cases.

Lane said announcing the new guidance would give school districts the opportunity to prepare their plans in the coming weeks — even as Virginia contemplates longer-term changes such as year-round instruction to make up for learning loss during the pandemic. Northam also touted the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines as an important step in returning students safely to the classroom.

“While getting everyone vaccinated isn’t necessary to reopening schools, it will make it a lot easier,” he said. Eleven local health districts have begun vaccinating educators — or plan to start soon — after moving into Phase 1b of the state’s vaccine campaign.

Students at Watkins Elementary in Chesterfield County attend class wearing masks. Chesterfield returned to all virtual learning after Thanksgiving. (Chesterfield County Public Schools)

But the timeline for the rest of the state remains unclear. As of Thursday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranked Virginia in the low bottom third of all U.S. states when it came to immunizing residents. The same day, VDH’s vaccine reporting dashboard showed that only about 25 percent of shots distributed across the state had made their way into patients’ arms.

And throughout November and December, some health districts advised in-person schools to again close their buildings, warning that the surging cases made it impossible for them to trace and investigate new infections. In Bristol, Perrigan said it was the first dose of vaccines — administered by the local health department earlier this week — that helped reassure teachers more than anything else.

“That’s what had the biggest impact — the availability of vaccines,” he said. “I think a lot of pressure was released once our staff was able to get that first round.”

Virginia pushes back estimate for vaccinating all residents for COVID-19
Virginia Mercury, Kate Masters January 11, 2021 (Medium)
Gov. Ralph Northam speaks at a news conference in August. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Every Virginian vaccinated by early to mid-summer?

Many experts say it’s no longer likely. Gov. Ralph Northam has also readjusted earlier — and more optimistic — estimates from late November, when he spoke to NPR about the state’s COVID-19 vaccination plans.

“Phase three will be the general population and hopefully by, you know, early to midsummer have everybody in Virginia vaccinated,” he said at the time. But after a slower-than-expected rollout — both in Virginia and across the country — the administration has slightly revised its targets.

“The governor is still hopeful that everyone will have the opportunity to be vaccinated by mid-summer to fall,” spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky wrote in an email on Tuesday. The administration’s prospective timeline includes a few caveats, including the fact that children under 16 — or roughly 2 million Virginians — won’t be included in the overall total because a vaccine hasn’t yet been approved for them.

The goal also assumes that some of the state’s residents will decline the vaccine (“although we’re hopeful that is not a large percentage and will decrease further as this process continues,” Yarmosky wrote). And ultimately, it means Virginia will need to be administering at least 50,000 doses a day, which is contingent on new vaccines entering the market and an increase in federal shipments.

Yarmosky pointed to recent changes that have inspired optimism from state leaders across the country. One, announced Friday, is that the Biden administration plans to begin releasing available vaccines immediately, rather than holding back a second dose from shipments from Pfizer and Moderna.

But even with the change in administration, many experts say there needs to be a rapid shift in how COVID-19 vaccines are distributed and administered in order to meet a late-summer to fall target. Mark Capofari — who worked for Pfizer and spent more than a decade as the director of global logistics at Merck before becoming a full-time lecturer at Penn State — thinks vaccinations will be ongoing well into the third quarter of the year, which stretches from July to September.

Thomas Denny, the chief operating officer of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute, said it might take even longer for most of the public to get inoculated — possibly not until October or November.

“I got a bit more optimistic when it looked like vaccines were coming and we’d have a good number of doses to start out with,” he said. “But then in between late December and so far in January, just about every place has missed its mark with using the amount of doses they’ve gotten.”

“I’m now back to thinking that it’s not likely by the summer that we’ll achieve it,” he continued.

When the vaccine will be accessible to most Virginians has been a major question since the state received its first doses in mid-December. The Northam administration has tentatively predicted that Phase 1a — when vaccines are prioritized for health care providers and long-term care facilities — could conclude by the end of this month. But there’s already been some overlap with Phase 1b, which includes first responders, correction officers and teachers, followed by other frontline personnel such as grocery store clerks and mail carriers.

On Friday, the Virginia Department of Health announced that 11 local districts across the state were beginning Phase 1b early after vaccinating the majority of their medical workers and long-term care residents. Scheduling an appointment would “depend on the supply of vaccine available,” the department warned, and the phase is likely to take “several weeks to months” even with an early start.

But at a briefing last week, Northam also outlined prioritization plans for Phase 1c, the next step of the state’s vaccine campaign, which will include other essential workers in construction, transportation and utilities.

Providing a clear timeline for all the different subgroups can be complicated. VDH guidelines set a clear order for frontline workers in Phase 1b “because there is not sufficient supply at this time to vaccinate everyone at the same time.” But Virginians aged 75 and older are also included in Phase 1b, and it’s unclear where they fall in the order of prioritization.

Northam emphasized flexibility in his briefing last week, saying he’d rather see providers administer more doses than hew strictly to the state’s guidance. But given the state’s current pace, it’s unclear when the next two phases — which cover about half of the state’s roughly 8.5 million residents — will fully get underway.

As of Friday, the state had received 481,550 doses of vaccine and administered nearly 150,000, or about 30 percent of its total allocation. Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said Tuesday that the Virginia Department of Health’s vaccine reporting dashboard could be undercounting anywhere from 35,000 to 55,000, which would push the state’s total closer to 40 percent.

Bloomberg’s vaccine tracker ranks Virginia above nearby states including Pennsylvania, North Carolina and South Carolina, but below neighbors such as Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia (which has an administration rate more than double the Old Dominion’s). And some experts, including Denny and Bruce Y. Lee, a professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy, say the haphazard rollout of vaccines across the country is mainly attributable to poor federal planning.

“When it comes right down to it, very few states have the wherewithal or the resources for the kind of coordination that’s required,” said Lee, who also works as the executive director of CUNY’s Public Health Computational and Operations Research. “That needed to come from the federal government.”

But Capofari said that state planning also played a major role, pointing to sometimes drastically different vaccination rates across the country. Funding makes a major difference, as does intensive planning and coordination between different agencies and providers.

He pointed to hospitals and local health departments — two settings where the state has routed a significant number of vaccines, though the Virginia Department of Health still can’t say which vaccines went where. If hospitals are going to play a role in vaccinating groups other than their own employees, Capofari said they need clear guidance on who to prioritize and how to reach them. And if hospitals are expected to transport any surplus doses to other settings, there needs to be clear communication and a plan of action, from which facility is responsible for transporting the vaccine to the equipment they’ll use to preserve the doses to when the delivery will be made.

“I think there’s still a lot of uncertainty still as to what the plans are and even where to do the inoculations and how to go about it,” he said.

Regulators want to extend Virginia’s expiring pandemic workplace safety rules
Virginia Mercury, Ned OliverJanuary 11, 2021 (Medium)

Brandon

 

Gov. Ralph Northam at a press conference in October. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Gov. Ralph Northam acknowledged Wednesday that Virginia needs to speed up the pace of its COVID-19 vaccinations, announcing a “you use it or you lose it policy” prodding health care providers to administer the shots to more residents.

“I want you to empty those freezers and get shots in arms,” he said. “When you have vials, give out shots until they’re gone. No one wants to see any supplies sitting unused.”

The governor’s news briefing — his first in nearly a month — came as Virginia experiences its worst COVID-19 caseload than at any other point in the pandemic. The statewide percent positivity rate rose to nearly 17 percent on Wednesday, and Northam pointed out that daily case numbers are currently four times higher than they were in the spring — an average of more than 4,700 new infections every day.

At the same time, Virginia has been grappling with a sluggish rollout of a vaccine described by the governor as “the most powerful tool — the one that’s going to literally change things.” Northam has not announced new restrictions since early December, but has described COVID-19 vaccines as a ray of hope in the ongoing pandemic.

Many states have struggled with administering the shots after the federal government shipped out early doses in mid-December. But until recently, Virginia ranked 46th in the country when it came to the percentage of vaccines administered among states, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported. The state’s rating has improved, but thousands of vaccines still have yet to make their way into the arms of Virginians.

State health officials also elaborated on reporting issues that have prevented administered doses from appearing on the Virginia Department of Health’s vaccine reporting dashboard. Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said Wednesday that the department updated its internal immunization reporting system in anticipation of the COVID-19 vaccine, but that some providers, as a result, have struggled to enter data in a timely manner. There have also been technical glitches that have prevented some health systems’ vaccines from hitting the dashboard.

Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, said that in some cases, providers are reporting vaccinations but the data is appearing inaccurately in the state’s system, requiring VDH employees to go back and verify the numbers. As a result of all the problems, Oliver said that the state’s totals could be undercounting anywhere from 35,000 to 55,000 doses.

“We’re actually doing better than we appear,” he said after the briefing. But even if 55,000 was added to the state’s total number of administered vaccines, it would mean that health providers have given out around 171,247 of the 481,550 doses delivered to the state — around 35 percent.

To address the slow rollout, Northam announced several steps the administration plans to take over the next several weeks.

A provider with Augusta Health administers a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine this week. (Courtesy of Augusta Health)

New goals for administering the vaccine

Northam outlined new goals for giving out the vaccine as one of the first steps in his plan to ramp up administration. Currently, he said the state receives roughly 110,000 doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccine a week, which equates to an immediate goal of delivering 14,000 shots a day to fully use up that supply.

On Wednesday, VDH reported that 2,695 doses had been administered in the last 24 hours. That daily increase has been as high as 12,000 in recent days, but Yarmosky said the large jump was the result of backlogged data. Current reporting delays make it difficult for the department to assess daily progress, which is why resolving those issues is an instrumental part of achieving the governor’s goal, she added.

Longer-term, Northam said he’d like to build up to 25,000 daily doses — a number that also depends on federal officials ramping up shipments to states. Oliver later said the goal was achievable if President-elect Joe Biden delivered on his promise to distribute 100 million shots within his first 100 days in office. Yarmosky also said the state’s daily goal would increase with the greater supply.

‘Lose it or lose it’

Northam’s newly announced policy is directed at health systems, local health departments and other clinical settings that receive doses of the vaccine. The governor said with the next shipment of Pfizer and Moderna doses, VDH would expand its reporting so Virginians can see where vaccines are delivered and how quickly they’re being used.

“Virginians, you deserve this transparency,” he said. State officials will also monitor usage, and sites that don’t fully use their allocated doses could face reduced shipments going forward.

“Don’t save anything,” Northam said. “You’re going to get every dose you need because more is coming. But if you’re not using what you receive, you must be getting too much.”

A plan for next phases

The governor also unveiled priority groups for Phase 1b and 1c,  the next stages in the state’s vaccination campaign. According to Yarmosky, the current phase — 1a, which includes medical workers and long-term care facilities — should be finished by late January. VDH spokeswoman Erin Beard told the Mercury yesterday that moving onto later phases is based on whether “vaccine supply significantly increases” and “if vaccine demand is less than supply.”

Phase 1b will include essential and frontline workers — “people who work in jobs that keep society functioning,” Northam said. That includes roughly 285,000 teachers and childcare providers, along with first responders, mail carriers, corrections officers and grocery store workers. Essential workers in manufacturing and food production will also be included, as will public transit employees.

All adults aged 75 or older will also be included in phase 1b.

Phase 1c will cover essential workers in construction, transportation, and food service, such as restaurant servers, as well as adults aged 65 or older and all Virginians between 16 and 65 with high-risk medical conditions. The two groups — phase 1b and 1c — cover about half of the state’s roughly 8.5 million residents, Northam said, before the vaccine will move to the general public.

But the logistics of moving onto different phases — and the details of how state officials will ensure quicker innoculation — are largely unclear. Northam appointed Dr. Danny Avula, the director of the Richmond-Henrico Health Department, to oversee and coordinate statewide vaccination efforts, saying more details would become available in the coming weeks.

Dr. Danny Avula speaks at an event in 2018 during which he was named director of both the Richmond and Henrico County health departments. (Katie O’Connor/Virginia Mercury)

But as the Mercury has reported, some large health systems are vaccinating non-clinical employees who have worked from home since the start of the pandemic — even as some community providers struggle to book appointments with their local health departments.

Northam emphasized Wednesday that distribution sites should err on the side of vaccinating Virginians rather than holding doses based on prioritization. But Oliver also said that sites should follow the state’s guidance whenever possible “because that’s been well thought through” (he later added that VDH advised against giving out doses to Virginians who aren’t frontline workers, including anyone who can work from home).

What’s not clear is how Virginians in phase 1b and 1c will be notified that they’re eligible for the vaccine and when it becomes available. It’s also still unclear how health systems will manage excess doses. Northam said his administration hasn’t heard of vaccines being wasted, but Oliver later said anecdotal data suggests that only 60 percent of EMS workers and nurses have opted for vaccination.

Whether health systems will assist in vaccinating other priority groups remains to be seen. Oliver said it would require close collaboration with local health departments so that hospitals could redistribute unused doses to other settings.

“Maybe they vaccinate, maybe they just provide the supplies,” he said. “And we would shift the allocations if they weren’t using them.”

 

Virginia state senator dies of COVID-19 complications
Virginia Mercury, Robert ZulloJanuary 1, 2021 (Short)
Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Russell. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Virginia State Sen. A. Benton “Ben” Chafin Jr., R-Russell, has died of COVID-19, the Senate Republican leadership announced Friday evening.

“Tonight, as the Senate of Virginia comes to grips with this tremendous and untimely loss caused by COVID-19, our sympathy and prayers are with Ben’s wife, Lora Lee, their children and grandchildren, and Ben’s mother and his sister, Justice Teresa Chafin,” Senate Republican Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, said in a statement.

Chafin, 60, was born in Abingdon and was briefly a member of the House of Delegates before winning a special election to the Senate in 2014. He is the first Virginia lawmaker to die from the virus, though several have had bouts with COVID-19, as has Gov. Ralph Northam and his wife, Pam.

“Ben was deeply and wholeheartedly committed to the commonwealth, and especially to the people of Southwest Virginia. A community leader in Russell, Ben rose to prominence in the fields of law, banking and agriculture long before his neighbors elected him to the General Assembly,” Norment said.

“First as delegate and then senator, Ben relentlessly promoted and fought for the interests and values of Southwest. He put the interests of those he was entrusted to serve first, cherishing the people of the region he proudly called ‘home.’”

Northam, a Democrat and former state senator who also presided over the chamber as lieutenant governor, said Southwest Virginia had “lost a strong advocate — and we have all lost a good man.”

“I knew Ben as a lawmaker, an attorney, a banker, and a farmer raising beef cattle in Moccasin Valley, working the land just as generations of his family had done before him. He loved the outdoors, and he loved serving people even more. He pushed hard to bring jobs and investment to his district, and I will always be grateful for his courageous vote to expand health care for people who need it,” Northam said, referring to Chafin’s vote to expand Medicaid in 2018. Northam has ordered the state flag to be lowered to half-staff.

“Pam and I are praying for Lora and their children. … This is sad news to begin a new year with the loss of a kind and gracious man. May we all recommit to taking extra steps to care for one another,” Northam said.

The Roanoke Times reported that Chafin had tested positive for the virus in December but that his family kept the diagnosis private for weeks.

Democratic House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, said she was “deeply saddened” by Chafin’s death, which comes less than two weeks before the General Assembly is scheduled to convene on Jan. 13.

“I respected his commitment to the people of the 38th senatorial district and his strong advocacy on their behalf,” she said.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, said Chafin “epitomized the Virginia gentleman — he was compassionate, thoughtful and cared deeply for his district and all Virginians. We will miss him dearly.”

The consequences of rugged individualism in a pandemic
Virginia Mercury, Roger Chesley October 29, 2020 (Short)
A masked protester near the Virginia State Capitol during a “Reopen Virginia Rally” in Richmond, Va., April 22, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Americans can be a selfish lot. Not everybody, of course. But too many people couldn’t care less about taking the necessary steps to keep deaths and infections from COVID-19 at bay.

It’s not that hard: Stay at home as much as possible. Wear a mask out in public and in buildings. Wash your hands. Avoid situations where you can’t stay at least 6 feet apart. Treat workers with respect and deference who must come into contact with consumers. Limit the number of people at social gatherings.

Folks, none of these are Herculean tasks. We’re not being asked to climb mountains, mine for ore or donate a kidney just to survive.

Yet several months into this raging pandemic, the “me-first” mentality is readily apparent, in the commonwealth and elsewhere:

• The Virginia Department of Health issued a news release last week noting COVID-19 cases were surging in Norton city and Lee, Scott and Wise counties. “Keep in mind that your behavior can help protect yourself and others — or put you and them at increased risk,” said Dr. Sue Cantrell, a director of health districts in the area. (I tried to interview Cantrell about whether resistance to mask-wearing contributed to the numbers, but I couldn’t reach her.)

• A mid-October wedding at Wintergreen Resort forced several employees to quarantine because of possible exposure to COVID-19, an official said. Some staffers tested positive. Weddings are special, but shouldn’t couples limit the number of guests because of the times we’re in? Even then, you don’t know if all the well-wishers had recent tests confirming they were free of the virus.

• Lynchburg General Hospital’s acute care facilities were “strained,” a top official said, because of an influx of coronavirus patients last week.

• Despite new restrictions imposed by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker prohibiting indoor dining in specific communities, a throng of customers showed up and packed a restaurant in defiance of the guidelines, the Chicago Tribune reported. The restaurant’s social media post said it was opening “out of survival and to help our staff pay their bills.” Yet Pritzker this week warned “there seems to be a COVID storm coming.”

The United States has proved the days of exceptionalism are over — unless you’re talking about leading everybody else with more than 226,000 deaths. By mid-October, the United States had the highest numbers of COVID-19 infections and deaths, and officials said we’ve entered a third peak of cases in many states.

We don’t have a vaccine. So why is it so hard for Americans to do what medical experts advise to fight this thing?

University professors I interviewed and scholarly articles suggested several reasons: Partisanship, since many Republicans followed President Donald Trump’s lead in downplaying or even denying the coronavirus’ existence, and they resisted wearing masks. A rugged individualism — baked into the nation’s founding — over working for the common good. And pandemic fatigue, even as there’s no end in sight to the carnage.

“We are a country that values individualism, materialism and wealth over the well-being of our neighbors,” Tim Goler, assistant professor of sociology and urban affairs at Norfolk State University, told me. He’s one of the researchers overseeing a pandemic study of older adults.

Goler added that people are fed up with being at home, especially if they haven’t been directly affected by deaths or illnesses: “They’re willing to sacrifice people dying.” You saw indications of this even earlier this year, when protesters demanded states to reopen their economies — even as spikes of infections continued.

“The pandemic has exposed the extent to which we do not live in a ‘United States of America,’ ” said Ernestine Duncan, a psychology professor at NSU. She noted people in other nations have accepted strong restrictions on movements and behavior, and they’re faring better than the U.S.

Clearly, we’re an individualistic society, Duncan noted.

It made me wonder about the last time our sprawling, populous country really sacrificed as a whole for the common good. Historians might point to World War II, in which food, gasoline and clothes were rationed.

Officials and residents collected scrap metal and rubber for the war effort. Women entered defense plants to work because so many men had joined the military and people grew “Victory Gardens” in large numbers to supplement their meals.

The circumstances, though, aren’t totally analogous. Back then, Americans were forced into rationing because of governmental mandates; that hasn’t always been the case this time. Trump has hesitated to restrict the movements and actions of citizens in spite of the way the coronavirus is transmitted.

In the 21st century, our rugged, go-it-alone mentality has horrific consequences. We shouldn’t be surprised by the ever-rising COVID-19 death toll if we continue to be more concerned about individual comfort rather than our collective safety.

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy — an awful one.

Virginia COVID-19 Briefing
VPMOctober 28, 2020 (59:00)
Virginia health officials issue COVID-19 warning over small gatherings
NBC29.com, Adrianna Hargrove and Henry Graff October 28, 2020 (Short)

Virginia Health Officials are warning about small gatherings. It’s part of the concern over rising numbers in southwest Virginia but the message goes to the entire state as we head into the holidays.

“Coming together as an extended family as if you are in one household does present risk,” said Dr. Daniel Carey, Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources.

During a COVID-19 briefing Wednesday, Governor Ralph Northam said those gatherings are the reason behind a percent positivity climb from 5% to 8% in southwest Virginia.

“I know that many people are tired of COVID restrictions. We are all tired of not having social get togethers, not going to see sports or shows, not having the regular interactions that we count on in our lives,” said Northam.

Virginia COVID-19 Briefing
VPMOctober 13, 2020 (54:00)
Virginia COVID-19 Briefing
VPMSeptember 15, 2020 (40:00)
Virginia COVID-19 Briefing
VPMSeptember 1, 2020
Virginia COVID-19 Briefing
VPMAugust 5, 2020 (01:00:00)
Virginia COVID-19 Briefing
VPMJuly 28, 2020 (55:00)

To understand the mind of a teacher, those of us who do other things for a living must attempt some mental gymnastics.

Let’s imagine a professional passion so acute that when the coronavirus shuttered classrooms, they pivoted with little warning or rehearsal to digitally link dozens of children from home and continue daily instruction remotely.

Close your eyes and comprehend a devotion to students so strong that you spend your personal money to supplement classroom supplies as eclectic as sanitizing wipes and Elmer’s glue, crepe paper and whiteboard markers.

Now, as days start shortening and summer bends toward autumn and a new academic calendar, imagine balancing your innate yearning for the classroom with a well-reasoned fear of a monstrously contagious, potentially deadly virus that medicine still can’t control and science doesn’t fully understand.

Finally, overlay that against the backdrop of political conflict and chaos that multiplies by the day.

Virginia prison system says active COVID-19 cases down to 22
Virginia Mercury, Ned OliverJuly 13, 2020 (Short)

The Virginia Department of Corrections says it’s down to 22 active cases of COVID-19 among inmates in the 40 prisons it operates around the state.

Gov. Ralph Northam’s secretary of public safety, Brian Moran, touted the figures Friday, which include six hospitalized prisoners and 16 still being held at various correctional facilities. He emphasized the latter number in a presentation to lawmakers.

“We have 16, let me repeat, 16 active cases in all of our correctional facilities,” he said during a joint meeting of the Senate’s judiciary and social services committees. “That’s out of 28,000 inmates, 40 correctional facilities. Sixteen — one six — active cases.”

Virginia is refusing to release information on COVID-19 outbreaks at poultry processing plants on the grounds of privacy concerns, despite a June decision to provide such data for long-term care facilities.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Mercury in June after Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration began releasing facility-specific data for nursing homes, the Virginia Department of Health said it would not provide the same information for poultry processing plants “in order to ensure that VDH is able to preserve the anonymity of individuals whose medical records have been examined during the investigation of COVID-19.”

“VDH is considering how to make the information you have requested available at the health district and/or regional level,” wrote VDH Deputy Commissioner for Governmental and Regulatory Affairs Joseph Hilbert in an email.

Neither a followup request to Hilbert nor an inquiry to the governor’s office about the justification for releasing such information for nursing homes but not poultry plants were answered.

About

Web

VA Dept of Health Covid-19 webiste

Virginia

Congress

Virginia Republicans and Democrats Call for Bipartisan COVID-19 Relief Bill
By Erik Burk, reporter for the Virginia Star on December 9, 2020

As Senator Mark Warner (D-Virginia) signals that a $908 billion relief bill will be ready for the Senate to consider soon, Virginia Republicans are calling for a similar bill in the House of Representatives. But Congressman Morgan Griffith (R-VA-09) is warning leadership not to bundle it with a budget appropriations bill.

“Once again, congressional leadership finds itself expecting one enormous appropriations bill to address all the needs of the moment. The House should have followed regular order earlier and passed individual spending bills as the law demands,” Griffith said in a Tuesday press release.
More VA congressional member views in article.

Beyer Introduces Legislation To Support Research Into Long Term Effects Of Coronavirus Infection

ep. Don Beyer this week introduced the COVID-19 Long Haulers Act, which would authorize and fund research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PICORI) to benefit so-called “long haulers,” people who experience long term effects of COVID-19 infections. From the beginning of the pandemic medical researchers have documented a wide array of lingering conditions affecting patients long after they recover from initial infection, but leading public health officials say more research is needed to fully understand and respond to the phenomenon.

“Over ten months after coronavirus was first documented in the United States, some of the worst suffering is still being borne by people who got sick and recovered from their initial infections early in the year,” said Beyer. “Given the alarming pace of the virus’ spread right now, we may see significant proliferation of individuals suffering long term effects of coronavirus infections. We need to do everything we can as soon as we can to help those people, and to get a handle on this problem. My bill would make major investments in research funding at leading institutions, and make this a major priority for American medical research.”

Beyer serves on the House Committee on Ways and Means, which has partial jurisdiction over health care. He previously led successful efforts to reauthorize and fund the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI), spearheaded a House push to fund the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), and is the sponsor of legislation to ensure data transparency at the CDC during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Text of the COVID-19 Long Haulers Act is available here.

General Assembly

COVID-19 Relief Fund

Last April Gov. Ralph Northam and lawmakers created the COVID-19 Relief Fund. The goal is to help the commonwealth push through its revenue losses without drastically cutting programs or increasing taxes. The fund also sends 12 percent of its revenue straight to localities.

In December the governor shifted the focus of the relief money, saying it will target struggling small businesses. Virginia is estimated to reap $140 million from the fund this fiscal year through a $1,200-a-month tax on skill game machines, the type found in bars, gas stations, convenience stores and restaurants.

Prevention

Frequently Asked Questions – Coronavirus

From Virginia Department of Health

All FAQ’s PDF (updated biweekly)
VDH FAQs are searchable in PDF format, using the keys Ctrl-F

Topics include:
COVID-19 Basics
Public Health Actions
Vaccination
Schools, Workplaces & Community Locations
Special Populations
Travelers
Animals & Veterinarians

Containment Measures

Governor Northam Announces New Statewide Measures to Contain COVID-19
Nov. 13, 2020

Includes limit of 25 individuals for in-person gatherings, expanded mask mandate, on-site alcohol curfew, and increased enforcement

As COVID-19 surges in states across the country, Governor Ralph Northam today announced new actions to mitigate the spread of the virus in Virginia. While the Commonwealth’s case count per capita and positivity rate remain comparatively low, all five health regions are experiencing increases in new COVID-19 cases, positive tests, and hospitalizations.

“COVID-19 is surging across the country, and while cases are not rising in Virginia as rapidly as in some other states, I do not intend to wait until they are. We are acting now to prevent this health crisis from getting worse,” said Governor Northam. “Everyone is tired of this pandemic and restrictions on our lives. I’m tired, and I know you are tired too. But as we saw earlier this year, these mitigation measures work. I am confident that we can come together as one Commonwealth to get this virus under control and save lives.”

Governor Northam shared a new video to update Virginians on the additional steps the Commonwealth is taking to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, which is available here.

The following measures will take effect at midnight on Sunday, November 15:

  • Reduction in public and private gatherings: All public and private in-person gatherings must be limited to 25 individuals, down from the current cap of 250 people. This includes outdoor and indoor settings.
  • Expansion of mask mandate: All Virginians aged five and over are required to wear face coverings in indoor public spaces. This expands the current mask mandate, which has been in place in Virginia since May 29 and requires all individuals aged 10 and over to wear face coverings in indoor public settings.
  • Strengthened enforcement within essential retail businesses: All essential retail businesses, including grocery stores and pharmacies, must adhere to statewide guidelines for physical distancing, wearing face coverings, and enhanced cleaning. While certain essential retail businesses have been required to adhere to these regulations as a best practice, violations will now be enforceable through the Virginia Department of Health as a Class One misdemeanor.
  • On-site alcohol curfew: The on-site sale, consumption, and possession of alcohol is prohibited after 10:00 p.m. in any restaurant, dining establishment, food court, brewery, microbrewery, distillery, winery, or tasting room. All restaurants, dining establishments, food courts, breweries, microbreweries, distilleries, wineries, and tasting rooms must close by midnight. Virginia law does not distinguish between restaurants and bars, however, under current restrictions, individuals that choose to consume alcohol prior to 10:00 p.m. must be served as in a restaurant and remain seated at tables six feet apart.

Virginia is averaging 1,500 newly-reported COVID-19 cases per day, up from a statewide peak of approximately 1,200 in May. While Southwest Virginia has experienced a spike in the number of diagnosed COVID-19 cases, all five of the Commonwealth’s health regions are currently reporting a positivity rate over five percent. Although hospital capacity remains stable, hospitalizations have increased statewide by more than 35 percent in the last four weeks.

On Tuesday, Governor Northam announced new contracts with three laboratories as part of the Commonwealth’s OneLabNetwork, which will significantly increase Virginia’s public health testing capacity. Contracts with Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville, and Sentara Healthcare in Norfolk will directly support high-priority outbreak investigations, community testing events, and testing in congregate settings, with a goal of being able to perform 7,000 per day by the end of the year.

The full text of amended Executive Order Sixty-Three and Order of Public Health Emergency Five and sixth amended Executive Order Sixty-Seven and Order of Public Health Emergency Seven will be made available here.

Economic Recovery

Governor Northam Announces Over $6 Million in GO Virginia Grants to Stimulate Economic Growth, Address Ongoing Impacts of Pandemic

Funding supports 11 projects that foster innovation, expand workforce development programs, and grow portfolio of business-ready sites

“GO Virginia has succeeded in creating a framework for strategic thinking in at the regional level,” said GO Virginia Board Vice Chair Nancy Howell Agee. “The mission of the program is perhaps even more relevant today than it was when we announced our first grant. Growing and diversifying regional economies while creating high quality jobs for Virginians is a goal we share with our partners across the Commonwealth.”

Since the program began in 2017, GO Virginia has funded 149 projects and awarded approximately $52.2 million to support regional economic development efforts. The 24-person GO Virginia Board includes members of the Governor’s cabinet, the business community, and the General Assembly. Additional information about the GO Virginia program is available at dhcd.virginia.gov/gova.

X
Climate Change OverviewVirginia and Climate Change

With more than 10,000 miles of shoreline, Virginia’s coastal region is home to about 70 percent of the commonwealth’s population and much of its economic power, from the federal government centers of Northern Virginia to the the sprawling defense installations of Hampton Roads, where Naval Station Norfolk is the world’s largest naval base and enormous quantities of goods and resources like coal regularly transit the Port of Virginia.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, using data from Virginia’s longest-operating tide gauge at Sewell’s Point in Norfolk, has found that the state has seen more than 18 inches of relative sea level rise in the past 100 years. Agency projections show that under the highest sea level rise scenarios, Sewell’s Point could see water levels rise by almost 6.7 feet by 2100.

Democrats eye vehicles as the next target for cutting carbon emissions
Virginia Mercury, Sarah VogelsongJanuary 14, 2021 (Medium)
An electric vehicle charges at a public station in Henrico County, July 2020. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

While Virginia Democrats’ big environmental push of 2020 was the Virginia Clean Economy Act, a sweeping omnibus measure designed to eliminate carbon emissions from the state’s power grid by 2050, during the 2021 session they’re setting their sights on a tougher and more diffuse source of carbon: transportation.

According to 2017 figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, almost half of Virginia’s carbon emissions  48 percent  come from transportation. Electric power, by contrast, accounts for almost a third, at 29 percent.

But while power grid emissions come largely from a few dozen generating plants fueled by coal, gas and oil, transportation emissions come from literally millions of sources. More than 8.4 million vehicles are registered in the commonwealth, according to 2020 data from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. The vast majority of those are powered by gasoline-fueled internal combustion engines, with electric vehicles numbering just shy of 150,000, most of them hybrids.

“The transportation sector is where we can have the most gains now in terms of getting carbon out of the atmosphere,” said Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun, who is sponsoring two bills that aim to encourage electric vehicle use.

Replacing Virginians’ gas-powered vehicles with electric ones will be a daunting lift. Unlike many other states, Virginia currently has no incentives in place for electric vehicle adoption, and price tags for proposals to both incentivize such purchases and build up the infrastructure to support their expansion are large. One recent study conducted by a working group through the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy found that a proposed rebate program would require $43 million in funding to cover rebates for approximately 13,000 electric vehicles.

Still, many Democrats, who control the legislature and the governor’s office, argue that with climate change accelerating and increased flooding due to sea level rise in the low-lying Hampton Roads region, action is needed.

“We’re now in the position where the public, I believe, is driving the legislators to say, number one, we’ve got to do something about the environment, but number two, there’s options now that we’ve never had before” said Del. Ken Plum, D-Fairfax, during a virtual town hall about electric vehicles this December. “We need to get on board.”

Looking to California — and Maryland — for new emissions standards

Among environmentalists, this session’s top-line legislation is a bill being carried by Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, that would allow the State Air Pollution Control Board to adopt low-emission and zero-emission vehicle standards set by California beginning no earlier than 2023 and no later than 2025.

The Clean Air Act of 1970, the nation’s preeminent air quality law, prohibits any state from setting its own emissions standards for new vehicles but provides a waiver of that restriction for California, which already had standards on its books at the time of the law’s passage and was suffering from widespread smog and other pollution. Other states that wish to set emissions standards more stringent than federal ones are allowed to adopt California’s  a road taken by 15 jurisdictions, including Maryland, Delaware and Washington, D.C. (Three other states are in the process of considering adoption.)

Bagby’s legislation, House Bill 1965, would put Virginia on a path toward adopting not only these low-emission vehicle, or LEV, standards but zero-emission vehicle, or ZEV, standards mandating that a certain percentage of all cars sold by manufacturers in Virginia be electric. Under the Clean Air Act, neither can go into effect for at least two years after approval by the federal government.

Advocates say the measures, collectively known as the Advanced Clean Cars Program, are essential for carbon reduction goals.

“It’s really important that we pass this bill this year, because once the regulation is finalized, there’s a mandatory two-year wait before manufacturers need to comply,” said Lena Lewis, energy and climate policy manager for the Nature Conservancy, which along with groups like the Southern Environmental Law Center, Sierra Club Virginia and the Virginia Conservation Network is supporting the bill. “Given the urgency and the pace at which climate change is happening, we need to react to it with the seriousness which this problem demands.”

Auto dealers, though, have balked. The Virginia Automobile Dealers Association opposed a similar measure in 2020 and this December sent a letter to the chairs of the House and Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committees asking that a stakeholder group be convened to study electric vehicle deployment and that consideration of a “comprehensive plan to decrease vehicle emissions” be brought forward in 2022.

“Virginia dealers support the adoption of EVs. They have adapted to changes in their industry for generations, and electric vehicles represent just the latest in a long line of advancements,” said Don Hall, president and CEO of the association, in an email. But he said the zero-emission vehicle standard would require dealers to carry “vehicles that may be too expensive or not in demand by consumers” on their lot.

“Virginia should only consider ZEV mandates in conjunction with the necessary commitment of resources to assure successful implementation of the regulations without unfair impact on any party, including dealers,” he said.

In its letter to the committee chairs, VADA emphasized the need for more infrastructure investment prior to the creation of any new mandate.

“If Virginia wants to emulate California, then the Commonwealth must also match California’s investment,” the association wrote.

Bagby called the request to delay action until 2022 “unfortunate.”

“We have acknowledged that this can’t start immediately and we can’t expect those cars to show up on the lots overnight,” he said. But, he added, the Advanced Clean Car standards would put “a timeline in place,” with an expected start of 2025.

“It’s time to get the wheels in motion,” he said.

Feeding supply, fueling demand

While Hall said electric vehicles “are still far outpaced by demand and registrations for gas-powered vehicles in Virginia,” advocates say the Advanced Clean Cars Program could increase adoption by increasing the commonwealth’s supply of electric vehicles.

If adopted, the ZEV standard would require roughly 8 percent of all vehicles manufacturers sold statewide to be electric by 2025.

The demand is there, say these advocates. One survey conducted by pro-electric vehicle group Generation180 found that while over half of Virginians surveyed were likely to consider an electric vehicle for their next car, inventory was 44 to 54 percent lower in Virginia cities than in comparable Maryland cities, with certain popular models seven to 10 times more available in the latter. Many respondents reported having to travel to Maryland to buy an electric car.

Availability isn’t the only barrier to electric vehicle adoption, however. While costs have dropped in recent years  experts believe they’ll reach price parity with gas-powered vehicles by 2025, or even sooner  the technology remains more expensive than traditional models.

bill put forward by Reid aims to offset that price premium through a two-tiered rebate program that would offer buyers or lessees of electric vehicles rebates of up to $2,500 or $4,500, depending on their income. Dealers would also receive a $50 incentive payment for each car they sold.

The program design hews closely to that put forward by the working group that estimated it would cost $43 million, although Reid said his bill proposes a more scaled-down version. That group, which included not only environmental organizations but auto dealers and state agencies, determined such a program was “feasible and similar to programs that currently operate in other states.”

“We wanted to make it so it’s as simple as possible for the salesperson to use, because we wanted to remove all the barriers or impediments that are either perceived or actual,” said Reid.

Another major barrier, infrastructure, will also be on lawmakers’ agenda in a bill from Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, that would require an analysis of electric vehicle charging infrastructure as part of the state’s energy plan. Currently, as the Automobile Dealers Association pointed out in their December letter, Virginia only has about 2,000 charging stations, a fraction of those found in California. Many of those are clustered in the state’s more populous regions and become more sparse in rural areas.

“It’s going to be very difficult for you to find a great charging station in Bath County,” admitted Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, during the December electric vehicle town hall.

A study of readiness conducted by the Virginia Department of Transportation and recently released to lawmakers “found that we in Virginia, like pretty much everywhere else in the country, are not ready for mass deployment of vehicles,” said Boysko.

“We have a long way to go to get to full capacity and this will get us on track for that,” she said.

The cost conundrum

The biggest question mark in the electric vehicle debate remains cost.

Charging stations offer opportunity for businesses, and a special docket to consider electric vehicles established by the State Corporation Commission this summer revealed an appetite for growth. Electric vehicle proponents also emphasize the job creation potential the market poses, with factories like the Volvo plant in Dublin planning to begin manufacturing new models, while businesses have begun to tout the lifetime savings costs they expect from electrification.

But other efforts, like rebate programs, and the desire to ensure that infrastructure is developed equitably, including in rural areas that might not attract much competition, are likely to require deep pockets  complicated by the hit on the global economy as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As far as the $43 million working group estimate for the rebate program, Reid said that “in today’s environment, I don’t think that money is available.”

“It may be we have to put the program in place this year and then find funding,” he said. “We’re not sure right now how much money is going to come back to the state budget.”

The DMME working group in its final report put forward a range of funding options, including transportation-related taxes and fees, congestion pricing and the highway usage fee.

One potential revenue source is the Transportation and Climate Initiative, a cap-and-invest market similar to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative that would require fuel suppliers to purchase emissions allowances in an auction and then redistribute the proceeds to participating states for reinvestment in clean transportation.

Virginia, however, has hesitated to join TCI. While Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island formally committed to the program this December, Virginia and seven other states merely pledged their ongoing collaboration in efforts to develop the new initiative. At the time, Alena Yarmosky, a spokesperson for Gov. Ralph Northam’s office, said Northam hadn’t ruled out the possibility of full commitment in the future. Clean energy advocates expect the program to come before the General Assembly in 2022, but any such proposal is likely to face fierce resistance from some Republicans and industry groups.

Related bills

Related proposals before the General Assembly this session include:

  • House Bill 2118 from Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, which would create the Electric Vehicle Grant Program to issue competitive grants to school boards to replace diesel school buses with electric ones by 2031, put in place charging infrastructure for the buses and set up educational and workforce development programs to encourage industry growth. The program would be funded with a tax on dyed diesel fuel, a type of diesel identified for nonroad use.
  • House Joint Resolution 542 from Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, to request the Department of Rail and Public Transportation to study transit equity and modernization. Most plans for reducing transportation emissions rely on a dual strategy of converting gas-powered vehicles to electric ones while also reducing the number of vehicle miles traveled through more robust public transit infrastructure.
Virginia’s 100% Clean Energy Law
Green Tech Media, Emma Foehringer MerchantDecember 9, 2020 (Short)

A landmark clean energy law enacted this year in Virginia will only equate to a 26 percent reduction in economy-wide emissions by 2050, according to a new analysis, leaving the state far from the cuts required to stave off the worst effects of climate change.

Gov. Ralph Northam signed Virginia’s Clean Economy Act in April, establishing 100 percent clean energy requirements for the state’s largest utilities just as the U.S. was beginning to recognize the severity of the COVID-19 crisis. At the time, Delegate Richard C. Sullivan, Jr., leader of the House Democratic Caucus, called it a “historic step forward” for the Southern state.

But even the Clean Economy Act’s requirements for 3.1 gigawatts of energy storage, 5.2 gigawatts of offshore wind and 16.1 gigawatts of solar and onshore wind fall short of the action required to wring emissions from the electricity sector, according to an analysis released Wednesday by Rocky Mountain Institute and research firm Energy Innovation.

Comment on article by David Toscano, former Democratic leader, Va. House of Delegates

It is terrific that you and others keep pushing to enact policies addressing climate change. But lets start by acknowledging the significance of this legislation in Virginia. Before the legislative “blue wave” election of 2017, it was almost impossible to have a serious conversation about climate change in the commonwealth. After Dems took control in 2020, things changed dramatically, and the legislation passed this session was nothing short of landmark. Does it do all that needs to be done? Certainly not, but even its proponents will acknowledge that. So lets build on the momentum by acknowledging the bill’s significance and challenging everyone to do more–in areas like transportation, building efficiency. Oh, yes, and maybe use a picture of Virginia’s capitol instead of some nondescript white building.

Climate change is a winning issue. Let’s work together to solve it.
Virginia Mercury, Rose Hendricks and Mark ReynoldsNovember 18, 2020 (Short)

Guest Column(Getty Images)

In the home stretch of the 2020 campaign, presidential candidate Joe Biden leaned hard into the issue of climate change, giving a televised climate speech and running climate-focused ads in swing states. His campaign bet that this issue, once considered politically risky, would now be a winner.

That bet paid off. The votes have been tallied, and candidate Biden is now president-elect Biden. But, as is often the case, his party doesn’t have unified control across the whole federal government. President Biden will govern alongside a Democratic House, a conservative Supreme Court, and a Senate that could either have a slim Republican or Democratic majority. That makes “working together” the order of the day.

Encouragingly, Biden understands that people of any party can and do care about climate change. In a speech this fall, he said, “Hurricanes don’t swerve to avoid red states or blue states. Wildfires don’t skip towns that voted a certain way. The impacts of climate change don’t pick and choose. It’s not a partisan phenomenon, and our response should be the same.”

Some Republicans in the Senate are expressing similar opinions. In October 2020, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) participated in a climate policy webinar with her climate-hawk colleague, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). She noted that bipartisanship gives a policy longevity, so she said, “Let’s work in a way that is going to get the support that you need from both Republicans and Democrats.”

Fortunately, there are effective climate policies with bipartisan support on the table already. One such policy we should enact is a carbon fee. Congress could charge a fee or price on all oil, gas and coal we use in the United States based on the greenhouse gas emissions they produce. Putting that price on pollution will steer our country toward cleaner options, slashing our harmful emissions across many areas of our economy at once. The revenue from this type of policy can even be given to Americans on a regular basis—a “carbon cashback,” if you will, that would put money in people’s pockets while we transition to a clean-energy economy.

Our leaders here in Virginia are signaling their readiness to enact a carbon fee with a dividend. In September, Senator Mark Warner stated “I do believe it’s time to put a price on carbon.”

In October, Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton stated “I think it’s time also that we explore the issue of carbon dividends, to use market forces to incentivize the use of renewable energy over dirty fossil fuel.”

Carbon fee legislation like this exists in Congress now, known as the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (H.R. 763). Congressman Gerry Connolly has co-sponsored H.R. 763, the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, and General Assembly members Ghazala Hashmi, Sam Rasoul, Dave Marsden, Ken Plum, Ibraheem Samirah, Rodney Willett and Dan Helmer have endorsed it.

Virginians are ready for our elected officials to push forward to make this legislation the law of the land. With the incoming president clearly committed to addressing climate change, and millions of Americans eager for solutions, now is the time to act. Congress should seize the opportunity.

Mark Reynolds is the executive director of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a non-partisan, grassroots advocacy organization working to generate the political will for a livable world. Rose Hendricks, PhD, is a volunteer and co-leader of the Fairfax County chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby. She’s a social scientist who has studied climate communications.

Gov. Ralph Northam announces Virginia’s Coastal Resilience Master Planning Framework in Norfolk on Oct. 22, 2020. (Office of the Governor)

Virginia will no longer sidestep recognition that climate change is occurring and poses an existential threat to the state’s way of life, shoreline, economies and resources, a new planning document released by Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration Thursday reveals.

The report, called the Coastal Resilience Master Planning Framework, heralds a shift in the Old Dominion’s approach to an issue on which more than 99 percent of global scientists have reached consensus but is still frequently portrayed as controversial in state and national politics.

“To date, Virginia has slowly advanced efforts to study and mitigate coastal flooding without stating unequivocally that climate change is the root cause of the problem,” the framework announced Tuesday reads. “This approach, born of political necessity, has led to tortured titles like the Center for Recurrent Flooding Resiliency and the Joint Subcommittee to Recommend Short-Term and Long-Term Strategies Minimizing the Impact of Recurrent Flooding and Coastal Storms.

“More importantly,” it continues, “it has hampered honest dialogue and broader understanding of the challenges we face.”

Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources Matt Strickler called the acknowledgement that climate change is the primary driver of sea level rise and other major climatic shifts like increased precipitation, rising temperatures and more frequent and intense storm events like hurricanes a “logical kind of follow” to past policy discussions.

“People who live in coastal Virginia are seeing these impacts every day,” he said. “We felt it was really important to be clear about the science. This is something that we’ve studied a lot and have a high degree of certainty that these impacts are coming and that we need to prepare for them.”

Despite scientific agreement, however, many state and local politicians have been reluctant to openly voice a position on climate change. Virginia Beach officials, the Virginian-Pilot has reported, “rarely, if ever, utter the words ‘climate change’” and “specifically avoid attributing any such change directly to humans.”

In the General Assembly, a joint resolution put forward during the 2020 regular session by Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, that declared “global warming caused by human activity that increases emissions of greenhouse gases has resulted in a climate and ecological emergency” was received along partisan lines in the House, with all support coming from Democrats and all opposition from Republicans. The resolution died in the Senate Rules Committee, where Chair Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, told Guzman the Senate no longer approves resolutions memorializing the legislature’s position or “foreign policy resolutions.”

In a 2017 debate with GOP gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie, Northam noted that semantic changes were key to getting Republican support for more study of how sea-level rise will change Virginia, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.

“They said ‘Ralph, if you mention sea level rise, that equates to climate change and that’s a nonstarter.’ … I went back and rewrote the legislation and called it recurrent flooding and they said, ‘OK. That’s fine,’ ” Northam said. “It’s all about having relationships here in Virginia, it’s about having experience. It’s about agreeing to disagree. … We call that the Virginia Way.”

Michael Allen, a professor and director of the geography program at Old Dominion University in Norfolk whose research is cited throughout the framework, drew a distinction between the recognition that scientists overwhelmingly agree climate change is occurring and opinions on policy approaches to that change.

“We can discuss and debate the ways in which we can address the challenges,” he said. But when it comes to the science, “At some point you just can’t keep beating a dead horse. The science is clear, as clear as the Earth is round and smoking causes cancer.”

A statue of Neptune on Virginia Beach’s oceanfront. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Beach)

Marching orders for combating rising seas

Beyond its policy prescriptions, the Coastal Resilience Master Planning Framework unfurled Thursday lays out a comprehensive plan for how Virginia will move forward in the coming years as sea levels rise along its coasts.

With more than 10,000 miles of shoreline, Virginia’s coastal region is home to about 70 percent of the commonwealth’s population and much of its economic power, from the federal government centers of Northern Virginia to the the sprawling defense installations of Hampton Roads, where Naval Station Norfolk is the world’s largest naval base and enormous quantities of goods and resources like coal regularly transit the Port of Virginia.

Hampton Roads, however, also has the dubious distinction of having the East Coast’s highest rate of sea level rise, due partly to long-term land subsidence linked to tectonic plate shifting and years of heavy groundwater withdrawals in the southern part of the state. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, using data from Virginia’s longest-operating tide gauge at Sewell’s Point in Norfolk, has found that the state has seen more than 18 inches of relative sea level rise in the past 100 years. Agency projections show that under the highest sea level rise scenarios, Sewell’s Point could see water levels rise by almost 6.7 feet by 2100.

These increases will have major — and costly — impacts. Recent estimates from Climate Central find that some 250,000 acres of land, 1,469 miles of roads and $17.4 billion in property lie in areas less than five feet above Virginia’s high tide line.

For many Virginians, such threats aren’t just theoretical. Regional flooding has become more frequent over the past decade in not only Hampton Roads, but the more rural and lower-income peninsular areas including the Northern Neck, Middle Peninsula and Eastern Shore.

Summaries included in the Master Planning Framework detail a staggering array of initiatives and efforts undertaken by local and regional government bodies to combat rising waters. Virginia Beach hired consultant Dewberry to conduct a five-year coastal adaptation study, which was approved by City Council with much fanfare this summer. The Middle Peninsula Chesapeake Bay Public Access Authority has for years been helping property owners turn over threatened land that could provide a buffer in exchange for tax benefits.

The Eastern Shore’s Transportation Infrastructure Inundation Vulnerability Assessment has been working to determine how much of the region’s transportation infrastructure is at risk from sea level rise (one Coastal Management Zone Program study found almost 14 percent of the Shore’s state roads could be permanently inundated by 2060). The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Coastal Storm Risk Management Feasibility Study examines the problem of flooding along parts of the Potomac.

(Virginia Coastal Resilience Master Planning Framework)

The lists go on and on. And with sea level rise accelerating, that multiplicity risks inefficiencies and even could exacerbate some impacts if communities don’t collaborate with each other, the framework points out.

“A huge part of the Planning Framework is trying to align all the efforts that are taking place,” said Strickler. “There’s a real need out there to help localities and at the same time leveraging the federal resources, aligning the state resources in a way that we can help everybody and make sure there aren’t unintended consequences.”

Under the new document’s approach, the regional and planning district commissions that oversee Virginia’s coastal areas will be grouped into four new entities based on ecological, economic and cultural similarities: Hampton Roads; Rural Coastal Virginia, including the Middle Peninsula, Northern Neck and Eastern Shore; Fall Line North, encompassing Northern Virginia south to the Rappahannock; and Fall Line South, including the greater Richmond and Petersburg regions. Each will be charged with identifying and prioritizing projects.

These regions will also play a key role in shaping the next phase of the state’s strategy: the Coastal Resilience Master Plan itself, which the Northam administration expects to be issued by December 2021. While a new technical advisory committee will helm the drafting of that plan, the framework requires not only input from the new regions but the convening of a series of regional roundtables over the next months.

Once completed, the master plan, ordered as part of Northam’s Executive Order 24 in November 2018, will map out the specific projects and programs to be undertaken, as well as how they will be financed. Green, or nature-based, solutions like living shorelines will be prioritized where possible, and consideration of equity issues — who will bear the brunt of adverse impacts or enjoy the benefits of any solutions — will be required.

“We have the information necessary to identify the location of affected communities and the risks they face,” the framework states. “We will work with these communities to plan, implement and support successful and lasting adaptation and protection strategies. We must begin now to develop these strategies.”

Not all will be optimal: numerous times throughout the framework there is acknowledgment that relocations will not only be necessary but inevitable.

“We must recognize that protecting every component of the built environment exactly where it stands today is not realistic,” the framework concludes. “In time, some homes, businesses, roads, and communities will become uninhabitable as sea level rises.”

While Strickler said “it’s clear some areas are going to be permanently inundated,” he also cautioned that “we’re not telling anybody they have to move.”

“We’re trying to assist communities and provide incentives to do smart, long-term planning,” he said. “But we wanted to acknowledge that the realities of climate change and sea level rise are clear, that there are places that are at significant risk.”

Top News

Democrats eye vehicles as the next target for cutting carbon emissions
Virginia Mercury, Sarah VogelsongJanuary 14, 2021 (Medium)
An electric vehicle charges at a public station in Henrico County, July 2020. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

While Virginia Democrats’ big environmental push of 2020 was the Virginia Clean Economy Act, a sweeping omnibus measure designed to eliminate carbon emissions from the state’s power grid by 2050, during the 2021 session they’re setting their sights on a tougher and more diffuse source of carbon: transportation.

According to 2017 figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, almost half of Virginia’s carbon emissions  48 percent  come from transportation. Electric power, by contrast, accounts for almost a third, at 29 percent.

But while power grid emissions come largely from a few dozen generating plants fueled by coal, gas and oil, transportation emissions come from literally millions of sources. More than 8.4 million vehicles are registered in the commonwealth, according to 2020 data from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. The vast majority of those are powered by gasoline-fueled internal combustion engines, with electric vehicles numbering just shy of 150,000, most of them hybrids.

“The transportation sector is where we can have the most gains now in terms of getting carbon out of the atmosphere,” said Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun, who is sponsoring two bills that aim to encourage electric vehicle use.

Replacing Virginians’ gas-powered vehicles with electric ones will be a daunting lift. Unlike many other states, Virginia currently has no incentives in place for electric vehicle adoption, and price tags for proposals to both incentivize such purchases and build up the infrastructure to support their expansion are large. One recent study conducted by a working group through the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy found that a proposed rebate program would require $43 million in funding to cover rebates for approximately 13,000 electric vehicles.

Still, many Democrats, who control the legislature and the governor’s office, argue that with climate change accelerating and increased flooding due to sea level rise in the low-lying Hampton Roads region, action is needed.

“We’re now in the position where the public, I believe, is driving the legislators to say, number one, we’ve got to do something about the environment, but number two, there’s options now that we’ve never had before” said Del. Ken Plum, D-Fairfax, during a virtual town hall about electric vehicles this December. “We need to get on board.”

Looking to California — and Maryland — for new emissions standards

Among environmentalists, this session’s top-line legislation is a bill being carried by Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, that would allow the State Air Pollution Control Board to adopt low-emission and zero-emission vehicle standards set by California beginning no earlier than 2023 and no later than 2025.

The Clean Air Act of 1970, the nation’s preeminent air quality law, prohibits any state from setting its own emissions standards for new vehicles but provides a waiver of that restriction for California, which already had standards on its books at the time of the law’s passage and was suffering from widespread smog and other pollution. Other states that wish to set emissions standards more stringent than federal ones are allowed to adopt California’s  a road taken by 15 jurisdictions, including Maryland, Delaware and Washington, D.C. (Three other states are in the process of considering adoption.)

Bagby’s legislation, House Bill 1965, would put Virginia on a path toward adopting not only these low-emission vehicle, or LEV, standards but zero-emission vehicle, or ZEV, standards mandating that a certain percentage of all cars sold by manufacturers in Virginia be electric. Under the Clean Air Act, neither can go into effect for at least two years after approval by the federal government.

Advocates say the measures, collectively known as the Advanced Clean Cars Program, are essential for carbon reduction goals.

“It’s really important that we pass this bill this year, because once the regulation is finalized, there’s a mandatory two-year wait before manufacturers need to comply,” said Lena Lewis, energy and climate policy manager for the Nature Conservancy, which along with groups like the Southern Environmental Law Center, Sierra Club Virginia and the Virginia Conservation Network is supporting the bill. “Given the urgency and the pace at which climate change is happening, we need to react to it with the seriousness which this problem demands.”

Auto dealers, though, have balked. The Virginia Automobile Dealers Association opposed a similar measure in 2020 and this December sent a letter to the chairs of the House and Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committees asking that a stakeholder group be convened to study electric vehicle deployment and that consideration of a “comprehensive plan to decrease vehicle emissions” be brought forward in 2022.

“Virginia dealers support the adoption of EVs. They have adapted to changes in their industry for generations, and electric vehicles represent just the latest in a long line of advancements,” said Don Hall, president and CEO of the association, in an email. But he said the zero-emission vehicle standard would require dealers to carry “vehicles that may be too expensive or not in demand by consumers” on their lot.

“Virginia should only consider ZEV mandates in conjunction with the necessary commitment of resources to assure successful implementation of the regulations without unfair impact on any party, including dealers,” he said.

In its letter to the committee chairs, VADA emphasized the need for more infrastructure investment prior to the creation of any new mandate.

“If Virginia wants to emulate California, then the Commonwealth must also match California’s investment,” the association wrote.

Bagby called the request to delay action until 2022 “unfortunate.”

“We have acknowledged that this can’t start immediately and we can’t expect those cars to show up on the lots overnight,” he said. But, he added, the Advanced Clean Car standards would put “a timeline in place,” with an expected start of 2025.

“It’s time to get the wheels in motion,” he said.

Feeding supply, fueling demand

While Hall said electric vehicles “are still far outpaced by demand and registrations for gas-powered vehicles in Virginia,” advocates say the Advanced Clean Cars Program could increase adoption by increasing the commonwealth’s supply of electric vehicles.

If adopted, the ZEV standard would require roughly 8 percent of all vehicles manufacturers sold statewide to be electric by 2025.

The demand is there, say these advocates. One survey conducted by pro-electric vehicle group Generation180 found that while over half of Virginians surveyed were likely to consider an electric vehicle for their next car, inventory was 44 to 54 percent lower in Virginia cities than in comparable Maryland cities, with certain popular models seven to 10 times more available in the latter. Many respondents reported having to travel to Maryland to buy an electric car.

Availability isn’t the only barrier to electric vehicle adoption, however. While costs have dropped in recent years  experts believe they’ll reach price parity with gas-powered vehicles by 2025, or even sooner  the technology remains more expensive than traditional models.

bill put forward by Reid aims to offset that price premium through a two-tiered rebate program that would offer buyers or lessees of electric vehicles rebates of up to $2,500 or $4,500, depending on their income. Dealers would also receive a $50 incentive payment for each car they sold.

The program design hews closely to that put forward by the working group that estimated it would cost $43 million, although Reid said his bill proposes a more scaled-down version. That group, which included not only environmental organizations but auto dealers and state agencies, determined such a program was “feasible and similar to programs that currently operate in other states.”

“We wanted to make it so it’s as simple as possible for the salesperson to use, because we wanted to remove all the barriers or impediments that are either perceived or actual,” said Reid.

Another major barrier, infrastructure, will also be on lawmakers’ agenda in a bill from Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, that would require an analysis of electric vehicle charging infrastructure as part of the state’s energy plan. Currently, as the Automobile Dealers Association pointed out in their December letter, Virginia only has about 2,000 charging stations, a fraction of those found in California. Many of those are clustered in the state’s more populous regions and become more sparse in rural areas.

“It’s going to be very difficult for you to find a great charging station in Bath County,” admitted Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, during the December electric vehicle town hall.

A study of readiness conducted by the Virginia Department of Transportation and recently released to lawmakers “found that we in Virginia, like pretty much everywhere else in the country, are not ready for mass deployment of vehicles,” said Boysko.

“We have a long way to go to get to full capacity and this will get us on track for that,” she said.

The cost conundrum

The biggest question mark in the electric vehicle debate remains cost.

Charging stations offer opportunity for businesses, and a special docket to consider electric vehicles established by the State Corporation Commission this summer revealed an appetite for growth. Electric vehicle proponents also emphasize the job creation potential the market poses, with factories like the Volvo plant in Dublin planning to begin manufacturing new models, while businesses have begun to tout the lifetime savings costs they expect from electrification.

But other efforts, like rebate programs, and the desire to ensure that infrastructure is developed equitably, including in rural areas that might not attract much competition, are likely to require deep pockets  complicated by the hit on the global economy as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As far as the $43 million working group estimate for the rebate program, Reid said that “in today’s environment, I don’t think that money is available.”

“It may be we have to put the program in place this year and then find funding,” he said. “We’re not sure right now how much money is going to come back to the state budget.”

The DMME working group in its final report put forward a range of funding options, including transportation-related taxes and fees, congestion pricing and the highway usage fee.

One potential revenue source is the Transportation and Climate Initiative, a cap-and-invest market similar to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative that would require fuel suppliers to purchase emissions allowances in an auction and then redistribute the proceeds to participating states for reinvestment in clean transportation.

Virginia, however, has hesitated to join TCI. While Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island formally committed to the program this December, Virginia and seven other states merely pledged their ongoing collaboration in efforts to develop the new initiative. At the time, Alena Yarmosky, a spokesperson for Gov. Ralph Northam’s office, said Northam hadn’t ruled out the possibility of full commitment in the future. Clean energy advocates expect the program to come before the General Assembly in 2022, but any such proposal is likely to face fierce resistance from some Republicans and industry groups.

Related bills

Related proposals before the General Assembly this session include:

  • House Bill 2118 from Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, which would create the Electric Vehicle Grant Program to issue competitive grants to school boards to replace diesel school buses with electric ones by 2031, put in place charging infrastructure for the buses and set up educational and workforce development programs to encourage industry growth. The program would be funded with a tax on dyed diesel fuel, a type of diesel identified for nonroad use.
  • House Joint Resolution 542 from Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, to request the Department of Rail and Public Transportation to study transit equity and modernization. Most plans for reducing transportation emissions rely on a dual strategy of converting gas-powered vehicles to electric ones while also reducing the number of vehicle miles traveled through more robust public transit infrastructure.
Virginia’s 100% Clean Energy Law
Green Tech Media, Emma Foehringer MerchantDecember 9, 2020 (Short)

A landmark clean energy law enacted this year in Virginia will only equate to a 26 percent reduction in economy-wide emissions by 2050, according to a new analysis, leaving the state far from the cuts required to stave off the worst effects of climate change.

Gov. Ralph Northam signed Virginia’s Clean Economy Act in April, establishing 100 percent clean energy requirements for the state’s largest utilities just as the U.S. was beginning to recognize the severity of the COVID-19 crisis. At the time, Delegate Richard C. Sullivan, Jr., leader of the House Democratic Caucus, called it a “historic step forward” for the Southern state.

But even the Clean Economy Act’s requirements for 3.1 gigawatts of energy storage, 5.2 gigawatts of offshore wind and 16.1 gigawatts of solar and onshore wind fall short of the action required to wring emissions from the electricity sector, according to an analysis released Wednesday by Rocky Mountain Institute and research firm Energy Innovation.

Comment on article by David Toscano, former Democratic leader, Va. House of Delegates

It is terrific that you and others keep pushing to enact policies addressing climate change. But lets start by acknowledging the significance of this legislation in Virginia. Before the legislative “blue wave” election of 2017, it was almost impossible to have a serious conversation about climate change in the commonwealth. After Dems took control in 2020, things changed dramatically, and the legislation passed this session was nothing short of landmark. Does it do all that needs to be done? Certainly not, but even its proponents will acknowledge that. So lets build on the momentum by acknowledging the bill’s significance and challenging everyone to do more–in areas like transportation, building efficiency. Oh, yes, and maybe use a picture of Virginia’s capitol instead of some nondescript white building.

Climate change is a winning issue. Let’s work together to solve it.
Virginia Mercury, Rose Hendricks and Mark ReynoldsNovember 18, 2020 (Short)

Guest Column(Getty Images)

In the home stretch of the 2020 campaign, presidential candidate Joe Biden leaned hard into the issue of climate change, giving a televised climate speech and running climate-focused ads in swing states. His campaign bet that this issue, once considered politically risky, would now be a winner.

That bet paid off. The votes have been tallied, and candidate Biden is now president-elect Biden. But, as is often the case, his party doesn’t have unified control across the whole federal government. President Biden will govern alongside a Democratic House, a conservative Supreme Court, and a Senate that could either have a slim Republican or Democratic majority. That makes “working together” the order of the day.

Encouragingly, Biden understands that people of any party can and do care about climate change. In a speech this fall, he said, “Hurricanes don’t swerve to avoid red states or blue states. Wildfires don’t skip towns that voted a certain way. The impacts of climate change don’t pick and choose. It’s not a partisan phenomenon, and our response should be the same.”

Some Republicans in the Senate are expressing similar opinions. In October 2020, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) participated in a climate policy webinar with her climate-hawk colleague, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). She noted that bipartisanship gives a policy longevity, so she said, “Let’s work in a way that is going to get the support that you need from both Republicans and Democrats.”

Fortunately, there are effective climate policies with bipartisan support on the table already. One such policy we should enact is a carbon fee. Congress could charge a fee or price on all oil, gas and coal we use in the United States based on the greenhouse gas emissions they produce. Putting that price on pollution will steer our country toward cleaner options, slashing our harmful emissions across many areas of our economy at once. The revenue from this type of policy can even be given to Americans on a regular basis—a “carbon cashback,” if you will, that would put money in people’s pockets while we transition to a clean-energy economy.

Our leaders here in Virginia are signaling their readiness to enact a carbon fee with a dividend. In September, Senator Mark Warner stated “I do believe it’s time to put a price on carbon.”

In October, Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton stated “I think it’s time also that we explore the issue of carbon dividends, to use market forces to incentivize the use of renewable energy over dirty fossil fuel.”

Carbon fee legislation like this exists in Congress now, known as the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (H.R. 763). Congressman Gerry Connolly has co-sponsored H.R. 763, the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, and General Assembly members Ghazala Hashmi, Sam Rasoul, Dave Marsden, Ken Plum, Ibraheem Samirah, Rodney Willett and Dan Helmer have endorsed it.

Virginians are ready for our elected officials to push forward to make this legislation the law of the land. With the incoming president clearly committed to addressing climate change, and millions of Americans eager for solutions, now is the time to act. Congress should seize the opportunity.

Mark Reynolds is the executive director of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a non-partisan, grassroots advocacy organization working to generate the political will for a livable world. Rose Hendricks, PhD, is a volunteer and co-leader of the Fairfax County chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby. She’s a social scientist who has studied climate communications.

Gov. Ralph Northam announces Virginia’s Coastal Resilience Master Planning Framework in Norfolk on Oct. 22, 2020. (Office of the Governor)

Virginia will no longer sidestep recognition that climate change is occurring and poses an existential threat to the state’s way of life, shoreline, economies and resources, a new planning document released by Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration Thursday reveals.

The report, called the Coastal Resilience Master Planning Framework, heralds a shift in the Old Dominion’s approach to an issue on which more than 99 percent of global scientists have reached consensus but is still frequently portrayed as controversial in state and national politics.

“To date, Virginia has slowly advanced efforts to study and mitigate coastal flooding without stating unequivocally that climate change is the root cause of the problem,” the framework announced Tuesday reads. “This approach, born of political necessity, has led to tortured titles like the Center for Recurrent Flooding Resiliency and the Joint Subcommittee to Recommend Short-Term and Long-Term Strategies Minimizing the Impact of Recurrent Flooding and Coastal Storms.

“More importantly,” it continues, “it has hampered honest dialogue and broader understanding of the challenges we face.”

Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources Matt Strickler called the acknowledgement that climate change is the primary driver of sea level rise and other major climatic shifts like increased precipitation, rising temperatures and more frequent and intense storm events like hurricanes a “logical kind of follow” to past policy discussions.

“People who live in coastal Virginia are seeing these impacts every day,” he said. “We felt it was really important to be clear about the science. This is something that we’ve studied a lot and have a high degree of certainty that these impacts are coming and that we need to prepare for them.”

Despite scientific agreement, however, many state and local politicians have been reluctant to openly voice a position on climate change. Virginia Beach officials, the Virginian-Pilot has reported, “rarely, if ever, utter the words ‘climate change’” and “specifically avoid attributing any such change directly to humans.”

In the General Assembly, a joint resolution put forward during the 2020 regular session by Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, that declared “global warming caused by human activity that increases emissions of greenhouse gases has resulted in a climate and ecological emergency” was received along partisan lines in the House, with all support coming from Democrats and all opposition from Republicans. The resolution died in the Senate Rules Committee, where Chair Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, told Guzman the Senate no longer approves resolutions memorializing the legislature’s position or “foreign policy resolutions.”

In a 2017 debate with GOP gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie, Northam noted that semantic changes were key to getting Republican support for more study of how sea-level rise will change Virginia, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.

“They said ‘Ralph, if you mention sea level rise, that equates to climate change and that’s a nonstarter.’ … I went back and rewrote the legislation and called it recurrent flooding and they said, ‘OK. That’s fine,’ ” Northam said. “It’s all about having relationships here in Virginia, it’s about having experience. It’s about agreeing to disagree. … We call that the Virginia Way.”

Michael Allen, a professor and director of the geography program at Old Dominion University in Norfolk whose research is cited throughout the framework, drew a distinction between the recognition that scientists overwhelmingly agree climate change is occurring and opinions on policy approaches to that change.

“We can discuss and debate the ways in which we can address the challenges,” he said. But when it comes to the science, “At some point you just can’t keep beating a dead horse. The science is clear, as clear as the Earth is round and smoking causes cancer.”

A statue of Neptune on Virginia Beach’s oceanfront. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Beach)

Marching orders for combating rising seas

Beyond its policy prescriptions, the Coastal Resilience Master Planning Framework unfurled Thursday lays out a comprehensive plan for how Virginia will move forward in the coming years as sea levels rise along its coasts.

With more than 10,000 miles of shoreline, Virginia’s coastal region is home to about 70 percent of the commonwealth’s population and much of its economic power, from the federal government centers of Northern Virginia to the the sprawling defense installations of Hampton Roads, where Naval Station Norfolk is the world’s largest naval base and enormous quantities of goods and resources like coal regularly transit the Port of Virginia.

Hampton Roads, however, also has the dubious distinction of having the East Coast’s highest rate of sea level rise, due partly to long-term land subsidence linked to tectonic plate shifting and years of heavy groundwater withdrawals in the southern part of the state. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, using data from Virginia’s longest-operating tide gauge at Sewell’s Point in Norfolk, has found that the state has seen more than 18 inches of relative sea level rise in the past 100 years. Agency projections show that under the highest sea level rise scenarios, Sewell’s Point could see water levels rise by almost 6.7 feet by 2100.

These increases will have major — and costly — impacts. Recent estimates from Climate Central find that some 250,000 acres of land, 1,469 miles of roads and $17.4 billion in property lie in areas less than five feet above Virginia’s high tide line.

For many Virginians, such threats aren’t just theoretical. Regional flooding has become more frequent over the past decade in not only Hampton Roads, but the more rural and lower-income peninsular areas including the Northern Neck, Middle Peninsula and Eastern Shore.

Summaries included in the Master Planning Framework detail a staggering array of initiatives and efforts undertaken by local and regional government bodies to combat rising waters. Virginia Beach hired consultant Dewberry to conduct a five-year coastal adaptation study, which was approved by City Council with much fanfare this summer. The Middle Peninsula Chesapeake Bay Public Access Authority has for years been helping property owners turn over threatened land that could provide a buffer in exchange for tax benefits.

The Eastern Shore’s Transportation Infrastructure Inundation Vulnerability Assessment has been working to determine how much of the region’s transportation infrastructure is at risk from sea level rise (one Coastal Management Zone Program study found almost 14 percent of the Shore’s state roads could be permanently inundated by 2060). The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Coastal Storm Risk Management Feasibility Study examines the problem of flooding along parts of the Potomac.

(Virginia Coastal Resilience Master Planning Framework)

The lists go on and on. And with sea level rise accelerating, that multiplicity risks inefficiencies and even could exacerbate some impacts if communities don’t collaborate with each other, the framework points out.

“A huge part of the Planning Framework is trying to align all the efforts that are taking place,” said Strickler. “There’s a real need out there to help localities and at the same time leveraging the federal resources, aligning the state resources in a way that we can help everybody and make sure there aren’t unintended consequences.”

Under the new document’s approach, the regional and planning district commissions that oversee Virginia’s coastal areas will be grouped into four new entities based on ecological, economic and cultural similarities: Hampton Roads; Rural Coastal Virginia, including the Middle Peninsula, Northern Neck and Eastern Shore; Fall Line North, encompassing Northern Virginia south to the Rappahannock; and Fall Line South, including the greater Richmond and Petersburg regions. Each will be charged with identifying and prioritizing projects.

These regions will also play a key role in shaping the next phase of the state’s strategy: the Coastal Resilience Master Plan itself, which the Northam administration expects to be issued by December 2021. While a new technical advisory committee will helm the drafting of that plan, the framework requires not only input from the new regions but the convening of a series of regional roundtables over the next months.

Once completed, the master plan, ordered as part of Northam’s Executive Order 24 in November 2018, will map out the specific projects and programs to be undertaken, as well as how they will be financed. Green, or nature-based, solutions like living shorelines will be prioritized where possible, and consideration of equity issues — who will bear the brunt of adverse impacts or enjoy the benefits of any solutions — will be required.

“We have the information necessary to identify the location of affected communities and the risks they face,” the framework states. “We will work with these communities to plan, implement and support successful and lasting adaptation and protection strategies. We must begin now to develop these strategies.”

Not all will be optimal: numerous times throughout the framework there is acknowledgment that relocations will not only be necessary but inevitable.

“We must recognize that protecting every component of the built environment exactly where it stands today is not realistic,” the framework concludes. “In time, some homes, businesses, roads, and communities will become uninhabitable as sea level rises.”

While Strickler said “it’s clear some areas are going to be permanently inundated,” he also cautioned that “we’re not telling anybody they have to move.”

“We’re trying to assist communities and provide incentives to do smart, long-term planning,” he said. “But we wanted to acknowledge that the realities of climate change and sea level rise are clear, that there are places that are at significant risk.”

Summary

With more than 10,000 miles of shoreline, Virginia’s coastal region is home to about 70 percent of the commonwealth’s population and much of its economic power, from the federal government centers of Northern Virginia to the the sprawling defense installations of Hampton Roads, where Naval Station Norfolk is the world’s largest naval base and enormous quantities of goods and resources like coal regularly transit the Port of Virginia.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, using data from Virginia’s longest-operating tide gauge at Sewell’s Point in Norfolk, has found that the state has seen more than 18 inches of relative sea level rise in the past 100 years. Agency projections show that under the highest sea level rise scenarios, Sewell’s Point could see water levels rise by almost 6.7 feet by 2100.

About

Background

The Evidence for Climate Change

There is overwhelming consensus among scientists that the Earth’s climate is warming, and that this warming is largely driven by human action. Although regions have always experienced natural temperature fluctuations, long-term temperature records show an “unequivocal” warming trend since the 1950s. Other measurable changes such as accelerated melting of glaciers and ice sheets, sea level rise and increasingly extreme weather provide further clear evidence that warming is occurring. According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which draws on research by thousands of scientists worldwide, this warming is “extremely likely” (defined as greater than 95% probability) to have been caused by human actions, particularly the release of “unprecedented” levels of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere since the mid-20th century. The U.S. Fourth National Climate Assessment released by the Trump administration in November 2018 similarly found that “observational evidence does not support any credible natural explanations for this amount of warming.”

Sources: IPCC, Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report; NASA, “Climate Change: How Do We Know?”U.S. Fourth National Climate Assessment.

Climate Change Overview

From Wikipedia

Climate change includes both the global warming driven by human emissions of greenhouse gases, and the resulting large-scale shifts in weather patterns. Though there have been previous periods of climatic change, since the mid-20th century, humans have had unprecedented impact on Earth’s climate system and caused change on a global scale

The largest driver of warming is the emission of greenhouse gases, of which more than 90% are carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane. Fossil fuel burning (coal, oil, and gas) for energy consumption is the main source of these emissions, with additional contributions from agriculture, deforestation, and industrial processes. The human cause of climate change is not disputed by any scientific body of national or international standing. Temperature rise is accelerated or tempered by climate feedbacks, such as loss of sunlight-reflecting snow and ice cover, increased water vapour (a greenhouse gas itself), and changes to land and ocean carbon sinks.

Because land surfaces heat faster than ocean surfaces, deserts are expanding and heat waves and wildfires are more common. Increasing rates of evaporation cause more intense storms and weather extremes.Temperature rise is amplified in the Arctic, where it has contributed to melting permafrost and the retreat of glaciers and sea ice. Additional warming also increases risk of triggering critical thresholds called tipping points. Even if efforts to minimize future warming are successful, some effects will continue for centuries, including rising sea levels, rising ocean temperatures, and ocean acidification. Impacts on ecosystems include the relocation or extinction of many species as their environment changes, most immediately in coral reefs, mountains, and the Arctic. Warming may also cause reduced crop yields, declining fish stocks, potentially severe economic impacts, increased global economic inequality, increasing number of people living in an uninhabitable climate, and environmental migration. Current and anticipated effects from undernutrition, heat stress and disease have led the World Health Organization to declare climate change the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century.

Coastal Flooding
From Sarah Vogelsong Virginia Mercury article (see Top News for 12/22/20)

Hampton Roads, however, also has the dubious distinction of having the East Coast’s highest rate of sea level rise, due partly to long-term land subsidence linked to tectonic plate shifting and years of heavy groundwater withdrawals in the southern part of the state. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, using data from Virginia’s longest-operating tide gauge at Sewell’s Point in Norfolk, has found that the state has seen more than 18 inches of relative sea level rise in the past 100 years. Agency projections show that under the highest sea level rise scenarios, Sewell’s Point could see water levels rise by almost 6.7 feet by 2100.

These increases will have major — and costly — impacts. Recent estimates from Climate Central find that some 250,000 acres of land, 1,469 miles of roads and $17.4 billion in property lie in areas less than five feet above Virginia’s high tide line.

For many Virginians, such threats aren’t just theoretical. Regional flooding has become more frequent over the past decade in not only Hampton Roads, but the more rural and lower-income peninsular areas including the Northern Neck, Middle Peninsula and Eastern Shore.

Climate Change and Health in Virginia

Flash-flood and tornado warnings for the Commonwealth of Virginia are happening with greater frequency and have major implications for human health, according to a new study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a 48-year-old environmental organization.

Long-term Goals

Stopping Climate Change in Virginia

Rising global temperatures risk irreversible worldwide ecological and climatic changes, with widespread impacts on human health and ecosystems. The threats include more violent storms, droughts, floods, acidifying and rapidly warming oceans, and altered growing seasons. In Virginia, increasing temperatures and rising sea levels due to climate change have resulted in saltwater intrusion, disappearing beaches and more intense storms and floods. We must transition away from dirty fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas to clean, renewable energy as soon as possible to prevent the worst effects of a warming planet. Virginia must — and can — shift to 100 percent renewable energy by 2035.
Food and Water Watch

Congress

Senators Warner and Kaine

Senators’ position on Climate Change

Mark Warner

Senator Warner firmly believes that we need to reduce our dependence on foreign oil while investing in new technologies that reduce harmful emissions that contribute to climate change. He favors an “all of the above,” portfolio approach that employs solar, wind, bio-fuels, nuclear energy, next generation battery technologies, and investment in research that focuses on using carbon capture technology so we can continue to use our domestic resources, such as coal, more responsibly. The science surrounding climate change unequivocally supports the need for dramatic changes in policy, and Senator Warner believes any comprehensive legislation to address this issue must be balanced with the need to keep all sectors of our economy viable.

Similarly, the Commonwealth’s 3,300 miles of coastal resources provide significant economic contributions to tourism, recreation, commercial and sport fisheries, and wildlife enjoyment within our state. However, pollution, habitat loss, and other factors have taken their toll. Senator Warner believes that our federal and Bay state partners need to continue to work together to seek appropriate resources to preserve the Bay and he opposes any reductions in funding that threaten to erase progress made to restore the Bay’s oyster population and support local commercial fisheries.
From Mark Warner senate page
Go to Policy Areas > Environment to see more sponsored bills

Tim Kaine

When Tim Kaine was Governor in 2007, he established the Governor’s Commission on Climate Change (through Executive Order 59). The executive order also directed the Commission to create a Climate Action Plan that would evaluate expected impacts of climate change on Virginia’s natural resources, public health, agriculture, forestry, tourism, and insurance sectors.

Tim believes that America’s energy production should always be trending in the direction of cleaner tomorrow than today.

From the Chesapeake Bay to the Cumberland Gap, Virginia’s great outdoors are a priceless treasure that Tim is determined to safeguard for future generations to enjoy. Tim has long been an outspoken leader in support of clean energy and policies to combat climate change. As Governor, Tim put in place the Commonwealth’s first comprehensive clean energy plan. He supports investing in renewable energy, including offshore wind and solar, which would create new jobs and make Virginia a leader in clean energy development. Tim believes that by advancing an energy strategy that moves us from carbon-heavy to low-carbon, we can reduce pollution, bolster our national security, and create American jobs that cannot be outsourced.

After hearing concerns from local communities and the Department of Defense, Tim announced his opposition to opening Virginia’s coast to offshore oil and gas drilling. Tim has spoken out against the Trump Administration’s offshore drilling proposal that could threaten military assets in Hampton Roads as well as the environment and tourism industry. Tim has called on the Administration to listen to local voices on Virginia’s coast, which are overwhelmingly opposed to offshore drilling.

Virginia faces a unique set of challenges because of its coastal exposure to sea level rise caused by climate change, and Tim is committed to reducing this risk. He believes the U.S. should be an international leader on climate change and that President Trump’s decision to retreat from the Paris Climate Agreement is short-sighted. Tim believes the country that won World War II and the race to put a man on the moon should be able to cut approximately 1/4th of our carbon pollution by 2025. In the Senate, Tim has been a leader on efforts to combat sea level rise and flooding in Hampton Roads, which threaten readiness at local military installations and homes in the surrounding communities. Tim introduced the BUILD Resilience Act, which would spur investments in resilient infrastructure to reduce the risk of climate effects like flooding and extreme storms to communities like Hampton Roads. He has also been an advocate for protecting the Chesapeake Bay, Virginia’s National Parks like Shenandoah, its National Wildlife Refuges like Chincoteague, and its truly unique places like Tangier Island.

Tim respects the role coal production has historically played in traditional coal communities in Southwest Virginia, and as Governor, he supported the construction of the state-of-the-art Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center in Wise County, one of the most advanced clean coal plants in the United States. He recognizes the sacrifice coal miners have made over a lifetime of dangerous work, and he is fighting on behalf of them in the Senate so they receive their hard-earned pensions and health benefits. Tim has supported clean coal research funding that could help revitalize Southwest Virginia’s economy, and he has co-sponsored legislation to stimulate large-scale federal and private sector investment to reduce carbon pollution through advanced clean coal technologies.

Tim has also pushed for robust funding for heating assistance programs. He has continually joined colleagues of both parties to urge the President and Senate appropriators to boost funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP), two programs that play an important role in providing vulnerable populations and low-income households with affordable home energy.
From Tim Kaine’s senate page – see Related News for more proposals and bills sponsored by Tim Kaine

Bills Sponsored

Clean Economy Act – Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, have co-sponsored this legislation for the United States to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This bill would direct the Environmental Protection Agency to use existing authorities to put the U.S. on the path to achieving net-zero emissions by no later than 2050.

The release says any plan the EPA develops would have to achieve rapid reductions at minimal costs, prioritize public health, and support a strong labor workforce. The agency would also be required to build upon existing state, local and private climate programs and set emission reduction targets for 2025, 2030 and 2040.

Senate Committees

Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works oversees Global Warming related issues and bills. Here is there webpage. Senators Warner and Kaine do not sit on this committee.

Also see the he Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis’ report provides a framework for Congress to finally do what is necessary to build the clean energy future we all deserve.

Virginia US House Members

Key Members positions on Climate Change

Don McEachin (D), Virginia US House District 4, is a member of  the U.S. House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis committee. Below is the information on McEachin’s government website related to the climate change.

Mr. McEachin proudly represents his district on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis and the House Committee on Natural Resources.

As a member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Mr. McEachin sits on the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, the Subcommittee on Energy, and the Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change.

Mr. McEachin also serves on both the Energy and Mineral Resources and Oversight and Investigations subcommittees under the House Natural Resources Committee.

Congressman McEachin is a member of the following task forces and teams:

·         United for Climate and Environmental Justice Taskforce (co-founder)

·         Environmental Message Team

Congressman McEachin also serves as a member of the following caucuses:

·         CBC Energy, Environment, and Agriculture Task Force (co-chair)

·         Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition (SEEC) (vice-chair)

·         Chesapeake Bay Watershed Caucus

·         Congressional PORTS Caucus

·         Congressional Ship-Building Caucus

·         Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition

In October, Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton stated “I think it’s time also that we explore the issue of carbon dividends, to use market forces to incentivize the use of renewable energy over dirty fossil fuel.”

Carbon fee legislation like this exists in Congress now, known as the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (H.R. 763). Congressman Gerry Connolly has co-sponsored H.R. 763, the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act.

 

House Select Committee on Climate Crisis

The U.S. House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis is charged with delivering ambitious climate policy recommendations to Congress “to achieve substantial and permanent reductions in pollution and other activities that contribute to the climate crisis.”

The committee was authorized by House Resolution 6 on January 9, 2019 and will publish a set of public recommendations by March 31st, 2020. Its members include experts in environmental justice, coastal flooding, clean energy development and other issues that are vital for addressing the climate crisis.

Committee website.

Virginia

Governor Northam

Governor’s position on Climate Change

Press Releases

Governor Northam to Protect Virginia’s Environment, Fight Climate Change, and Grow the Clean Energy Economy
December 11, 2019

Proposed budget makes historic investments in Chesapeake Bay restoration, environmental quality and equity, clean energy, and offshore wind

Governor Ralph Northam said his budget will include $733 million in new funding for the environment and clean energy—including a half-billion-dollar capital investment.

The budget creates Virginia’s first Office of Offshore Wind. It also invests up to $40 million to upgrade the Portsmouth Marine Terminal, to secure new investments in the offshore wind supply chain. These investments will help Virginia achieve 2,500 megawatts of energy generated from offshore wind by 2026.

“In Virginia, we are proving that a clean environment and a strong economy go hand-in-hand—and having both is what makes our Commonwealth such a great place to live, work, and play,” said Governor Northam. “These significant investments in environmental protection, environmental justice, clean energy, and clean water will combat climate change and ensure we maintain our high quality of life here in Virginia.”

The proposed budget supports the Chesapeake Bay clean water blueprint Governor Northam released earlier this year with major investments to support local governments tackling stormwater pollution, upgrade wastewater treatment plants, and assist farmers implementing conservation practices to reduce farm runoff. When added to another $10 million for oyster reef restoration, these investments in clean water total more than $400 million and will put Virginia on track to meet the 2025 Bay cleanup deadline.

Governor Northam also proposed an additional $15.5 million investment for the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation grant program, bringing it up to $20 million each year, to support targeted land protection through the Governor’s groundbreaking ConserveVirginia initiative.
For more information, see press release.

Governor Northam Signs Clean Energy Legislation
April 12, 2020

Governor Ralph Northam is accelerating Virginia’s transition to clean energy by signing the Virginia Clean Economy Act and by amending the Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act that requires Virginia to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

“These new clean energy laws propel Virginia to leadership among the states in fighting climate change,” said Governor Northam. “They advance environmental justice and help create clean energy jobs. In Virginia, we are proving that a clean environment and a strong economy go hand-in-hand.”

The Virginia Clean Economy Act was passed as House Bill 1526 and Senate Bill 851, which were sponsored by Delegate Richard C. “Rip” Sullivan, Jr. and Senator Jennifer McClellan, respectively. The Act incorporates clean energy directions that the Governor issued in Executive Order Forty-Three in September 2019. It results from extensive stakeholder input and incorporates environmental justice concepts related to the Green New Deal.

The law requires new measures to promote energy efficiency, sets a schedule for closing old fossil fuel power plants, and requires electricity to come from 100 percent renewable sources such as solar or wind. Energy companies must pay penalties for not meeting their targets, and part of that revenue would fund job training and renewable energy programs in historically disadvantaged communities. The Act accomplishes the following broad goals:

  • Establishes renewable portfolio standards. The Act requires Dominion Energy Virginia to be 100 percent carbon-free by 2045 and Appalachian Power to be 100 percent carbon-free by 2050. It requires nearly all coal-fired plants to close by the end of 2024.
  • Establishes energy efficiency standards. The Act declares energy efficiency pilot programs to be “in the public interest.” It creates a new program to reduce the energy burden for low-income customers, and it requires the Department of Social Services and the Department of Housing and Community Development to convene stakeholders to develop recommendations to implement this program. The Act sets an energy efficiency resource standard, requiring third party review of whether energy companies meet savings goals.
  • Advances offshore wind. The Act provides that 5,200 megawatts of offshore wind generation is “in the public interest.” It requires Dominion Energy Virginia to prioritize hiring local workers from historically disadvantaged communities, to work with the Commonwealth to advance apprenticeship and job training, and to include an environmental and fisheries mitigation plan. 
  • Advances solar and distributed generation. The Act establishes that 16,100 megawatts of solar and onshore wind is “in the public interest.” The law expands “net metering,” making it easier for rooftop solar to advance across Virginia. The new law requires Virginia’s largest energy companies to construct or acquire more than 3,100 megawatts of energy storage capacity.

The Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act was passed as House Bill 981 and Senate Bill 1027, sponsored by House Majority Leader Charniele Herring and Senator Lynwood Lewis, respectively.

The Act establishes a carbon dioxide cap-and-trade program to reduce emissions from power plants, in compliance with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). The Department of Environmental Quality will establish and operate an auction program to sell allowances into a market-based trading program.

The Act creates a Virginia Community Flood Preparedness Fund to enhance flood prevention, protection, and coastal resilience. It creates a low-interest loan program to help inland and coastal communities that are subject to recurrent flooding. The sale of emissions allowances would fund it.

The Governor proposed technical amendments to clarify how the fund would operate. The amendments provide for forgiveness of loans used in low-income geographic areas.

Governor Northam Announces New Actions to Improve Coastal Resilience, Address Flooding Caused by Climate Change
December 3, 2020

As the Commonwealth continues to experience flooding and extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change, Governor Ralph Northam today announced new executive actions to improve coastal resilience and protect Virginia communities.

The three actions include (1) elevating the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program to report to the Commonwealth’s Chief Resilience Officer, (2) issuing a statewide request for proposal for technical engineering assistance in developing the Virginia Coastal Resilience Master Plan, and (3) formally establishing the Virginia Coastal Resilience Technical Advisory Committee. These steps will directly support the Virginia Coastal Resilience Master Planning Framework announced in October.

“Virginia is increasingly experiencing intense storms and flooding due to climate change, endangering our environment and natural resources, public health and safety, and the economic well-being of the Commonwealth,” said Governor Northam. “We must act now to mitigate these threats and protect lives and livelihoods, and these actions will bolster our ongoing work to build coastal resilience and maintain thriving communities.”

State Senate

Members’ position on Climate Change

Commenting on passage of Clean Energy Economy Act

“This is the most significant clean energy law in Virginia’s history,” said Senator Jennifer McClellan. “The bill that the Governor signed will make Virginia the first southern state with a 100 percent clean energy standard. The Act will create thousands of clean energy jobs, make major progress on fighting climate change, and break Virginia’s reliance on fossil fuels.”

In the General Assembly, a joint resolution put forward during the 2020 regular session by Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, that declared “global warming caused by human activity that increases emissions of greenhouse gases has resulted in a climate and ecological emergency” was received along partisan lines in the House, with all support coming from Democrats and all opposition from Republicans. The resolution died in the Senate Rules Committee, where Chair Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, told Guzman the Senate no longer approves resolutions memorializing the legislature’s position or “foreign policy resolutions.”
From Virginia Mercury article

State Senate Committees

Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee

 

House of Delegates

Members’ position on climate change

At session’s midpoint, unprecedented progress on climate, clean energy
From Virginia Mercury article by Michael Town, Feb. 23, 2020

The new “Conservation Majority” at the General Assembly has broken the logjam when it comes to protecting clean air, clean water and our natural resources. Post-crossover, we have close to 100 good pieces of legislation still moving, and for the first time in Virginia’s history, we’re very close to passing serious legislation to address climate change.

On the last day before the midway point of session known as crossover, the House of Delegates and Senate of Virginia passed the most comprehensive and bold package of clean energy and climate action legislation that Virginia’s ever seen. The Virginia Clean Economy Act reduces carbon emissions from the electric sector to zero by 2050 at the latest.

In addition to advancing the Virginia Clean Economy Act, both chambers have also passed legislation finalizing Virginia’s membership in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, connecting the Commonwealth to a highly successful, multi-state carbon cap-and-invest program. Over the past decade, this program has returned huge economic, environmental and public health gains to its 10 member states, almost every state to the north of us on the East Coast.

“This is the most significant clean energy law in Virginia’s history,” said Senator Jennifer McClellan. “The bill that the Governor signed will make Virginia the first southern state with a 100 percent clean energy standard. The Act will create thousands of clean energy jobs, make major progress on fighting climate change, and break Virginia’s reliance on fossil fuels.”

Carbon fee legislation like this exists in Congress now, known as the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (H.R. 763).  General Assembly members Ghazala Hashmi, Sam Rasoul, Dave Marsden, Ken Plum, Ibraheem Samirah, Rodney Willett and Dan Helmer have endorsed it.

House of Delegates Committees

Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee

Organizations

Educational

Virginia Conservation Network-
804.644.0283
Mission: Committed to building a powerful, diverse, and highly-coordinated conservation movement focused on protecting our Commonwealth’s natural resources.

Environmental Groups in Virginia

Environmental Organizations – Eco-USA

Environment Virginia Research & Policy Center
Environment Virginia Research & Policy Center is a project of Environment America research & Policy Center, which is a 501(c)(3) organization. We are dedicated to protecting our air, water and open spaces. We investigate problems, craft solutions, educate the public and decision-makers, and help the public make their voices heard in local, state and national debates over the quality of our environment and our lives.

Nonprofit lobbyists

Environment Virginia

With Environment Virginia, you protect the places that all of us love and promote core environmental values, such as clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and clean energy to power our lives. We focus on timely, targeted action that wins tangible improvements in the quality of our environment and our lives.
Climate Action Campaign 
The Climate Action Campaign is a movement of Americans demanding that our elected representatives in Congress take action on climate change and protect our health over fossil fuel profits. Virginians are calling on our leaders to take immediate and decisive action, build the plans we need to cut carbon pollution today and champion solutions that rapidly move our energy system to clean, renewable energy. We are demonstrating our support for taking action in locally in the face of inaction at the federal level.
Citizens’ Climate Lobby
Citizens’ Climate Lobby is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, grassroots advocacy organization empowering people to experience breakthroughs exercising their personal and political power. Active and in progress in approximately 20 Virginia counties and cities.

Business lobbyists

Dominion Energy

Dominion Energy Announces Support for Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures
Press release, Nov. 9, 2020

Dominion Energy has declared its support for the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), which provides guidance to organizations on providing information to investors, lenders, insurers, and others on the business risks and opportunities presented by climate change.

“Greater transparency regarding climate-related risks and opportunities is a competitive advantage,” said president and chief executive officer Robert M. Blue. “It enables shareholders, customers, and other stakeholders to see alignment among our strategy of building a clean and sustainable energy future, our goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2050, and the opportunities arising from a shift to a low-carbon world. These disclosures also demonstrate our efforts to provide investors with consistency when evaluating and quantifying the impact of climate change on our business.”

From The Intercept, Nov. 6, 2019

The stunning victory on Tuesday by Virginia Democrats, seizing control of both chambers of the state legislature and bringing the state under unified party control, sets up a new confrontation with a powerful adversary: Dominion Energy.

Dominion Energy, the privately owned utility company, has long cast a shadow across the state, buying favor in both parties as the most generous donor in state history, writing its own lax regulatory rules, and funneling consumer bills into billions of dollars of investor dividends and executive compensation.

The election results mark a turning point that will likely transform into a brutal legislative fight in 2020 over the future of energy policy, corporate consolidation, and climate change. Virginia Democrats were once just as loyal to the energy giant as Republicans, dutifully passing nine-figure tax breaks year after year for Dominion, alongside other giveaways directly requested by the company’s lobbyists. Dominion lobbyists have crushed attempts to allow consumers to use “net metering,” or the use of rooftop solar power to send electricity back to the grid in exchange for credits, and passed laws specifically crafted to dodge limits on pollution by coal power plants.

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Funding Higher Ed in VirginiaVirginia and College Affordability

Current Situation:
The data show that Virginia has above-average in-state tuition and below-average per-student tax appropriations. Tuition and fees at Virginia public research, four year, and two year institutions in 2017-2018 are among the highest in the US.

When viewing this post, select the Feature Image to view the chart’s details.

Challenge:
How to make higher education more affordable for Virginia residents particularly lower income students while expanding educational opportunities and controlling costs?

After standoff, House and Senate to seal deal to stem college tuition costs
Virginia Mercury, Kate Masters January 12, 2020 (Short)
The Rotunda at the University of Virginia. (Style Weekly)

For the last few days of the 2020 General Assembly session, college tuition freezes were a sticking point for House and Senate budget negotiators. Such a sticking point, in fact, that legislators extended their deadline for reaching a deal.

But a last-minute compromise appeared to offer the best of both worlds for legislators from both chambers. The Senate added roughly $60 million over the next two years for need-based financial aid at Virginia’s publicly funded colleges and universities. And the House added roughly $79.7 million for in-state tuition freezes, something its Higher Education Subcommittee — paraphrasing a quote from Winston Churchill — described as a “tremendous whack” at the problem of college affordability.

“Students and parents across the Commonwealth can breathe a sigh of relief now that the General Assembly has struck a deal that will freeze tuition for the second year in a row,” said Stacie Gordon, advocacy manager for Partners for College Affordability, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that pushes for more affordable college education around the country. “Virginia’s legislators have made it absolutely clear that holding down college costs for hard-working students and their families remains a top priority.”

Much of the debate boiled down to a fundamental disagreement over the merits of another tuition freeze. Del. Ibraheem Samirah, D-Fairfax — a 29-year-old dentist who estimates he still has around $560,000 in student debt — said the House was committed to a solution that would keep colleges more affordable for all Virginia students.

But in their subcommittee report, Senate legislators wrote that across-the-board tuition freezes would “simply perpetuate the past.” Financial aid, including tuition grants for students at private colleges, is a more effective way to leverage state funds for college affordability, they argued.

The House proposal will offer individual colleges optional funding in exchange for freezing tuition at 2020 levels, while the Senate will offer each school more money for need-based aid, regardless of tuition prices.

To at least one policy expert, though, both chambers are wrong. Veronique de Rugy, a senior research fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, has published several papers on federal higher education funding and the declining economic return of a college degree, relative to the cost of obtaining one. She said artificially capping the cost of college — whether through tuition freezes or greater financial aid — does nothing to address the underlying problem of rising prices.

“I think it’s a terrible idea,” de Rugy added. “It doesn’t change all the bad incentives that already exist, most of them created by the government to get more and more students into the system.”

In Virginia, like the rest of the country, de Rugy said tuition increases can be tied to an overall imbalance between supply and demand. Thanks to a significant increase in federal financial aid, which started in the late 1970s, more students are attending college. (According to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, there were a little fewer than 99,000 students enrolled at public four-year schools here in 1992, compared to 142,193 for the current academic year.)

At the same time, the overall number of higher education institutions has remained flat, and universities have an incentive to raise fees to collect more federal aid dollars.

As colleges accept more students, their spending also goes up — on faculty, housing, facilities and other amenities. That’s another reason for higher tuition, de Rugy said. And while costs have increased substantially, wages and job placement have stagnated in many fields, leading to a fundamental mismatch between the investment and payoff of higher education.

“Forty percent of the kids who got out of college, they’re not employed in the area where they got their diploma,” she continued. “We encourage them to go into the system, to accrue debt, to defer deployment, all for a degree they’re not going to use when they get out of school. And making it cheaper is not going to improve the system. It’s going to make it worse.”

That’s not true for all majors. STEM fields still enjoy high wage premiums, de Rugy pointed out in one research paper, as do many advanced degrees that can recoup the cost of additional student debt. And while the debate was ongoing, Samirah said many Virginians were relying on action from the state — regardless of whether it would change the underlying system.

“There’s a good benefit for everyday people at the end of the day,” he said. “Everyday students and everyday parents will benefit from us negotiating on this.

But de Rugy also pointed out that colleges and universities would likely pass in-state tuition freezes onto out-of-state students. She believes a true disruption in tuition costs is mostly likely to come from competing education models, including online coding bootcamps — which are plagued by their own problems with high prices and low placement rates — or increased attendance in community colleges and vocational schools.

A 2014 report by the Joint Legislative Audit Review Commission found that Virginia’s public universities were among the most expensive in the nation. The commission attributed tuition increases to a number of factors, including cuts in state funding and increased spending on non-academic services, especially athletics and real estate and construction. The report estimated 56 percent of the increase in per-student cost between 2002 and 2012 has been for athletics, student housing, dining and security.

In December, Gov. Ralph Northam unveiled his “G3” proposal, with would offer free community college tuition for low- and middle-income students in certain technical and STEM fields. The General Assembly didn’t fully match the entire $145 million he requested for the program, but did allocate $69 million over the next two years.

Free College With Grants for Basic Needs
Inside Higher Ed, Madeline St. AmourJanuary 6, 2020 (Short)

Advocates for increasing college attainment and equity say that free college programs need to cover more than just the cost of tuition.

The Commonwealth of Virginia has a proposal that would do just that, although some are criticizing the proposal’s eligibility restrictions.

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The Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back, or G3 program, was included in Democratic governor Ralph Northam’s $138 billion biennial budget proposal. The $145 million program would make community college tuition-free for low- and middle-income students, as well as provide grants for other costs like transportation and food.

On Thursday, September 19, 2019 Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust announced the formation of a new policy council to identify solutions to problems of affordability and workforce readiness in Virginia higher education. The council’s membership includes CEOs from various industries, senior executives in finance, technology and energy sectors, nonprofit executives representing small businesses, bankers and other public interests, former college presidents, trustees, senior administrators, and current college students.

“This council brings together the best thinkers and leaders from across the Commonwealth to address one of the most persistent domestic policy issues facing Virginia and the nation,” said Partners president Dr. James Toscano. “Partners is proud to host this important conversation with our all-star council members, and we look forward to learning their unique perspectives and ideas on building a better future for students, families and the public.”

Town Hall Addresses Student Debt Concerns
GMU Fourth EstateSeptember 13, 2019 (04:51:00)

Top News

After standoff, House and Senate to seal deal to stem college tuition costs
Virginia Mercury, Kate Masters January 12, 2020 (Short)
The Rotunda at the University of Virginia. (Style Weekly)

For the last few days of the 2020 General Assembly session, college tuition freezes were a sticking point for House and Senate budget negotiators. Such a sticking point, in fact, that legislators extended their deadline for reaching a deal.

But a last-minute compromise appeared to offer the best of both worlds for legislators from both chambers. The Senate added roughly $60 million over the next two years for need-based financial aid at Virginia’s publicly funded colleges and universities. And the House added roughly