Virginia News

General Laws Committee - Host, Delegate David Bulova
May 20, 2021 – 6:00 pm (ET)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VlJRa1hht9g

Aircast on the recent activities of the General Laws committee during this winter’s General Assembly.

These aircasts will be focused on the recent activities of House and Senate committees  during the 2021 General Assembly. Committee chairs will host these aircasts with members of their committees and their invited audience.

Aircasts are Zoom meetings with a host, featured guests, and an online audience livestreamed to the public and archived as YouTube videos.

A recording of the livestreams will be archived in the Virginia onAir Hub and in our Virginia onAir YouTube channel.

For more information:General Laws Committee Post

Curator:

  • Jordan Toledo

Host:

  • Committee Chair, Delegate David Bulova

Featured Guest(s):

  • Delegate Betsy Carr, Chair, Open Government/Procurement Subcommittee

  • Delegate Chris Hurst, Chair, Professions/Occupations and Administrative Process Subcommittee

Producer:

  • Shuaib Ahmed, Democracy onAir – shuaib.ahmed@onair.cc

Archived Locations: YouTube Channel, General Laws Committee post, David Bulova post, Chris Hurst post

If the last public poll was any indicator, Virginia Democrats still have lots of homework to do before making their picks in the primary for lieutenant governor.

A Christopher Newport University poll conducted in mid-April found 64 percent of likely primary voters undecided in the race, with Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, the apparent leader with 12 percent support.

“We’re glad to see the way things are trending,” Rasoul said in an interview, attributing his leading status to a “values-based campaign” focused on in-person trips to cities and counties throughout Virginia, including areas where voters “feel forgotten.”

The numbers suggest there’s still lots of room for movement in an open field that once stood at eight candidates but has shrunk to six heading into the final month before the June 8 primary.

As lawmakers prepare to study the prospects for campaign finance reform in Virginia, the sheer size of some checks flowing to Democratic candidates for statewide office has renewed debate about the boosts offered by a wealthy Charlottesville couple topping charts as the biggest donors in state politics.

Though they backed opposing candidates in the 2017 Democratic primary for governor, donations connected to Michael Bills, a hedge fund manager and primary backer of the advocacy group Clean Virginia, and Sonjia Smith, a philanthropist and former lawyer married to Bills, are working in tandem this year in a big way.

Smith and Clean Virginia have given a combined $1.1 million, $600,000 from Clean Virginia and $500,000 from Smith, to former delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy, whom they believe has the best shot at challenging former Gov. Terry McAuliffe in a five-person Democratic primary field. That’s almost a third of the roughly $3.6 million in cash contributions Carroll Foy reported raising as of March 31.

Dimmerling is among thousands of Virginians who have lived for months with the daily panic of impending financial doom because of the Virginia Employment Commission’s lagging performance in dealing with contested pandemic unemployment claims within the 21 days as prescribed by federal law.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Labor, for each full quarter since the pandemic began Virginia has ranked at or near the bottom against other states in the percentage of “nonmonetary determinations of claimants” within the required three weeks.

That’s bureaucratic jargon that means people whose unemployment insurance claims have been called into question or have prompted other concerns. For instance, employees who quit without good cause or are fired for misconduct are generally ineligible for benefits. Those separated because of layoffs — particularly in the pandemic — are eligible. Sometimes, employers will object to a former employee’s claim, and specialists known as “deputy adjudicators” decide who’s right.

 

Should my child get the COVID-19 vaccine? 7 questions answered by a pediatric infectious disease expert
Virginia Mercury, Dr. Debbie-Ann Shirley, University of VirginiaMay 18, 2021 (Short)

The Food and Drug Administration expanded emergency use authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to include adolescents 12 to 15 years of age on May 10. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention followed with recommendations endorsing use in this age group after their advisory group meeting on May 12. The American Academy of Pediatrics also supports this decision.

Dr. Debbie-Ann Shirley is an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Virginia specializing in pediatric infectious diseases. Here she addresses some of the concerns parents may have about their teen or preteen getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

1. Does the vaccine work in adolescents?
Yes, recently released data from Pfizer-BioNTech shows that the COVID-19 vaccine seems to work really well in this age group. The COVID-19 vaccine was found to be 100 percent efficacious in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 in an ongoing clinical trial of children in the U.S. aged 12 to 15. Adolescents made high levels of antibody in response to the vaccine, and their immune response was just as strong as what has been seen in older teens and young adults 16-25 years of age.

After chaotic Virginia GOP convention, Democrats see extreme ticket while Republicans feel ‘relief’
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw and Ned OliverMay 14, 2021 (Short)

Despite the early efforts to paint the Republicans’ 2021 ticket as an overwhelming lurch to the right, the slate isn’t nearly as extreme as it might’ve been. Instead of Chase, a self-described “Trump in heels,” becoming the party’s standard-bearer in a state former President Donald Trump lost twice, she logged off and went to the beach.

After failing to win a statewide election since 2009, some Republicans say they feel surprisingly good about where the party stands coming out of a chaotic unassembled convention marked by procedural confusion, mysterious attack ads and infighting.

“I think some of the ebullience you see in Republicans right now is that this could’ve been very bad. And it turned into the exact opposite,” said Shaun Kenney, a former Republican Party of Virginia executive director who has criticized fringe elements in the party. “But it’s more than just a sigh of relief. It’s like we finally know where we’re headed.”

As he tries to become Virginia’s first Black attorney general, Del. Jay Jones made clear on the debate stage Wednesday night that he wasn’t going to tiptoe around the topic of race.

Facing off against incumbent Attorney General Mark Herring in the first televised debate of the Democratic primary, Jones introduced himself as the descendant of slaves and the grandson of civil rights activists, going on to make several references to the perspective gained from his “lived experience as a Black man.”

Perhaps the most remarkable experience Jones recounted on the debate stage was being in the room in early 2019 when Herring met with the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus to deliver a pre-emptive apology for wearing blackface while in college at the University of Virginia.

Virginia’s GOP gambles on creative ranked-choice voting for 2021 nominees
Virginia Mercury, Mark J. Rozell May 4, 2021 (Short)

The Republican Party of Virginia has a chance this year to reestablish itself as a competitive force in statewide elections.

After a dozen years without a statewide victory, the GOP leadership needed to take a careful look within to understand why voters have turned their backs on the once dominant political party in Virginia. It appears that party leaders decided that with the right method of nominating candidates for statewide office, they can change their fortunes.

Republican Party leaders   generally have favored conventions as a means of selecting nominees for statewide offices. The closed process, open only to the most inside of GOP insiders and dominated by some of its most conservative voices, has had a mixed record of success.

Delegate Suggests Removing Financial Incentive For Traffic Stops
WVTF, Michael PopleMay 3, 2021 (Short)

The firestorm caused by the Windsor police officer who pepper sprayed an African-American Army officer may end up changing the relationship between money and policing in Virginia.

Delegate Betsy Carr of Richmond says this incident reveals why police departments and sheriff’s offices should be de-incentivized from making traffic stops.  “Police are incentivized if they’re going to get money from it just to make more traffic stops, and a lot of time Black and brown folks are the people who are bearing the brunt of this.”

But Dana Schrad at the police chiefs association says local governments get that money, not police.  “The financial incentive is not on the part of the police department,” Schrad argues. “It might be on the part of the locality. But the locality has always expressed that their chief concern is that speeding on that route that goes through their community presents risks for the business owners and presents risks for the residents, and they want to see speeding laws enforced.”

McAuliffe opponents struggle to break through in Virginia
Politico, Maya KingMay 1, 2021 (Short)

Former state Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy’s supporters say she is best-positioned to challenge the former governor, but she has yet to gain broad name recognition.

In Virginia, 2021 was the best chance yet to elect a Black politician — and possibly the first Black woman in any state — to the governor’s mansion.

But with five weeks until the commonwealth’s Democratic primary, Terry McAuliffe, its white male former governor, is on track to secure the nomination easily.

 

A COVID-19 vaccine mandate is not being ruled out in Virginia but it won’t happen in the near future, if at all. That’s according to the state’s Vaccine Coordinator Dr. Danny Avula, who spoke to 8News via Zoom on Thursday.

In the meantime, Dr. Avula said the use of so-called “vaccine passports” or certifications are a more likely solution for skepticism.

“If our ability to move forward as a society, to open back up businesses, to open back up schools, is contingent on this, then I think we find every way we can to incentivize it and potentially even get to a point where we require it, but I think we’re a long way from that,” Dr. Avula said.

Virginia Mercury wins honors in press competition
Virginia Mercury, StaffApril 30, 2021 (Short)

The Virginia Mercury took nine first-place awards and one of its journalists earned a top individual honor in the 2020 Virginia Press Association competition.

Mercury reporter Ned Oliver was named the year’s outstanding journalist for his work covering how the COVID-19 pandemic affected Virginia’s most vulnerable people. That included stories about prisoners, workers who lost jobs or were forced to come back as safety protocols were in flux, those who struggled with Virginia’s problem-plagued administration of unemployment benefits and renters who faced eviction, among other stories.

“In a year when nearly every journalist was writing about COVID-19, the judge said that Oliver’s work stands out. His reporting held officials accountable, and he kept an eye on the pandemic’s impact on those who could not speak for themselves,” the VPA said in a news release.

Northam amends Virginia’s mask mandate to match CDC guidance
Virginia Mercury, Kate Masters April 28, 2021 (Short)

The first of three minimum wage increases approved by Virginia lawmakers will take effect Saturday, guaranteeing the state’s lowest paid workers an hourly rate of $9.50 an hour.

While some businesses warned the hikes will force them to layoff workers and cut hours, low-wage employees celebrated the coming raises.

“I just feel like we deserve it,” said Jenee Long, who until recently was paid just over the current minimum of $7.25 an hour making sandwiches at a Subway franchise in Richmond. “Luckily, I had family to take care of me, because how would I pay rent?”

The last minimum wage increase in Virginia came courtesy of the federal government more than a decade ago in 2009, when Congress raised the wage floor to $7.25.

More than 53,000 delegates register to vote in Virginia GOP convention
Virginia Mercury, Ned Oliver April 28, 2021 (Short)

The Virginia GOP says 53,524 delegates have registered to vote in the party’s nominating convention next week, in which Republicans will select their candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.

Republican Party of Virginia Chairman Rich Anderson announced the number at a candidate forum on Tuesday evening, predicting the event would be “the largest state party convention ever in American history.”

The convention is set for Saturday, May 8, and, unlike a traditional convention held at a single location, will take place at voting locations set up around the state to comply with COVID-19 safety rules.

A minor political furor erupted in Virginia last week — over math.

It started with a Fox News story declaring that the state Department of Education was moving to eliminate all accelerated math classes before 11th grade, “effectively keeping higher-achieving students from advancing as they usually would in the school system.”

Republican leaders soon joined a chorus of dissenters. House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert criticized the department’s “plan to lower standards,” stating that “Virginians have had enough of the insatiable agenda to eliminate opportunities for students to excel in the quest to achieve mediocrity for all.” Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin slammed the decision in another statement, saying families across the state were “up in arms.”

When Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam looks back at his tenure, the inflection point between being a run-of-the-mill executive and the progressive leader he has become is a painful one.

The scandal — born of the discovery of a decades-old yearbook photo that featured someone in blackface — was an existential crisis for Northam and his administration. After initially saying the person in question was him, he denied it but admitted to darkening his skin as part of a Michael Jackson dance contest in 1984. Almost every Virginia Democrat called for his ouster as the state examined its racist past. Those closest to Northam said he was close to resigning.

How the governor survived was a surprise even to his most ardent supporters. The man who was nearly thrown out of office by his own party has, in the two years since, become a progressive champion, working with the same Democrats who called for his resignation to tighten gun laws in the commonwealth, restore the voting rights to nearly 70,000 felons, approve voting rights legislation and abolish the death penalty in the state. And just this week Northam signed legislation that would legalize marijuana this summer, the first Southern state to do so.

When she was sworn in as the first woman to serve as speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, Eileen Filler-Corn said she was struck by the diversity of the new Democratic majority looking back at her.

A year later, she was standing in a mostly empty room, speaking to “squares on a computer” as the oldest continuous legislative body in the Western Hemisphere tried lawmaking via Zoom.

It’s not yet clear when the House will return to normal. But after two years in power, Filler-Corn says she’s confident Virginia voters still want Democrats in charge.

“We heard the issues that were important to Virginians,” Filler-Corn said in a recent interview with The Virginia Mercury. “We campaigned saying we were going to do X, Y and Z. We were very upfront about it. Very bold. And there is no doubt about it that we followed through.”

Will Virginia colleges require COVID-19 vaccinations? Should they?
Capital News Service, Hunter BrittApril 22, 2021 (Short)

Virginia universities plan a return to campuses in the fall, but there are questions if the COVID-19 vaccine can be mandated.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration only authorized the vaccine for emergency purposes, according to Lisa Lee, professor of public health at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. The vaccine does not yet have full FDA approval.

The vaccine was authorized for emergency use, so people have to be given the choice to take it and be informed of the consequences if they don’t, Lee said.

“Many legal scholars have interpreted that as saying that people cannot be required to take a vaccine that is under an emergency use authorization,” Lee said. “They can be when it has full approval, so that’s where the hitch is.”

Starting May 15, Virginia will significantly relax capacity restrictions on social gatherings and entertainment venues as COVID-19 numbers plateau across much of the state.

Gov. Ralph Northam announced the latest rollback in a video message on Thursday, citing the state’s continued progress in vaccinations. Data from the Virginia Department of Health indicates that more than 40 percent of the population has received at least one shot and more than 26 percent are fully vaccinated. Every Virginian 16 and older became eligible for the vaccine on Sunday.

“Vaccination numbers are up, and our COVID case numbers are substantially lower than they were earlier this year,” Northam said in a statement. “So, we have been able to begin easing some mitigation measures.”

FOIA bill allows some access to criminal investigation records
Capital News Service , Anya SczerzenieApril 20, 2021 (Short)

A bill allowing the public access to limited criminal investigation records will go into effect in July, along with a handful of other bills related to government transparency.

Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg, a former television reporter, introduced House Bill 2004. The bill requires files related to non-ongoing criminal investigations be released under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act law.

“I’d been a journalist for 10 years, and I frequently saw that access to police records was very difficult,” Hurst said. “In denying those records, accountability and transparency were lost.”

Hurst said he hopes the bill will give the public reasonable access to criminal investigation files.

Virginia public defenders face resistance in push for pay parity with prosecutors
Virginia Mercury, Ned OliverApril 20, 2021 (Short)

In many Virginia courtrooms, commonwealth’s attorneys charged with prosecuting crimes continue to earn significantly more than the government employees responsible for defending the accused.

It’s an imbalance that bakes inequity into the criminal justice system, say public defenders, whose state-funded offices represent poor defendants who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford an attorney.

They say it’s not uncommon to spend years training a new hire only to lose them to a higher paying job, often in prosecutors offices.

“They literally just go across the street to make a significantly increased salary to prosecute people instead of defend them,” said Ashley Shapiro, a senior assistant public defender in Richmond, where lawyers on staff learned they were almost all making less than the highest-paid administrative assistant in the prosecutor’s office.

Pushing broadband into rural Va. gives us a chance to act like a commonwealth
Virginia Mercury, Bob Lewis -April 19, 2021 (Short)

Writing this column in a Richmond suburb, I expect instant responses to data inquiries from across the Internet. And, far more often than not, I get them.

Fiber-optic digital access (which ain’t cheap) also allows me to stream movies, shop the virtual marketplace, conduct business videoconferences and correspond at light speed with anyone in the world via email or social media.

By the time you read this, I will have used this fast connection to communicate with sources whom I have interviewed for this piece, downloaded all sorts of data and collaborated with The Virginia Mercury’s editors to get it ready for your consumption.

Over the last month, state and federal officials have directed thousands of COVID-19 vaccines to large-scale clinics in vulnerable communities with high rates of coronavirus cases — all in areas with significant or majority Black and Latino populations.

The sites have been touted by leaders as a core strategy in expanding access to vaccines among communities of color, where immunization rates are consistently lower than they are for White Virginians. “We have done a very good job in the commonwealth in addressing this issue,” state Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said at a news briefing last month in response to questions over vaccine equity.

“We have brought on staff in our emergency support team that is doing outreach in these communities,” he added. “We’ve put boots on the ground in all 35 of our health districts and those teams are doing your basic sort of community organizing — door to door, working with faith leaders, community-based organizations to bring people from these vulnerable populations to our vaccination sites.”

When top aides to Gov. Ralph Northam sat down last summer to meet with the state inspector general, whose office had just issued a critical watchdog report on the Virginia Parole Board, Northam Chief of Staff Clark Mercer opened by saying he wanted to hear what was being done to prevent future reports from “getting forwarded to the Associated Press again.” 

Republican General Assembly leaders had just given media outlets an unredacted copy of a report accusing the Parole Board of mishandling the release of Vincent Martin, who was convicted of the 1979 killing of a Richmond police officer but won praise as a model inmate. Before that, the inspector general had only released an unreadable version with virtually every sentence blacked-out, citing an interpretation of confidentiality laws disputed by open-government advocates.

Mercer said he was hoping for a “collegial” discussion of what had happened and the aspects of the report that were in dispute.

What would a carbon-free grid look like for Virginia?
Virginia Mercury, Ivy MainApril 16, 2021 (Short)

Joe Biden wants a carbon-free electric grid by 2035. What does that look like in Virginia?

Virginia’s General Assembly made history in 2020 by becoming the first state in the South to pass a law requiring the full decarbonization of its electric sector. The Virginia Clean Economy Act requires our two largest utilities, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power, to close all Virginia carbon-emitting power plants by 2045. As of 2050, the state will not issue carbon allowances to any other power plants in the commonwealth, including those owned by electric cooperatives and independent generators.

Less than a year later, President Joe Biden wants to move up the date for a carbon-free electric grid nationwide to 2035. Biden is also targeting a net-zero carbon economy by 2050. On that, Virginia is actually more ambitious, at least on paper, since the Commonwealth Energy Policy sets a goal for a net-zero economy by 2045.

Viral police stop in small Virginia town renews focus on qualified immunity
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw| Ned OliverApril 13, 2021 (Short)

Standing across from the gas station where an Army lieutenant became another viral example of aggressive policing directed at a person of color, members of the Virginia NAACP called Monday for lawmakers to hold a special session on an unfinished piece of the police reform agenda.

Though the Democratic-controlled General Assembly twice failed to approve legislation rolling back qualified immunity, some say what happened to Black and Latino Army Lt. Caron Nazario in this small town demands that policymakers try again.

“To tell us that a Black Army second lieutenant in uniform can have that type of treatment imposed upon him, imagine what happens when the body cameras are off,” said NAACP Executive Director Da’Quan Marcell Love. “Imagine what happens on dark roads across the length and breadth of this commonwealth.”

As Dominion’s rate review gears up, a broader fight about regulatory balance resurges
Virginia Mercury, Sarah VogelsongApril 9, 2021 (Short)
Virginia explained: What’s a triennial review and why should you care?
Virginia Mercury, Sarah Vogelsong April 9, 2021 (Short)

For the first time in six years, Virginia’s largest utility, which serves two-thirds of Virginia’s residential customers, will submit to a review of its base rates. Dominion Energy’s “triennial review,” coming after years of regulators reporting hundreds of millions of dollars in company overearnings, will likely be the powerful utility’s biggest battle of the year.

The outcome will determine whether the base rates it charges have been reasonable, how much it’s earned over the past four years and what profits shareholders will be allowed to reap as the company embarks on an ambitious Democrat-driven mission to transform the foundation of Virginia’s electric grid from fossil fuels to renewables.

But instead of playing out in political skirmishes in the General Assembly, this contest will unfold before the State Corporation Commission, one of the most powerful and little-known of Virginia’s government bodies which since 1902 has had the authority under the state Constitution to regulate utilities.

Done right, legal pot could bring social equity and opportunity to Virginia
Virginia Mercury, Bob Lewis - OpinionApril 5, 2021 (Short)

Virginia owes much to a smokable weed.

Look no farther than the ceiling of the state Capitol Rotunda to see painted representations of garlands of the golden-brown leaf that was essential to Virginia’s founding 400 years ago.

The Virginia Company of London, chartered as a joint stock company, encountered lean times in the early years after it established a foothold at Jamestown. Tobacco was one of its few success stories. The crop flourished in the fertile loam and sunny summers along the James River. Across the Atlantic, demand became insatiable for what was called the “joviall weed,” the “precious stink” and the “chopping herbe of hell,” according to “Virginia: The New Dominion” by historian and editor Virginius Dabney. It remained a leading cash crop in Virginia through the 20th century.

On July 1, another smokable weed, once damned by the establishment, is expected to become legal for adult recreational use. And 2½ years later, the legal commercial cultivation, processing and sale of marijuana would begin in Virginia.

The final say on that comes Wednesday when the Virginia General Assembly is expected to adopt amendments Gov. Ralph Northam made to a bill passed during the winter legislative session that at long last legalized ganja in the Old Dominion.

Should Virginia bus systems go fare free forever?
Virginia Mercury, Wyatt Gordon April 6, 2021 (Medium)

When the General Assembly created the Transit Rider Incentive Program (TRIP) as part of Gov. Ralph Northam’s 2020 transportation omnibus, the lion’s share of the funding was allocated to support new regional bus routes. With COVID’s cancellation of much commuter service across the commonwealth, those dollars are now being dedicated to TRIP’s secondary goal: fare free transit pilot projects.

With large localities like Lynchburg, Roanoke, Alexandria, Richmond, Charlottesville, and Fairfax County now expressing interest in eliminating bus fares for at least three years, could the shift to zero fares in Virginia become permanent?

Nearly every transit system in the commonwealth dropped fares last year as a public health measure in response to COVID, but until recently none had announced intentions to make that move to protect riders and operators more permanent. Based on the responses to a request for ideas DRPT issued to transit providers last fall, the list of bus systems seeking to stay fare free beyond the pandemic could soon grow substantially longer.

Virginia to expand vaccine eligibility to everyone 16 and older by mid-Ap
Virginia Mercury, Kate Masters -April 1, 2021 (Short)

Gov. Ralph Northam announced Thursday that the state will expand vaccine eligibility to all Virginians 16 and older by April 18.

The news puts Virginia nearly two weeks ahead of the May 1 deadline set by President Joe Biden earlier this month. In a news release, the administration said that nearly every high-risk Virginian who pre-registered for a vaccine has already received a shot, allowing the state to expand eligibility sooner than expected. Those still on the state’s pre-registration list will receive an appointment invitation within the next two weeks.

“Expanding vaccine eligibility to all adults marks an important milestone in our ongoing efforts to put this pandemic behind us,” Northam said in a statement. “I thank all of the public health staff, health care workers, vaccinators, and volunteers who have helped make this possible.”

Apparently fed up with paperwork coming in late, Virginia’s State Board of Elections has refused to extend a key campaign filing deadline this year, potentially affecting eight candidates running for the House of Delegates.

Three are Democrats looking to challenge incumbent lawmakers, meaning, if the decision stands, Dels. Luke Torian, D-Prince William, Betsy Carr, D-Richmond, and Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, may not face primary challengers after all. Because they represent strongly Democratic districts, their primary opponents being disqualified on technical grounds all but guarantees the incumbents will win re-election.

The decision to insist on meaningful deadlines comes after years of officials wrestling with how to handle paperwork errors, reflecting a growing feeling on the board that candidates must take responsibility for their own campaigns and follow through to ensure their documents get to the right place.

The geography of Mathews County was carved by catastrophe.

Thirty-five million years ago, a meteorite or comet tore through the Earth’s atmosphere and slammed into its surface somewhere between the county and what is now called Cape Charles. In the ruin it left behind, the Chesapeake Bay would form. Mathews, at the very tip of Virginia’s Middle Peninsula, remains one of the state’s lowest-lying areas, surrounded on three sides by the Chesapeake Bay and the waters that flow into it. 

“We’re flat as a pancake,” said Thomas Jenkins, the county’s planning, zoning and wetlands director. “Much of the county is close to sea level.” 

Today a far slower but perhaps no less catastrophic force is reshaping Mathews. As climate change drives seas upward, the county is struggling to keep its waterfront properties above the tides. 

 
Audit overwhelmingly confirms Virginia’s election results
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw March 31, 2021 (Short)

statewide audit of Virginia’s 2020 election results verified President Joe Biden’s victory in the state, finding only a 0.00000065117 percent chance the state’s voting system could have produced an inaccurate outcome.

“Election officials are over 99 percent confident in the reported outcome,” Karen Hoyt-Stewart, voting technology manager at the Virginia Department of Elections, told the State Board of Elections as she presented the audit report Wednesday.

The only way to reach 100 percent certainty would be for officials to manually review every ballot cast in the state. In other words, the audit found there’s almost zero chance a full recount would show a different outcome.

The risk-limiting audit, more of a mathematical exercise than an expansive investigation into how ballots were cast and counted, involved checking a random sample of paper ballots against the results reported by scanner machines.

It’s already too late for Virginia to redraw political districts in time for the 2021 House of Delegates races, but the U.S. Census Bureau’s decision to speed up its delivery of new population data means Virginia lawmakers could be voting on future maps right before the November elections.

Census officials had told states to expect to get the data by late September, but Virginia officials say they now expect to receive it by the second week of August.

Under the newly created Virginia Redistricting Commission’s constitutional timeline, receipt of the data starts a 45-day clock for the commission to submit new legislative maps to the General Assembly for an up-or-down vote. Once the legislature received the proposed maps, it has 15 days to vote on them.

Virginians could be harvesting their first legal crops of home-grown marijuana later this year under legislative amendments Gov. Ralph Northam says he’s sending to the General Assembly.

Northam said Wednesday he is proposing changes to the marijuana legalization bill passed by the General Assembly last month that would end the state’s prohibition on the drug beginning July 1 — up from a 2024 date proposed by lawmakers. He says he also wants to allow limited home cultivation to begin at the same time.

“Virginia will become the 15th state to legalize marijuana — and these changes will ensure we do it with a focus on public safety, public health and social justice,” he said in a statement.

Virginia lawmakers ban police use of facial recognition
AP, Denise LavoieMarch 29, 2021 (Short)

Last month, Virginia lawmakers quietly passed one of the most restrictive bans in the country on the use of facial recognition technology.

The legislation, which won unusually broad bipartisan support, prohibits all local law enforcement agencies and campus police departments from purchasing or using facial recognition technology unless it is expressly authorized by the state legislature.

But now, some law enforcement officials are asking Gov. Ralph Northam to put the brakes on the legislation, arguing that it is overly broad and hasn’t been thoroughly vetted.

Makya Little was helping her fourth-grade daughter review for the Virginia Studies SOL, a standardized test on state history, when she found herself taken aback by one of the questions on the study guide.

“She gets to this one question that says ‘What’s the status of the early African?’” said Little, who lives in Prince William County. The correct answer, according to the class materials, was “unknown. They were either servants or enslaved.”

“I got really, really upset,” Little said. While historians widely agree that the first Africans to arrive at the Jamestown settlement were enslaved, there’s been contentious discussion on the topic — some of the state’s own study materials also state that it’s “unknown” whether they arrived as slaves or indentured servants. The school division didn’t provide any of that context, and Little said multiple thoughts flashed through her head. The information was “misleading,” she added, and seemed designed to “soften how early Americans treated Black and Indigenous people” (another prompt on the study guide stated that native people and English settlers had a “trade relationship”).

Northam signs bill funding Va. community-college education costs
WTOP, Rick Massimo March 29, 2021 (Short)

Low-income students in Virginia will soon be getting financial help with all the costs of getting an education.

Gov. Ralph Northam on Monday signed into law the “Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back” program, which will provide full tuition for community college for low-income students in certain majors, as well as incidental expenses such as food and transportation.

The bill, which passed the legislature overwhelmingly last month, budgets $36 million a year over the next two years.

The bill covers education that leads to in-demand jobs in fields such as technology, skilled labor and health care. Officials gathered at Northern Virginia Community College for the signing Monday said the bill would open doors to people who were considering higher education.

“I am so incredibly proud of this initiative,” said House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn. “This has been something that we’ve been working on for a number of years.” She said there was a lot of bipartisan support for the bill even before COVID-19, but with a lot of lower-skill jobs disappearing because of the pandemic, “It’s more important now than ever.”

Va. House leaders back legalizing home-grown marijuana this summer
Virginia Mercury, Ned Oliver March 26, 2021 (Short)

Democratic leaders in the House of Delegates say they now support legalizing marijuana on July 1, joining the Senate in backing amendments to a legalization bill lawmakers passed last month.

They also went a step further, endorsing the legalization of personal cultivation at the same time.

“The time is now for us to act,” wrote speaker Eileen Filler-Corn in a statement.

The General Assembly voted at the end of February to legalize marijuana, but not until Jan. 1, 2024, when the state’s first legal marijuana businesses would open. The decision to tie legalization to commercial sales disappointed activists, who argued that waiting three years would needlessly prolong the racial disparities in policing that lawmakers said they were trying to address.

Virginia governor signs historic bill abolishing death penalty into law
CNN, Veronica StracqualursiMarch 24, 2021 (Medium)

After centuries of carrying out executions, Virginia on Wednesday became the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty after Gov. Ralph Northam signed historic legislation into law that ends capital punishment in the commonwealth.

“We can’t give out the ultimate punishment without being 100% sure that we’re right. And we can’t sentence people to that ultimate punishment knowing that the system doesn’t work the same for everyone,” Northam, a Democrat, said ahead of signing the legislation at the Greensville Correctional Center, which houses Virginia’s death chamber.

With Northam’s signature, Virginia became the first Southern state to repeal the death penalty since the US Supreme Court reinstated the punishment in 1976. The new law, set to go into effect in July, comes as a major shift for Virginia, which has put to death more people in its history than any other state.

What was expected to be a pretty predictable special election in Southwest Virginia has turned into a surprisingly intense fight in its closing days.

Voters in Virginia’s 38th Senate District will elect a new state senator through 2023 on Tuesday. Incumbent Ben Chafin died on Jan. 1 from complications related to COVID-19.

The district includes Bland, Buchanan, Dickenson, Pulaski, Russell and Tazewell counties, the cities of Norton and Radford, and portions of Montgomery, Smyth and Wise counties. 

Metro is finally catching a break, and it’s a plus for workers in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs poised to start heading back to the office once they’re vaccinated.

The $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package signed by President Joe Biden last week ends — for now — the prospect that the bus and subway operator in the D.C. area officially known as the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, would have to resort to deep service cuts to stay solvent.

Metro, hammered when commuters abandoned the system beginning a year ago to work from home, had proposed the shutdown of more than 20 of its train stations across the region’s far-flung system, ranging from College Park-University of Maryland to Smithsonian to Arlington Cemetery to Clarendon.

Virginia has $43 million in carbon market revenues. How is it going to spend it?
Virginia Mercury, Sarah VogelsongMarch 17, 2021 (Medium)

The $43 million was “in the state’s hot little hands,” Mike Dowd told the group.

So what next?

That was the question facing not only Dowd, director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s Air Division, but also a collection of developers, state officials and environmental and low-income advocacy groups who had gathered over Zoom on Monday.

All were focused on the best uses of that $43 million in carbon money, the first round of funds Virginia had received through its participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, an 11-state agreement that puts a price on the carbon emissions that are driving climate change, requires power plants to pay that price and then channels the proceeds back to the states.

Most of that funding will eventually be paid for by customers of the state’s electric utilities, which are allowed under state law to pass on the costs of carbon allowances to customers, with no extra returns for investors. State officials had conservatively projected annual proceeds from RGGI’s carbon auctions to be in the range of $106 to $109 million. But with allowances trading at $7.60 per short ton of emissions at this March’s quarterly auction, actual revenues now look to be much higher, amounting to perhaps as much as $174 million annually if prices hold.

Virginia could soon push more workers to save for retirement. Here’s how:
Virginia Mercury, Graham MoomawMarch 16, 2021 (Short)

Thousands of Virginia workers would gain the option of automatically putting away part of their paychecks for retirement under legislation the General Assembly passed last month to help private-sector employees who lack access to a savings plan through their employer.

The bill, awaiting action by Gov. Ralph Northam, establishes a state-administered program that would offer IRA accounts to workers with no other retirement plan options, particularly employees of small businesses, self-employed people and gig workers. 

The accounts would be optional, but workers would be enrolled by default and would have to opt out if they want to keep their whole paycheck. The plans would be portable, meaning workers could keep putting money into the same account even if they switch jobs.

Covered businesses would have to help interested workers participate in the program, mainly by setting up their accounting systems to allow payroll deductions to be made, but they wouldn’t have to contribute funds of their own.

Did Virginia lawmakers accidentally vote to legalize skill games for another year?
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw March 16, 2021 (Short)

After giving so-called skill games another year to operate in Virginia late in the 2020 General Assembly session, legislators seemed to decide the time has come to pull the plug on thousands of slots-like gambling machines that have proliferated in convenience stores, restaurants and truck stops all over the state.

But some statehouse watchers think lawmakers may have actually voted to do the opposite.

Confusion recently spread among gambling lobbyists over a little-noticed provision attached to a bill that, on its face, makes it easier for officials to crack down on unregulated gambling.

On environmental justice, Democrats split over the best path forward
Virginia Mercury, Sarah Vogelsong -March 12, 2021 (Medium)

When the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down an air permit last year for a compressor station Dominion Energy wanted to site in the majority-Black community of Union Hill as part of the 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline, the judges admonished state officials that “environmental justice is not merely a box to be checked.”

In the wake of the ruling, newly ascendant Democrats in the General Assembly looked to legislation as a fix. Environmental justice — the idea that no group should bear a disproportionate share of negative environmental consequences and that communities impacted should have “meaningful involvement” in the decision-making process — was added to state code and its promotion became declared state policy.

But as the 2021 session drew to a close, Democrats split over what to do next.

“I’m sorry to say we are very far apart on environmental justice issues with the other body,” Del. Shelly Simonds, D-Newport News, told colleagues in a late-night floor speech in the House of Delegates on the last day of the session. “I think that we are a long way off from where we need to be in having consensus on the need for environmental justice.”

Virginia’s black bears are flourishing. Officials have the bear teeth to prove it.
Virginia Mercury, Sarah Vogelsong -March 9, 2021 (Short)

From numbers that had dwindled to around 1,000 at midcentury, Virginia’s black bears have been making a comeback.

For the past few decades, thanks to reforestation and state management, the black bear has become more and more common in the commonwealth. And while population estimates aren’t an exact science, relying as they do on factors like hunting data and human-bear interactions, one Virginia wildlife official puts the current count at between 18,000 and 20,000.

“Surveys show bears are very popular. Citizens like bears. They want to have bears,” said Nelson Lafon, the Forest Wildlife Program manager for the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources.

A senior investigator in Virginia’s watchdog agency has filed a lawsuit claiming she was wrongfully suspended from her job last week after giving General Assembly leaders documents dealing with her investigation into wrongdoing by the Virginia Parole Board.

Jennifer Moschetti, an employee of the Office of the State Inspector General, filed the suit Monday in Richmond, claiming she had been subjected to “retaliatory actions” for conduct protected under the state’s whistleblower law.

The lawsuit is the latest explosive development in a controversy over how the Parole Board handled several high-profile cases last year and whether other state officials sought to conceal the extent of OSIG’s findings detailing numerous violations of Parole Board policies and state law.

Big uptick in vaccine supplies for states expected soon
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.

Emily’s Tale: Where government programs fail, humanity must step up
Virginia Mercury, Bob Lewis, opinionFebruary 22, 2021 (Short)

Government spending and programs are not the only answer to some of the nation’s most persistent needs.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t enact more federal relief for people who’ve been financially wrecked by no fault of their own during the coronavirus pandemic. We should, and soon! But target the spending to those whose livelihoods and economic security have been crushed, their families left homeless and queued in long lines outside food pantries. Put the cash where it’s needed, not with those who’ve fared well.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t spend — and mightily — on our crumbling national infrastructure, on America’s vulnerable electrical grid and information technology networks. The past month’s headlines prove the dire urgency of it and there is ready bipartisan concurrence on those needs, yet somehow nothing gets done.

When Virginia senators passed a bill requiring local school divisions to provide in-person instruction by the summer, some anticipated the legislation would face an uphill battle in the House.

Nearly a month later, though, the same legislation is now on the verge of passing both chambers after several rounds of revisions — and mounting pressure to return children to school buildings.

Just a few days after the Senate vote, Gov. Ralph Northam directed Virginia’s 132 local divisions to begin offering in-person classes by March 15, saying that months of remote learning was “taking a toll on our children and our families.” Northam’s announcement followed a pledge from President Joe Biden to reopen schools within his first 100 days of office, and new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on safely reopening schools and mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in buildings.

Virginia legislature sends death penalty repeal to Northam
Virginia Mercury, Ned OliverFebruary 22, 2021 (Short)

Virginia lawmakers gave final passage to legislation abolishing the death penalty Monday, sending the bill to Gov. Ralph Northam, who has said he’ll sign it.

Northam’s signature would make Virginia the first state in the South and the 23rd in the nation to end capital punishment.

“This legislation says a lot about who we are as a commonwealth, what kind of values we have as a commonwealth,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, who sponsored the legislation in the Senate. “It says a lot about how we value human life. It says a lot about how our commonwealth is going to move past some of our darkest moments in terms of how this punishment was applied and who it was applied to. This vote also says a lot about justice.”

Push to extend minimum wage increase to farmworkers voted down by Virginia Senate
Virginia Mercury, Ned OliverFebruary 23, 2021 (Short)

When the General Assembly voted last year to ramp up Virginia’s minimum wage to $12, agricultural employees were among a handful of groups excluded from the increase — an exemption that traces its roots to Jim Crow-era segregation.

Lawmakers in the Senate said Monday they stand by that decision, voting down legislation passed by the House of Delegates that would have extended the state’s employment laws to farmworkers for the first time.

“I understand the exuberance and I understand the need to move forward, but we just had a robust discussion on this last year,” said Sen. Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack, one of 10 lawmakers on the Senate’s Commerce and Labor Committee who opposed the legislation.

Electric utility rate reform efforts quashed by Senate committee
Virginia Mercury, Sarah VogelsongFebruary 15, 2021 (Short)

The Senate Commerce and Labor Committee on Monday swiftly killed the last of more than half a dozen bills this session that aimed to reform Virginia’s system of electric utility rate review, which is seen by Wall Street investors as favorable to the utilities and by critics as an example of legislative capture by companies with an outsize influence over the General Assembly.

The move angered the growing number of groups and lawmakers of both parties in Virginia that over the past few years have been lobbying to roll back regulations seen as enabling excessive profits for the state’s two largest electric monopolies, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power.

“It’s a shame that the committee decided that it should not be the policy of the commonwealth that monopoly utility rates should be just and reasonable,” said Will Cleveland, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center who frequently argues against the utilities before the State Corporation Commission. “It was clear that the Senate committee had no intention of debating the merits or the policy of the bills today.”

Fifteen years ago, more than 1.3 million Virginians said marriage should only mean a union between a man and a woman and same-sex couples shouldn’t be entitled to similar status that would give them the same rights under the law as straight couples.

That was the view of 57 percent of Virginians who voted in 2006, more than enough to put a same-sex marriage ban in the state Constitution.

Much has changed since then. And Democratic lawmakers want to give a new generation of Virginians an opportunity to make a different statement in 2022.

A bill that would let millions of electric customers in Virginia again begin purchasing renewable energy from companies other than the utility that controls their territory cleared the House of Delegates last week but now faces a Senate committee that struck the proposal down in 2020.

“The Senate oftentimes is a higher hurdle to get over,” said Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, the sponsor of House Bill 2048. “I think we’ve got a puncher’s chance, right? So we’re going to go in and give it all we got.”

Bourne’s bill targets a provision of state code that allows licensed third-party suppliers to sell “100 percent renewable energy” to customers in utility territory as long as the utility isn’t offering the same product. On the books since 2007, the law was rarely used until relatively recently, when renewables prices began to fall and more Americans began to shy away from carbon-emitting fossil fuels.

At General Assembly’s halftime, consumers hold a narrow lead
Virginia Mercury, Ivy MainFebruary 8, 2021 (Medium)

Virginia is, famously, a state that prides itself on being business-friendly. That makes it all the more interesting that a number of bills favoring consumers have made it through the House. Democrats have led the charge, but several of the bills earned bipartisan support even in the face of utility opposition.

This doesn’t guarantee their luck will hold. Democrats aren’t just more numerous in the House, they are also younger and more independent-minded than the old guard Democrats in control of the Senate. The second half of the session is going to be a lot more challenging for pro-consumer legislation.

The action will be especially hot in the coming days around five bills dealing with utility reform and a customer’s “right to shop” for renewable energy (HB2048). All these bills passed the House with at least some Republican support. But they are headed to Senate Commerce and Labor, which, though dominated by Democrats, has a long history of protecting utilities.

Democrats pushing to create incentives for drivers to buy electric vehicles as part of a broader goal of weaning Virginia’s transportation sector off fossil fuels are running into a roadblock: too little state money in a budget constrained by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have more priorities now than we do funding,” said Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun, who this session is carrying a bill to create an electric vehicle rebate program. “This would be a really tough priority to be able to fund right now.”

Slowing climate change through decarbonization has been a major priority of Virginia Democrats since they won majorities in both chambers of the legislature in 2019, handing them control of state government. Last year they passed the Virginia Clean Economy Act, a marquee environmental law that committed the state’s electric grid to being carbon-free by 2050. This year they are focusing on transportation, which according to federal calculations is responsible for nearly half of Virginia’s carbon emissions.

Va. House leaders block delegate’s effort to force vote on right-to-work repeal
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw -February 3, 2021 (Short)

The right-to-work law, which dates back to 1947 in Virginia, prevents unions from forcing workers to pay union dues as a condition of their employment, which effectively weakens organized labor.

Carter is running as a staunch progressive in Democratic gubernatorial field that also includes former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond and former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy.

Simon, a co-sponsor of the legislation to repeal right-to-work, said that even if Carter got his bill onto the House floor it would not pass. He also called his motion to reject the maneuver a “purely procedural vote.”

Virginia Senate votes to abolish death penalty
Virginia Mercury, Ned OliverFebruary 3, 2021 (Short)

Lawmakers in the Virginia Senate voted Wednesday to abolish the death penalty, setting the state on a course to become the first in the South to end capital punishment.

“If we look back 50 years from now, the electric chair, the lethal injection table — they’re going to be sitting in a museum,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, who sponsored the bill. “This thing is going to be a museum piece and people are going to look back and wonder how it ever was we used these things.”

The legislation passed on a party-line vote, with all 21 of the Democrats in the chamber supporting it. One Republican, Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, abstained. The bill would commute the sentences of the two men currently on Virginia’s death row to life sentences with no possibility of parole.

State lawmakers are angling to pass legislation before the session ends Feb. 11.

 

In the past year, the state has ended criminal penalties for minor marijuana offenses and established a medical marijuana program. Now, Virginia lawmakers are scrambling to pass full legalization before their 30-day legislative session wraps up in less than two weeks.

If signed into law, the move would represent weed’s deepest incursion into the southeast, where only a handful of states have even embraced medical marijuana and still have some of the nation’s harshest punishments over the drug.

Legalization still faces pushback from many Republicans, cops and substance abuse treatment professionals, who argue the state is moving way too fast on an issue with huge public health ramifications.

 

More than three years after Amazon announced that it was expanding beyond its current Seattle headquarters, construction at the Virginia site — located across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. — is now well underway. Dubbed PenPlace, the newly unveiled proposal for the project’s second phase will provide a further 2.8 million square feet of office space across three 22-story buildings.

The site’s focal point will be The Helix, a tree-covered glass structure where a series of “alternative work environments” will be set amid indoor gardens and greenery from the nearby area, tended to by a team of horticulturalists. According to the architecture firm behind the project, NBBJ, a spiral “hill climb” will meanwhile allow employees and visitors to ascend the outside of the structure.

Virginia Republicans appear to be sticking with their plans to hold a convention to select their nominees for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.

The decision has not come easily. The party’s central committee has been divided for weeks, leading to procedural deadlock, convoluted parliamentary maneuvers and increasingly heated debate that on Saturday left members exasperated.

“We have had cursing on this call; the last meeting devolved into people yelling,” said Willie Deutsch, a committee member representing the state’s 1st Congressional District. “There comes a time when we have to come together as a party and stop the vicious incivility and attacks.”

The central committee, which governs the operations of the state party and includes 80 members from around the state, had already decided to hold a convention at a meeting in December.

The company that operates Virginia’s only private prison doled out campaign contributions to 29 Virginia lawmakers ahead of a push to pass legislation banishing the for-profit corrections industry from the state, according to campaign finance records compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project.

And when the bill came before a Senate panel last week for its first hearing, it died a quick and sudden death, with some of the legislators who received the donations speaking most forcefully against it.

Lawmakers, who almost always maintain that there is no connection between campaign contributions and their legislative decision making, called it a coincidence.

“Did not even realize they made a contribution,” said Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, who received $500 from the company and spoke against the bill at length during last week’s committee hearing. He attributed his opposition to a convincing phone call from a lobbyist and the fact that it would not address other prison contractors he views as more problematic, such as the companies that charge inmates inflated prices for phone calls and packs of ramen.

Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe entered 2021 with more money in the bank than all other candidates for governor combined, according to year-end campaign finance reports that were due Friday.

McAuliffe, who was expected to have a strong money advantage given his background in political fundraising and ties to national Democrats, began the year with more than $5.5 million on hand.

Former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy reported almost $1.3 million on hand, state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond reported about $633,000 and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax reported nearly $80,000.

Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, who just officially entered the field Jan. 1, reported about $7,000 on hand in his House of Delegates re-election account.

Matchmaker, matchmaker make Democrats a match
Jeff SchapiroJanuary 15, 2021 (Short)

Democrats agree their ticket can’t be three white guys and it shouldn’t be overweighted to the party’s anchor, Northern Virginia. The backlash to Donald Trump, the fury over George Floyd and the aftershocks of Ralph Northam’s blackface moment — all factors in the ballooning field — demand a ticket that looks like the New Virginia.

If only Democrats, mindful of demographic and geographic balance, could assemble it the old-fashioned way, the un-democratic way in which the whims of grandees carried disproportionate weight. This worked when the party was a white segregationist cabal and, because of laws limiting access to the polls, only a sliver of eligible population voted.

Modern Democrats acknowledge that synching up slates of candidates ahead of the June primary is perilous and would fuel resentments that would weaken the party. That doesn’t mean they don’t consider the possibility — as an abstract exercise. Put another way: Democrats can dream.

State of the Commonwealth 2021
January 14, 2021 (58:16)
The outside world intrudes on Virginia politics — again
Jeff SchapiroJanuary 13, 2021 (Short)

Defining issues for Democrats are those on which there are deep divisions within the majority party. That will become clear as the General Assembly lurches toward adjournment in late February, relying on a parliamentary sleight of hand to bypass one by Republicans that threatened to squeeze the session to 30 days from the usual 46.

These issues include taxes, marijuana, paid sick leave, police reform, civil and voting rights, campaign finance, gambling and reopening public schools during the pandemic. Differences on policy are exacerbated by differences in personality, especially House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, both of Fairfax.

Virginians got a taste of both during the interminable special session that, over nearly 85 days, pivoted from repairs to the COVID-19-wracked budget and post-George Floyd police reform to an all-you-can-eat legislative buffet that restyled the General Assembly as a mini-Congress.

Terry McAuliffe wants to be governor again. Women: Not so fast.
Sabrina Rodriguez and Maya KingDecember 8, 2020 (Medium)

“I understand the desire for someone to come back and have a sequel, second chapter,” said one Virginia Democrat. “But times change, and new leaders evolve.”

Terry McAuliffe has long signaled he wants his old job back as Virginia governor. But a slew of political groups focused on women and Black voters have a message before he jumps in the race: It’s not your time.

McAuliffe’s 2021 run — he is planning to announce on Wednesday, POLITICO confirmed — has rankled a number of groups across the commonwealth and country. They argue he shouldn’t be trying to reclaim the post he vacated three years ago when there are already two Black female candidates in the field— state Sen. Jennifer McClellan and state Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy.

“We’ve never elected a Black woman governor in this country’s history,” said Glynda Carr, CEO of the Higher Heights PAC, which supports Black women running for political office.

Virginia certifies 2020 election results
APNovember 18, 2020 (Short)

The State Board of Elections in Virginia voted Wednesday to certify the state’s election results, two days later than expected because of a COVID-19 outbreak in the city of Richmond’s voter registration office.

The board’s 3-0 vote certified results for president, U.S. Senate, U.S. House elections and state constitutional amendments in a 10-minute meeting without comment, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported. Virginia’s certification comes as former Vice President Joe Biden prepares to assume the presidency and President Donald Trump continues to sow doubt about the national election.

The Associated Press on Sunday projected that U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger will be reelected to her seat in Virginia’s 7th District after a dayslong count of votes that was prolonged by mail-in votes in the midst of the pandemic.

Spanberger, a Democrat, is nearly 8,000 votes ahead of Republican Del. Nick Freitas in the strip-shaped district in central Virginia that includes Culpeper, Chesterfield, Henrico and Nottoway counties and skirts to the west of Richmond.

Spanberger’s apparent result means that the only non-incumbent to win a seat in Congress from Virginia was a member of the incumbent’s own party. The partisan breakdown remains seven Democrats to four Republicans.

Biden, Warner wins show Democrats still dominate in Virginia
Gregory S. Schneider and Laura VozzellaNovember 4, 2020 (Medium)

The apparently comfortable margins of victory for both former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Mark R. Warner (D) in Virginia on Tuesday extended an 11-year record of dominance for Democrats in statewide races and cemented the commonwealth’s status as reliably blue.

But at the local and regional level, a different dynamic holds — as evidenced by Republican strength in three close congressional contests driven by rural and military voters energized by support for President Trump.

The results suggest how much the state mirrors the nation as a whole, becoming more polarized and less attuned to the old “Virginia way” of consensus politics, said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

“This was an intensified partisan vote,” Rozell said.

AP: Mark Warner wins third term as US Senator
13News Now Staff, Associated PressNovember 3, 2020 (Short)

Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia has won a third term to office.
Warner defeated Republican challenger Daniel Gade on Tuesday in a low-key race whose outcome was never in doubt.

Democrats have not lost a statewide election in Virginia since 2009. Warner is a former governor and current vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He had a massive cash advantage and scared off well-known Republicans from running against him.

Election results for Virginia's House of Representatives candidates
Jonathan FranklinNovember 4, 2020 (Short)

All of Virginia’s U.S. House seats were up for re-election, as well as one critical U.S. Senate seat. Virginia also voted on whether or not to create a commission to re-draw lines of congressional districts.

In District 8, Donald Beyer, Jr., the Democratic incumbent, is the projected winner according to the Associated Press. Beyer has held this office since 2015.

At the headquarters of the Fauquier County Republican Committee in Warrenton, Virginia, a cardboard cutout of John Wayne gripping a rifle leans against a wall. Chair Gregory Schumacher says Wayne was “the great American Western hero,” and he says Republicans who held the Fifth District in Congress for all but two of the last 20 years will keep it in their hands this November.

Although the populous counties of Northern Virginia have powered the state’s drift into Democratic control, Schumacher says he sits on the political boundary. “When you come out from the Beltway, Fauquier County’s the first one that goes red,” Schumacher said.

But there are signs that this year could be different as Republican contender Bob Good faces Democratic challenger Cameron Webb in what political prediction site FiveThirtyEight calls the most competitive House race in the country. Webb has outraised Good fourfold and held a slight lead in the last three polls. Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia and The Cook Political Report call the congressional race a toss-up. If Democrats can win this seat, they will continue a blue wave that flipped three House seats in 2018.

Covid-19

Should my child get the COVID-19 vaccine? 7 questions answered by a pediatric infectious disease expert
Virginia Mercury, Dr. Debbie-Ann Shirley, University of VirginiaMay 18, 2021 (Short)

The Food and Drug Administration expanded emergency use authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to include adolescents 12 to 15 years of age on May 10. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention followed with recommendations endorsing use in this age group after their advisory group meeting on May 12. The American Academy of Pediatrics also supports this decision.

Dr. Debbie-Ann Shirley is an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Virginia specializing in pediatric infectious diseases. Here she addresses some of the concerns parents may have about their teen or preteen getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

1. Does the vaccine work in adolescents?
Yes, recently released data from Pfizer-BioNTech shows that the COVID-19 vaccine seems to work really well in this age group. The COVID-19 vaccine was found to be 100 percent efficacious in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 in an ongoing clinical trial of children in the U.S. aged 12 to 15. Adolescents made high levels of antibody in response to the vaccine, and their immune response was just as strong as what has been seen in older teens and young adults 16-25 years of age.

A COVID-19 vaccine mandate is not being ruled out in Virginia but it won’t happen in the near future, if at all. That’s according to the state’s Vaccine Coordinator Dr. Danny Avula, who spoke to 8News via Zoom on Thursday.

In the meantime, Dr. Avula said the use of so-called “vaccine passports” or certifications are a more likely solution for skepticism.

“If our ability to move forward as a society, to open back up businesses, to open back up schools, is contingent on this, then I think we find every way we can to incentivize it and potentially even get to a point where we require it, but I think we’re a long way from that,” Dr. Avula said.

Northam amends Virginia’s mask mandate to match CDC guidance
Virginia Mercury, Kate Masters April 29, 2021 (Short)

Gov. Ralph Northam amended Virginia’s mask mandate to match recently issued guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The changes, announced in a Thursday press release, went into effect immediately, according to Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky. They allow fully vaccinated Virginians to “participate in outdoor activities and recreation without a mask,” based on language from the CDC. Those include solo activities and small outside gatherings of fully vaccinated people.

People are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving their second shot (or two weeks after their first, in the case of Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose vaccine). Neither the state nor the CDC has specified whether there’s an exact size limit for “small” outdoor gatherings, but Yarmosky said the administration is “asking folks to use their best judgement.”

Will Virginia colleges require COVID-19 vaccinations? Should they?
Capital News Service, Hunter BrittApril 22, 2021 (Short)

Virginia universities plan a return to campuses in the fall, but there are questions if the COVID-19 vaccine can be mandated.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration only authorized the vaccine for emergency purposes, according to Lisa Lee, professor of public health at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. The vaccine does not yet have full FDA approval.

The vaccine was authorized for emergency use, so people have to be given the choice to take it and be informed of the consequences if they don’t, Lee said.

“Many legal scholars have interpreted that as saying that people cannot be required to take a vaccine that is under an emergency use authorization,” Lee said. “They can be when it has full approval, so that’s where the hitch is.”

Starting May 15, Virginia will significantly relax capacity restrictions on social gatherings and entertainment venues as COVID-19 numbers plateau across much of the state.

Gov. Ralph Northam announced the latest rollback in a video message on Thursday, citing the state’s continued progress in vaccinations. Data from the Virginia Department of Health indicates that more than 40 percent of the population has received at least one shot and more than 26 percent are fully vaccinated. Every Virginian 16 and older became eligible for the vaccine on Sunday.

“Vaccination numbers are up, and our COVID case numbers are substantially lower than they were earlier this year,” Northam said in a statement. “So, we have been able to begin easing some mitigation measures.”

Over the last month, state and federal officials have directed thousands of COVID-19 vaccines to large-scale clinics in vulnerable communities with high rates of coronavirus cases — all in areas with significant or majority Black and Latino populations.

The sites have been touted by leaders as a core strategy in expanding access to vaccines among communities of color, where immunization rates are consistently lower than they are for White Virginians. “We have done a very good job in the commonwealth in addressing this issue,” state Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said at a news briefing last month in response to questions over vaccine equity.

“We have brought on staff in our emergency support team that is doing outreach in these communities,” he added. “We’ve put boots on the ground in all 35 of our health districts and those teams are doing your basic sort of community organizing — door to door, working with faith leaders, community-based organizations to bring people from these vulnerable populations to our vaccination sites.”

Virginia doctors worry that pandemic burnout could push providers out of the field
Virginia Mercury, Kate Masters -April 9, 2021 (Short)

National data is shedding new light on how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting medical providers and their mental health as they balance the emotional and physical demands of a sometimes deadly virus. For frontline hospital workers, it’s often the visceral jolt — and exhausting work — of caring for critically ill patients. But primary care physicians are also reporting fears of infection and ongoing stress that comes from a radical shift in how their businesses operate.

In Virginia, there’s growing concern that burnout and extreme stress could lead more providers to leave the field or grapple with long-term mental health problems. On an individual level, it’s bad for doctors and their patients. But on a systemic level, there’s also worry that COVID-19 could make an existing physician shortage worse.

“One of the things we always talk about is physicians, nurses, support staff — they’re taking care of patients every day,” said Taylor Woody, the communications manager for the Medical Society of Virginia. “But who’s focusing on taking care of them?”

Virginia to pilot COVID-19 testing program in public schools
Virginia Mercury, Kate Masters -April 5, 2021 (Medium)

Virginia is one of a growing number of states exploring testing as a way to combat COVID-19 in K-12 schools.

Dr. Laurie Forlano, a deputy commissioner for the Virginia Department of Health, said the agency is launching a pilot program to provide rapid antigen tests to schools across the state. VDH is rolling out the program with Abbott BinaxNOW tests — portable kits, roughly the size of a credit card, that provide results in around 15 minutes.

“We agree that testing can be a layer of prevention,” said Forlano, who oversees population health for the department. The concept of screening students and staff isn’t a new one, and some colleges and private K-12 schools have been testing since the fall. But it’s taken on a new importance since Virginia — like many states across the country — began encouraging local school divisions to reopen for in-person instruction.

As of March 22, only three of Virginia’s 132 school districts were operating fully remotely. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have also issued interim guidance for K-12 testing, which is largely mirrored by VDH in its own reopening guidelines for schools.

Virginia to expand vaccine eligibility to everyone 16 and older by mid-April
Virginia Mercury, Kate Masters -April 1, 2021 (Short)

Gov. Ralph Northam announced Thursday that the state will expand vaccine eligibility to all Virginians 16 and older by April 18.

The news puts Virginia nearly two weeks ahead of the May 1 deadline set by President Joe Biden earlier this month. In a news release, the administration said that nearly every high-risk Virginian who pre-registered for a vaccine has already received a shot, allowing the state to expand eligibility sooner than expected. Those still on the state’s pre-registration list will receive an appointment invitation within the next two weeks.

“Expanding vaccine eligibility to all adults marks an important milestone in our ongoing efforts to put this pandemic behind us,” Northam said in a statement. “I thank all of the public health staff, health care workers, vaccinators, and volunteers who have helped make this possible.”

In late September, when Virginia health officials launched a dashboard that detailed outbreaks in K-12 schools across the state, it was applauded as a long-needed step toward more transparency — and a relief for parents hesitant over the prospect of sending their children back to the classroom.

Six months later, the data on reopening has gained even more importance amid a state and nationwide push to return students to the classroom. But there are limits on what it can and can’t tell officials, parents and others looking for answers on the relative risks of in-person school.

In early February, Gov. Ralph Northam directed local divisions to begin offering in-person instruction by March 15. Three weeks later, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation — with bipartisan support — that mandates a return to the classroom by July 1.

As a result, only three of the state’s 132 local school divisions were operating fully remotely as of March 22, according to data from the Virginia Department of Education. Thirty-eight are fully in-person — defined by the agency as providing at least four days of in-person instruction for all students.

Pandemic deaths fail to shake loose a legislative solution on nursing home staffing
Virginia Mercury, Kate Masters -March 25, 2021 (Short)

Sam Kukich was initially excited to join a workgroup she thought would focus on improving staffing levels at Virginia nursing homes.

The director of Dignity for the Aged, a Poquoson-based nonprofit, Kukich had become an almost inadvertent advocate for reforming standards of care in the nursing home industry. She and her family had already made headlines across the state when they detailed a nearly five-year-long struggle to find care for her mother-in-law, who lost 65 pounds and suffered dozens of falls at multiple facilities in the Hampton Roads region.

When she started Dignity for the Aged in 2018, largely out of frustration, Kukich started hearing from “all sorts of people” about cases of abuse and neglect in Virginia nursing homes. Many of the cases, she said, were linked to understaffing — certified nursing assistants and other health care workers who were simply too overworked and overwhelmed to properly care for residents.

So Kukich was disappointed last year, when a Virginia Senate subcommittee rejected a bill from Sen. Jennifer Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach, that would set minimum staffing ratios for the industry. It was the 16th straight year similar legislation had died, but this time, legislators ordered the state Department of Health to organize a work group to “review and make recommendations” on increasing the nursing home workforce in Virginia.

With COVID-19 cases down after a winter surge, and with nearly a quarter of the population having received at least one dose of vaccine, Gov. Ralph Northam is again rolling back some of Virginia’s pandemic restrictions — cautiously.

At a Tuesday news briefing, the governor announced the expansion of the attendance cap on indoor social gatherings from 10 to 50 people. Outdoor gatherings, currently limited to 25 attendees, will be allowed up to 100.

Alena Yarmosky, the governor’s spokeswoman, said the new guidelines will offer slightly more flexibility to events-oriented businesses — including Virginia’s wedding industry, which has lobbed some of the harshest criticism at Northam’s health and safety guidelines (at least two venue owners have sued over the restrictions).

But the governor is still taking a moderate approach to reopening compared to some neighboring states, including Maryland, where Gov. Larry Hogan lifted all capacity restrictions for the vast majority of businesses earlier this month. Northam’s executive order requiring mask wearing in indoor public areas remains in effect.

More essential workers and Virginians with underlying medical conditions can now access COVID-19 vaccines through major pharmacies across the state, the Virginia Department of Health announced Wednesday.

There are currently eight large chains that offer vaccines through a partnership with the federal government, including CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, Kroger and Albertson’s, which owns Safeway grocery stores.

Some independent pharmacies are also included in the partnership, which provides doses to more than 300 locations across Virginia, according to Stephanie Wheawill, director of VDH’s Division of Pharmacy Services.

While the doses supplied to pharmacies are separate from Virginia’s overall allotment, Wheawill said locations are asked to follow the state’s distribution guidelines. Until this week, state health officials instructed pharmacies to limit doses to residents 65 and older, as well as certain essential worker categories.

Vaccine passports’ that show you’re inoculated are on the way
Virginia Mercury, Laura OlsonMarch 17, 2021 (Short)

More than 70 million Americans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine — and along with that shot, a small paper card with the CDC’s label detailing the timing and manufacturer of the dose.

Those paper cards at the moment are the only proof readily available to Americans of their vaccination against a virus that has upended businesses, schools and most other aspects of daily life.

That could soon change, with multiple companies and nonprofit groups working to create “vaccine passports” — smartphone-based apps that would allow someone to certify that they’ve been vaccinated. The apps so far are aimed at travelers, who may be required to show proof of their vaccination status before boarding a plane or entering another country.

In early January, Gov. Ralph Northam warned that the worst of Virginia’s winter surge may not have happened yet.

“The virus is worse now than it’s ever been,” he said at a news briefing. At the time, the state had reached an all-time high in daily new cases and hospitalizations — a trend that threatened to overwhelm some hospital systems. Many local health departments were forced to suspend contact tracing programs amid the spike, warning residents that winter travel and holiday gatherings had made it impossible to keep up with cases.

“Case numbers are about four times higher than they were last spring, and we can expect them to go higher,” Northam continued. “In fact, the [University of Virginia] model shows cases could keep rising until Valentine’s Day or even later.”

The COVID-19 crisis and senior living: an insider’s perspective
Virginia Mercury, Morris S. Funk, guest columnMarch 17, 2021 (Short)

The pandemic has made this past year unlike any other at Beth Sholom, a senior living center in Henrico.

In late February, it seemed we were facing a typical long-term care viral threat, but I could not shake the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that this was going to be much bigger. In the early, there was so little information available, making it difficult to anticipate and prepare for the reality of what was coming. We were one of the first senior living communities in our area to lock down, and like so many others in our industry, we faced extraordinary daily challenges and heartbreaking losses.

Here is our story.

Our frontline staff put themselves and their families at risk every day simply by coming to work. Once the March lockdown was in place, many of our staff found it difficult to meet the challenges of working and managing their families. When schools closed, they scrambled to find ways to address the needs of their children while continuing to work. Daily, our employees faced the fear of bringing the virus — which was not understood — home to their family.

Participation in Virginia’s Immunization Information System is critical for keeping Virginia healthy
Virginia Mercury, Dr. Michael Martin, commentaryMarch 12, 2021 (Short)

As Virginia continues to combat the public health challenges of COVID-19, the distribution of vaccines in the commonwealth provides a long-needed glimmer of hope.

The complex COVID-19 vaccine distribution process underscores the importance of accurate immunization histories and records. While Virginia had the foresight years ago to invest in an immunization registry for individuals, families, medical providers and public health researchers, recent action by the General Assembly has strengthened the statewide database of vaccine history and distribution. To keep our communities healthy even after the pandemic, all health care providers that administer vaccines, starting in January 2022, will participate in the Virginia Immunization Information System.

VIIS is a free, statewide, digital immunization registry that records reported vaccination doses distributed by health care providers to individuals, thus increasing the ability to appropriately react to vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks. Vaccine registry systems like VIIS are incredibly helpful for improving the public health response to outbreaks of diseases like measles, Hepatitis A, H1N1, and now COVID-19. By sharing the data with the state, appropriate resources can be deployed to counteract outbreaks and help increase community immunization rates. Currently, the Virginia Department of Health reports that 2.1 million children are under-immunized.

For public health experts across Virginia, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was a more-than-welcome addition to the state’s weekly allocation.

The one-dose shot boosted Virginia’s shipments by 69,000 this week, spurring a slew of new mass vaccination events. It doesn’t have the same cold storage requirements, making it easier to ship and redistribute. And at the national level, it’s prompting a new wave of optimism, with President Joe Biden promising a vaccine “for every adult in America by the end of May.”

But state health officials also worry the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has an image problem. When trial data was released, many reports honed in on the numbers: 72 percent effective against COVID-19 infections in the United States, 66 percent effective in South America and 57 percent effective in South Africa. Pfizer’s, by contrast, showed 95 percent effectiveness at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 after two doses. Moderna’s showed 94.1 percent.

Biden urges states to speed up COVID-19 vaccinations for teachers
Virginia Mercury, Laura OlsonMarch 3, 2021 (Short)

President Joe Biden is urging states to prioritize teachers for COVID-19 vaccines, setting a goal of ensuring that every pre-kindergarten through 12th grade educator, school staff member and childcare worker is able to receive at least one shot this month.

At least 34 states and the District of Columbia have some or all teachers eligible to receive the coronavirus vaccine, according to tracking data from Education Week.

That tally has been growing in recent weeks, as many students across the country approach the one-year mark for switching to virtual classes due to the pandemic.

Biden’s latest directive to states is the latest step in his administration’s effort to aid schools in safely reopening their buildings to in-person classes. In a televised statement from the White House on Tuesday, Biden described teachers as “essential workers,” and said that accelerating vaccinations can help assuage anxieties about school reopenings.

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.

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 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
October 28, 2020 (59:00)
Virginia health officials issue COVID-19 warning over small gatherings
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
October 13, 2020 (54:00)
Virginia COVID-19 Briefing
September 15, 2020 (40:00)
Virginia COVID-19 Briefing
August 5, 2020 (01:00:00)
Virginia COVID-19 Briefing
July 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.

US House District 2 – VA 2020

In 2018, Chrissy Houlahan (PA-06), Elaine Luria (VA-02), Mikie Sherrill (NJ-11), Elissa Slotkin (MI-08), and Abigail Spanberger (VA-07) flipped Republican-held districts running on their national security records and moderate bona fides. Now, all five of them have been reelected to Congress.

Luria, Slotkin, and Spanberger were in seats Cook Political Report rated as “toss-ups” two years ago, but this year their districts were uniformly rated “Lean Democratic.” In 2018, Houlahan and Sherrill were in seats rated Likely and Lean Democratic, respectively but this year didn’t face competitive challenges — Cook Political Report didn’t even include them in its list of competitive races.

But as returns came in, it became clear that district-level polls may not have accurately captured voter sentiment. As David Wasserman wrote last week: “The suburban anti-Trump revolt that took 2018 by storm didn’t extend to 2020. Most Republican incumbents in white-collar suburbs didn’t just survive, they thrived — running well ahead of President Trump down-ballot.”

Democrat Elaine Luria holds on to US House seat in Virginia
NBC12, Associated Press November 4, 2020 (Short)

Freshman Democratic U.S. Rep. Elaine Luria has held on to her seat in a Virginia congressional district that includes suburban and rural areas and the world’s largest naval base.

The former U.S. Navy commander defeated Republican Scott Taylor in Tuesday’s election. Taylor is a former Navy SEAL who represented the district for one term before Luria defeated him in 2018.

The race was competitive: The district was drawn by Republicans and supported President Donald Trump in 2016.

The final push is on to get out the vote in the 2nd Congressional District race in Virginia, and it played out for Democrats at the Ocean View Beach Park Monday.

U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Virginia), U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, and U.S. Rep. Elaine Luria joined about 35 of the Democratic faithful in Norfolk.

In the COVID-19 campaign mode, all three posed for pictures elbow to elbow, and the unified message for them the current occupant of the White House needs to be replaced.

“It’s like this psychic heaviness on all of our shoulders. Think how good we are going to feel Wednesday morning when finally, the country can breathe again,” Warner said to an “Amen” from the crowd and lots of clapping.

With less than two weeks to go before Election Day, both major Democratic nominees on the ticket in Virginia’s Second Congressional District, Congresswoman Elaine Luria and presidential candidate Joe Biden, are up in the polls among registered voters.

A poll by the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University released Wednesday shows Luria, the incumbent, is up 50%-43% against former Rep. Scott Taylor (R), who Luria defeated in 2018. The candidates squared off Tuesday night in the first of two debates this week. The Hampton Roads Chamber is hosting a 2nd District Congressional Debate on October 22.

Scott Taylor vs. Elaine Luria Debate, 10/30/18
13News NowOctober 30, 2018 (51:54)
Rep. Elaine Luria presses top Navy officials
13News NowOctober 23, 2019 (15:45)

A bitter election in Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District over a crucial House seat is boiling down to which of two Navy veterans better represents a historically Republican region that now finds itself increasingly drawn toward Democrats.

The contest, as muddy as its Tidewater setting, pits incumbent Democrat Elaine Luria against a familiar rival: GOP challenger and former Rep. Scott Taylor.

Things get personal between Taylor, Luria in 2nd Congressional District debate
13 News Now, Mike GoodingOctober 22, 2020 (Short)

It took less than ten minutes before things got a little testy between Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va., 2nd District) and Republican challenger, former congressman Scott Taylor.

Taylor launched the first salvo, criticizing the fact that Luria, as part of her personal portfolio, has an undisclosed amount of money invested in a Chinese firm.

“I don’t even understand how, especially right now, how a U.S. congresswoman would invest in Chinese manufacturing,” he said. “Because, when it comes time to place your own personal bet on manufacturing, you bet on China.”

Luria responded: “I don’t think we came here to talk about personal finances. But, if you want to talk about personal finances, if you want to talk about your bankruptcy, about your millions of dollars on judgements, about your failure to pay your property taxes on time, we can do that.”

Adapted from the Washington Post:

The GOP primary to decide who will challenge Rep. Elaine Luria (D) in the military heavy 2nd District was won by Scott Taylor. Taylor, a former congressman, who lost the Virginia Beach seat to Luria in the 2018 blue wave, defeated two Republican opponents, paving the way for a rematch in November.

An uptick in anti-Trump sentiment, and a scandal over fraudulent signatures that his campaign collected to help a potential spoiler candidate get on the ballot, sunk Taylor’s campaign against Luria two years ago, analysts say.

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report considers the general election a toss-up.

US House District 5 – VA 2020

Bob Good speech in Lynchburg
Youtube November 4, 2020 (25:13)

Republican Bob Good has won the race for Virginia’s Fifth Congressional District, a race considered one of the more competitive in the country.

Good, a former Campbell County supervisor and Liberty University senior associate athletic director, defeated Democrat Cameron Webb.

In a statement, Webb conceded the race saying that the margin is “sufficiently large that the remaining outstanding ballots are unable to make up the difference.”

“While this is not the outcome we hoped for, it has truly been an honor to run to represent this district in Congress. This campaign has been a battle of ideas about how to best serve the people of our district and I cannot give enough thanks to everyone who made it possible,” Webb said.

“Congratulations to Mr. Good for his victory and I look forward to continuing to engage with him as we move forward from the election in a unified way.”

At the headquarters of the Fauquier County Republican Committee in Warrenton, Virginia, a cardboard cutout of John Wayne gripping a rifle leans against a wall. Chair Gregory Schumacher says Wayne was “the great American Western hero,” and he says Republicans who held the Fifth District in Congress for all but two of the last 20 years will keep it in their hands this November.

Although the populous counties of Northern Virginia have powered the state’s drift into Democratic control, Schumacher says he sits on the political boundary. “When you come out from the Beltway, Fauquier County’s the first one that goes red,” Schumacher said.

But there are signs that this year could be different as Republican contender Bob Good faces Democratic challenger Cameron Webb in what political prediction site FiveThirtyEight calls the most competitive House race in the country. Webb has outraised Good fourfold and held a slight lead in the last three polls. Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia and The Cook Political Report call the congressional race a toss-up. If Democrats can win this seat, they will continue a blue wave that flipped three House seats in 2018.

Medical Doctor Running For Congress In Virginia
MSNBCOctober 20, 2020 (06:00)
Internal poll shows tight race in Virginia House race
The Hill , Tal AxelrodOctober 9, 2020 (Short)

Virginia Democrat Cameron Webb has a narrow lead over Republican Bob Good in the state’s 5th Congressional District, according to an internal poll released Friday by Webb’s campaign.

In the poll, which was obtained exclusively by The Hill, 45 percent of likely voters said they would back Webb while 42 percent said they would vote for Good. The survey marks an improvement for Webb after the same poll in August showed him behind by 2 points.

The results are split along partisan lines, but Webb has been able to win over 11 percent of Republican likely voters, while Good gets the support of 5 percent of likely Democratic voters. Webb has a 42 percent to 19 percent lead among independents, though another 39 percent are undecided.

Cameron Webb Bob Good Closing Statements
Youtube September 9, 2020 (08:43)
VA 5th District candidates square off in virtual debate
WDBJ 7, Pete DeLucaSeptember 9, 2020 (Short)

Election day is less than two months away and the race for Virginia’s 5th Congressional district is heating up.

Wednesday, Republican candidate Bob Good and Democratic candidate Cameron Webb squared off in a virtual debate hosted by the Senior Statemen of Virginia.

The candidates shared their views on law enforcement, energy use and the environment, as well as healthcare.

“I want to stay with market-driven solutions, improvements that are patient-centric, that will drive down cost and improve choice and quality for all Americans,” said Good.

 

A practicing physician, Cameron Webb returned to Charlottesville where he treats patients as a general internist, teaches students and serves as the Director of Health Policy and Equity at UVA’s School of Medicine.  Cameron is running for Congress to serve his community at this critical time. In Washington, he will be a fierce advocate to ensure opportunities for health and success for all Virginians.

Bob Good is running for Congress to bring the conservative principles of financial stewardship and respect for hard working taxpayers back to Washington. President Trump’s policies have delivered a growing, vibrant economy and we must ensure that our representatives back his agenda.

 

My VA Ballot

Election Day is Tuesday November 3, 2020

Select the image at left to learn who you can vote for and print our your sample ballot.

This November there are no elections for state offices and only a few local offices. Tuesday November 2, 2021 is election day for Virginia Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, 40 state senators, 100 state delegates and city and county candidates

For more information on registering, voting, and the redistricting amendment, go to the Voting in Virginia post.

 

Only available for onAir members. It’s free to join. Go here to become a member.

US House District 11 – VA 2020

Congressman Gerry Connolly is a senior member of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform and serves as the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Government Operations. In this role, he is responsible for shaping government-wide policy for a broad range of issues, including federal workforce and federal agency oversight, federal procurement and information policy, national drug policy, regulatory reform, the United States Postal Service, the United States Census Bureau, and the District of Columbia. He also serves on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Using his extensive background in foreign policy, including as a senior staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he has become a leading voice on foreign assistance reform, war powers, embassy security, and democracy promotion abroad.

Manga Anantatmula is a candidate for US Congress: VA District 11. Manga loves God, Family, & USA.
Accomplished professional. Wife of a professor. Proud military mom of USN LCDR.

 

 

Virginia onAir – Learn. Discuss. Engage.

Virginia onAir is one of 50 state governance and elections hubs that the US onAir Network is providing to reinvigorate our imperiled democracy. Virginia onAir is also US onAir’s model, curated state Hub.

This va.onair.cc hub supports its citizens to become more informed about and engaged in federal and state politics while facilitating more civil and positive discussions with their representatives, candidates, and fellow Marylanders.

Virginia is located in the Southern region of the USA with Richmond as its capital. Ralph Northam (D) is Governor and  Mark Warner (D) and Tim Kaine (D) are its US senators.  Virginia’s 11 US House members are shown in the US House Members “Top Posts” slider. The Virginia General Assembly has 40 Senate members and 100 House of Delegate members.

To view this and other posts with a table of contents, select the feature image or the post title above. To view this post in “Quick View” mode, select the three dots in the post’s title.  Select this link to view all US House members in a map format (only in big screens).

Our two minute vision video about the US onAir network is below:

 

David Bulova

General Laws Committee - Host, Delegate David Bulova
May 12, 2021 – 6:00 pm to 6:55 pm (ET)

https://youtu.be/o3CGtGh4k-0

This aircast was focused on the recent activities of House General Laws committee. A recording of this livestream is also archived in the Virginia onAir YouTube channel. The links below will open the YouTube video as a new tab and start at the designated time.

00:00 Jordan Toledo, Aircast Curator, introduces aircast

0:39 Jordan Toledo introduces Delegate David Bulova, Chair of the Virginia House of Delegates General Laws Committee

1:35 David Bulova explains what the General Laws Committee does

7:23 Delegate Betsy Carr, Chair of the Open Government/Procurement Subcommittee, discusses her committee’s activities

11:25 Delegate Chris Hurst, Chair of the Professions/Occupations and Administrative Process Subcommittee discusses his committee’s activitie

19:10 What happens when General Assembly is not in session

24:51 Megan Rhyne, Executive Director, Virginia Council for Open Government … Question for all 3 delegates …What can be done to cut down on the number of bills that are left in committee without receiving a hearing?

31:45 Nanayaa Obeng, Senior Global Politics major at GMU and Democracy onAir intern … Question for David Bulova … How have the universities addressed HB 1529 promoting greater transparency for donations?

35:15 Todd Gillette, Democracy onAir Chair with a PhD from GMU … Question for Betsy Carr and Chris Hurst …. What are your views on the Freedom of Information Act bills passed this year, HB 1931, expanding the use of virtual meetings, and HB 2004, expanding the required release of certain information related to criminal investigations? Also, are there related issues you would like to address in 2022?

45:07 Dr. Meredith Cary, Virginia resident and one of Delegate Bulova’s constituents … A “thank you” addressed to all delegates … As a licensed psychologist in Virginia, I would like to voice appreciation for the State’s being at the forefront for taking legislation action (April 2020) to extend telepsychology services to non-Virginia licensed psychologists for telehealth.

47:00 Closing

50:40 Short demo of how to find information about the General Laws Committee and the Delegates

For more information:General Laws Committee Post

Curator:

Host:

Featured Guest(s):

  • Delegate Betsy Carr, Chair, Open Government/Procurement Subcommittee

  • Delegate Chris Hurst, Chair, Professions/Occupations and Administrative Process Subcommittee

Producer:

Lead Sponsor: US onAir Network

Delegate David Bulova explains what the General Laws committee does
Virginia onAir YouTube ChannelMay 12, 2021 (05:42)
i
Delegate David Bulova’s 2021 Wrap-up
Bulova newsletter, David BulovaFebruary 27, 2021

Yes, Virginia, we have a budget!

This year I was thrilled to be appointed again by the Speaker as a conferee to work out differences between the House and Senate budgets. This evening, we adopted the final report. I believe it is a budget Virginians can be proud of.

While individual bills often get the most attention, the budget is arguably the most important reflection of our values. This year’s budget process has been a roller coaster ride. After adopting an initial budget in March 2020, we had to cut $2.8 billion as a result of a COVID-driven revenue shortfall. Going into session, we anticipated a revenue rebound of $1.2 billion. Finally, a mid-session re-forecast provided an additional $730 million. That rebound was great news – but it still means we have about a billion dollars less in revenue from just a year ago.

Here are just a few of the budget highlights:

  • Income Tax Relief – $221M revenue reduction in order to fund income tax relief to individuals and businesses related to conformity with the federal CARES Act.
  • State Employee Pay Raises – 5% pay raise for state employees beginning July 1, 2021.
  • Virginia Retirement System – $100M deposit to the VRS to reduce unfunded liabilities. This is a key investment that will help to stabilize the system for the long-term.
  • PreK-12 Education – $443M to hold public school funding steady from the original 2020 appropriation; $40M for schools to address COVID-related learning loss; and, $76M to support increases in school counselors, social workers, psychologists, and behavioral analysts.
  • Teacher Pay Raises – State share of 5% pay raises for teachers. The Governor originally proposed a 2% bonus.
  • Preschool – $11.1M for increased investment in the Virginia Preschool Initiative.
  • Northern Virginia Cost-to-Compete – $14.6M more in supplemental funding to Northern Virginia in recognition of the higher cost of living for our region.
  • Higher Education – $149M to our institutions of higher learning to maintain affordable access through tuition stabilization and need-based financial assistance.
  • Human Resources – $173M in new spending for human resources, with a focus on long-term care, maternal and child health, and behavioral and developmental services. This includes $14.2M to add 435 Developmental Disability waiver slots in FY22, bringing the total for FY22 to 985 slots.
  • Vaccinations – $89M for mass vaccination efforts to maximize new federal dollars.
  • Water Quality – An additional $155M to meet our Chesapeake Bay restoration targets, including investments in wastewater treatment, stormwater management, and agricultural best management practices.
  • Broadband – Additional funding of $99M for broadband deployment in unserved areas.
  • Virginia Employment Commission – $10M to increase customer service levels and $5M to finish modernizing VEC’s IT systems to enable more efficient service delivery.
  • Voter Registration – $16.7M to replace and strengthen the state’s voter registration system.
  • Transportation – $83.5M to improve commuter rail service on the VRE Manassas Line and $32.4M to support and stabilize Metro.
  • Reserves – An additional $250M to the Revenue Reserve Fund. This brings combined balances in reserves to $2.16 billion, or about 9% of general fund revenues.

That last bullet deserves additional comment. Something we are proud of in Virginia is that we have maintained a AAA bond rating since 1938 – longer than any other state. This saves Virginia considerable amounts of money and reflects a commitment to keeping our budget structurally sound. While states are currently the beneficiaries of large amounts of federal assistance, it would be irresponsible to think that this will continue in perpetuity. Building up our reserves will ensure that Virginia can successfully transition once federal COVID-19 funding goes away.

Like most members, I introduced my own budget amendments and was pleased to see many of them incorporated into the final budget. These included funding for Northern Virginia Family Services, Brain Injury Services, Chesapeake Bay restoration, the Virginia International Trade Plan, Virginia Tech Cooperative Extension, and our regional planning district commissions.

You can find a more detailed overview of the budget here and a list of my amendments here.

In-Person Learning

Few issues have garnered more constituent communication than SB1303, which deals with bringing our children back into the classroom. This is a personal issue for my family as well, as our 12 year old attempts to navigate his first year of middle school. While he is continuing to learn, and his teachers have done an amazing job, the learning loss is definitely real.

When SB1303 came over from the Senate, it simply mandated in-person learning. What came out of the House, and was eventually passed by the Senate, takes us to full in-person learning, but has guardrails to ensure safety. This includes incorporating CDC and VDH guidelines to the maximum extent practical and the ability of a school board to move specific schools back to virtual learning based on transmission metrics. Importantly, the bill allows parents to choose a virtual approach for their students based on family situations. All teachers must be offered the vaccine prior to in-person learning (which is occurring now under Phase 1b) and the bill maintains the current process for teachers to work virtually through a reasonable ADA accommodation.

The bill passed with a strong bi-partisan vote of 88Y-9N in the House and 36Y-3N in the Senate. I voted aye.

Standards of Learning

The dreaded SOL tests! It is a topic of much consternation when I speak with parents, students, and teachers alike. The Code of Virginia simply establishes that there will be SOL assessments, the purpose of which is to ensure that educational progress can be compared across Virginia. That is a laudable goal. Unfortunately, many of these tests have turned into high-stakes end-of-the-year tests that can promote rote memorization over critical thinking and applying what has been learned to the real world.

This year we passed changes to the SOL assessments that I am genuinely excited about. HB2027 replaces end-of-the-year tests with a through-assessment model where students take a series of three lower stakes tests throughout the year. That way teachers have a better sense of where a student is starting out, can make mid-year adjustments, and then see how the student has progressed at the end of the year. While the bill applies only to SOL tests from grades three through eight, if it is successful, it could be applied to all levels.

The more streamlined permit by rule process has incentivized most of these developers to keep their solar farms under 150 megawatts, leaving only the largest proposals in the SCC’s hands. Ken Schrad, director of the SCC’s Division of Information Resources, said the commission has only heard three applications for solar projects, with the most significant being sPower’s 500 megawatt Spotsylvania farm, touted at the time of its proposal as the biggest one east of the Rocky Mountains.

Webert has contended that more ought to be placed in the commission’s hands: “With the SCC, it’s basically a formal legal proceeding where there’s a cross-examination because the SCC commissioners are actually judges,” he said during one hearing on his proposal. “So you can push for additional mitigation and other things.”

But at a later hearing on Jan. 27, Del. David Bulova, D-Fairfax, questioned whether a tightening of the permit by rule program’s size limits would solve the problem, saying “this is not the way to go ahead and deal with that concern.”

Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington, is carrying a bill of his own to set up an empty fund to support school construction needs. He just needs his colleagues working on the budget to put money into it.

After the recession, spending on school construction and other areas in Virginia dropped. Before 2009, a few sources of state funding were available to help with capital costs. For example, a school construction grant fund boasted an annual budget of $28 million, offering districts an average of $202,000 a year.

Localities shoulder the burden of building schools. The poorest local governments already have the least amount in their budgets to go toward school infrastructure needs, so the schools get worse.

Del. David Bulova, D-Fairfax, voted against O’Quinn’s bill in committee, questioning where the money would come from and whether the legislature could come up with enough to meaningfully tackle the problem.

“We’re potentially shifting what has long been a local responsibility to the state having a share of that,” Bulova said.

In support of the bill, Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Woodbridge, responded to Davis’s stance and said: “Some statements were made here that if we diversify the admission process that it’s going to lower the bar of those schools. I don’t think that’s accurate, and it actually sounded very offensive.”

Del. David Bulova, D-Fairfax Station, also supported HB 2305. He explained how the bill would require guidelines, not regulations. Guidelines would give the Board of Education a chance to put together the best practices for diversity and inclusion, as opposed to state-mandated regulations, which are harder for opposers to support.

Voting for the bill were Bulova, Guzman, Del. Suhas Subramanyam, D-Sterling; Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico; and Del. Shelly Simonds, D-Newport News. Opposed were Davis, Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, and Del. Bill Wiley, R-Winchester.

 

Agency 229 provides funding to Virginia Cooperative Extension and the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station. Through these entities, the agency supports scientists and other specialists who conduct innovative agricultural research at the VAES and its 11 Agricultural Research Extension Centers. Data collected from that research is disseminated to Extension agents, who then share the information with farmers and agricultural businesses.

Throughout the 2021 Virginia General Assembly, Virginia Farm Bureau Federation has advocated for increased Agency 229 funding through a state budget amendment.

The proposal has gained bipartisan support from Del. David L. Bulova, D-Fairfax, and Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr., R-Mount Solon.

Early Voting For Democratic Primary Starts Next Week In Fairfax
Patch, Michael O'ConnellApril 14, 2021 (Medium)

The deadline in Fairfax County for requesting an application to vote by mail is 5 p.m., on Friday, May 28. Applications received after April 23 and before the deadline will be sent out as they are received.

Voters will need to return their mail-in ballots by 7 p.m., on June 8. They can either drop them off in person or by mail by the June 8 deadline.

All in-person voters and those dropping off ballots are required to follow CDC COVID-19 guidance by wearing a mask or face covering and practicing safe social distancing.

Incumbent David Bulova (D-37), who represents the Fairfax City area in the Virginia House of Delegates, does not have a challenger in the Democratic Primary, so he will not be on the June 8 ballot.

Current Position: State Delegate for District 37 since 2006
Affiliation: Democrat

David Bulova was first elected Delegate for the 37th District in 2005. The 37th District includes the city of Fairfax and parts of Fairfax County.

Delegate Bulova serves as Chair of the General Laws Committee and Chair of the Commerce, Agriculture, and Natural Resources Subcommittee in the Appropriations Committee. Additionally, he serves as a member of the Education Committee, Agriculture Chesapeake and Natural Resources and Appropriations Committee.

The interview below was conducted by Tim O’Shea in David Bulova’s Fairfax City office in July, 2019. Original interview recording has not been edited in any way.

Chap Petersen

School reopening

Three Virginia lawmakers say schools hoping to receive state dollars next year should be required to open for in-person learning in the fall.

At the Science Museum of Virginia on Wednesday, state Sens. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond; Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico; and Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, announced their intention to introduce a budget amendment this week to make state school funding contingent on a plan to welcome students back to classrooms, regardless of COVID-19 spread.

As of last month, 52 out of 132 school divisions were operating on a fully remote basis, according to the state education department; many have remained virtual since Gov. Ralph Northam last March ordered buildings shuttered to mitigate the spread of the potentially lethal virus.

Virginia lawmakers consider legislation to speed vaccinations
Joe DashiellJanuary 21, 2021 (Short)

The measure would streamline the requirements for health professionals who want to volunteer, and help identify more locations where the state could establish mass vaccination sites. It provides civil and criminal immunity to individuals and organizations acting within the provisions of the bill.

“I have people from the medical community that want to help,” Dunnavant told members of the committee. “This is what they do. Our dentists, our doctors, our nurses, our nurse anesthetists, our NPs, this is what they do. They help people and they want to help us get this job done.”The legislation has bipartisan support.

“Getting people vaccinated in the most efficient way possible is in our joint interest,” said Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax). “I hope every senator will read this legislation and if they see fit, will put their name on it and take credit for it.”

Lawmakers are considering a bill aimed at making sure guns are not available to people who shouldn’t have them. Delegate Elizabeth Guzman is a Democrat from Prince William County who introduced a bill to create new penalties for gun owners who don’t secure their firearms from people who live with them and aren’t allowed to have a gun.

“If we’re going to make the decision to live with someone, for the safety of our families, we will ensure that there is a criminal background check if it’s going to be a stranger,” Guzman explained.

“Anyone you live with? They should do a criminal background check,” asked Petersen. That question was from Senator Chap Petersen, a Democrat from Fairfax City who’s critical of the idea that people can be held liable for guns that are in the possession of someone they live with.

Current Position: State Senator for District 34 since 2008
Affiliation: Democrat

Chap Petersen was first elected Senator for the 34th District in 2008. The 34th District includes the city of Fairfax and parts of Fairfax County.

Senator Petersen is Chair of the Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee  and is a member of the Education and Health, Finance and Appropriations, Judiciary, and Rules committees. Senator Petersen was a member of the Virginia House of Delegates from 2002 to 2006.

Finance CommitteeVirginia News
General Laws Committee - Host, Delegate David Bulova
May 20, 2021 – 6:00 pm (ET)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VlJRa1hht9g

Aircast on the recent activities of the General Laws committee during this winter’s General Assembly.

These aircasts will be focused on the recent activities of House and Senate committees  during the 2021 General Assembly. Committee chairs will host these aircasts with members of their committees and their invited audience.

Aircasts are Zoom meetings with a host, featured guests, and an online audience livestreamed to the public and archived as YouTube videos.

A recording of the livestreams will be archived in the Virginia onAir Hub and in our Virginia onAir YouTube channel.

For more information:General Laws Committee Post

Curator:

  • Jordan Toledo

Host:

  • Committee Chair, Delegate David Bulova

Featured Guest(s):

  • Delegate Betsy Carr, Chair, Open Government/Procurement Subcommittee

  • Delegate Chris Hurst, Chair, Professions/Occupations and Administrative Process Subcommittee

Producer:

  • Shuaib Ahmed, Democracy onAir – shuaib.ahmed@onair.cc

Archived Locations: YouTube Channel, General Laws Committee post, David Bulova post, Chris Hurst post

If the last public poll was any indicator, Virginia Democrats still have lots of homework to do before making their picks in the primary for lieutenant governor.

A Christopher Newport University poll conducted in mid-April found 64 percent of likely primary voters undecided in the race, with Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, the apparent leader with 12 percent support.

“We’re glad to see the way things are trending,” Rasoul said in an interview, attributing his leading status to a “values-based campaign” focused on in-person trips to cities and counties throughout Virginia, including areas where voters “feel forgotten.”

The numbers suggest there’s still lots of room for movement in an open field that once stood at eight candidates but has shrunk to six heading into the final month before the June 8 primary.

As lawmakers prepare to study the prospects for campaign finance reform in Virginia, the sheer size of some checks flowing to Democratic candidates for statewide office has renewed debate about the boosts offered by a wealthy Charlottesville couple topping charts as the biggest donors in state politics.

Though they backed opposing candidates in the 2017 Democratic primary for governor, donations connected to Michael Bills, a hedge fund manager and primary backer of the advocacy group Clean Virginia, and Sonjia Smith, a philanthropist and former lawyer married to Bills, are working in tandem this year in a big way.

Smith and Clean Virginia have given a combined $1.1 million, $600,000 from Clean Virginia and $500,000 from Smith, to former delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy, whom they believe has the best shot at challenging former Gov. Terry McAuliffe in a five-person Democratic primary field. That’s almost a third of the roughly $3.6 million in cash contributions Carroll Foy reported raising as of March 31.

Dimmerling is among thousands of Virginians who have lived for months with the daily panic of impending financial doom because of the Virginia Employment Commission’s lagging performance in dealing with contested pandemic unemployment claims within the 21 days as prescribed by federal law.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Labor, for each full quarter since the pandemic began Virginia has ranked at or near the bottom against other states in the percentage of “nonmonetary determinations of claimants” within the required three weeks.

That’s bureaucratic jargon that means people whose unemployment insurance claims have been called into question or have prompted other concerns. For instance, employees who quit without good cause or are fired for misconduct are generally ineligible for benefits. Those separated because of layoffs — particularly in the pandemic — are eligible. Sometimes, employers will object to a former employee’s claim, and specialists known as “deputy adjudicators” decide who’s right.

 

Should my child get the COVID-19 vaccine? 7 questions answered by a pediatric infectious disease expert
Virginia Mercury, Dr. Debbie-Ann Shirley, University of VirginiaMay 18, 2021 (Short)

The Food and Drug Administration expanded emergency use authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to include adolescents 12 to 15 years of age on May 10. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention followed with recommendations endorsing use in this age group after their advisory group meeting on May 12. The American Academy of Pediatrics also supports this decision.

Dr. Debbie-Ann Shirley is an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Virginia specializing in pediatric infectious diseases. Here she addresses some of the concerns parents may have about their teen or preteen getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

1. Does the vaccine work in adolescents?
Yes, recently released data from Pfizer-BioNTech shows that the COVID-19 vaccine seems to work really well in this age group. The COVID-19 vaccine was found to be 100 percent efficacious in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 in an ongoing clinical trial of children in the U.S. aged 12 to 15. Adolescents made high levels of antibody in response to the vaccine, and their immune response was just as strong as what has been seen in older teens and young adults 16-25 years of age.

After chaotic Virginia GOP convention, Democrats see extreme ticket while Republicans feel ‘relief’
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw and Ned OliverMay 14, 2021 (Short)

Despite the early efforts to paint the Republicans’ 2021 ticket as an overwhelming lurch to the right, the slate isn’t nearly as extreme as it might’ve been. Instead of Chase, a self-described “Trump in heels,” becoming the party’s standard-bearer in a state former President Donald Trump lost twice, she logged off and went to the beach.

After failing to win a statewide election since 2009, some Republicans say they feel surprisingly good about where the party stands coming out of a chaotic unassembled convention marked by procedural confusion, mysterious attack ads and infighting.

“I think some of the ebullience you see in Republicans right now is that this could’ve been very bad. And it turned into the exact opposite,” said Shaun Kenney, a former Republican Party of Virginia executive director who has criticized fringe elements in the party. “But it’s more than just a sigh of relief. It’s like we finally know where we’re headed.”

As he tries to become Virginia’s first Black attorney general, Del. Jay Jones made clear on the debate stage Wednesday night that he wasn’t going to tiptoe around the topic of race.

Facing off against incumbent Attorney General Mark Herring in the first televised debate of the Democratic primary, Jones introduced himself as the descendant of slaves and the grandson of civil rights activists, going on to make several references to the perspective gained from his “lived experience as a Black man.”

Perhaps the most remarkable experience Jones recounted on the debate stage was being in the room in early 2019 when Herring met with the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus to deliver a pre-emptive apology for wearing blackface while in college at the University of Virginia.

Virginia’s GOP gambles on creative ranked-choice voting for 2021 nominees
Virginia Mercury, Mark J. Rozell May 4, 2021 (Short)

The Republican Party of Virginia has a chance this year to reestablish itself as a competitive force in statewide elections.

After a dozen years without a statewide victory, the GOP leadership needed to take a careful look within to understand why voters have turned their backs on the once dominant political party in Virginia. It appears that party leaders decided that with the right method of nominating candidates for statewide office, they can change their fortunes.

Republican Party leaders   generally have favored conventions as a means of selecting nominees for statewide offices. The closed process, open only to the most inside of GOP insiders and dominated by some of its most conservative voices, has had a mixed record of success.

Delegate Suggests Removing Financial Incentive For Traffic Stops
WVTF, Michael PopleMay 3, 2021 (Short)

The firestorm caused by the Windsor police officer who pepper sprayed an African-American Army officer may end up changing the relationship between money and policing in Virginia.

Delegate Betsy Carr of Richmond says this incident reveals why police departments and sheriff’s offices should be de-incentivized from making traffic stops.  “Police are incentivized if they’re going to get money from it just to make more traffic stops, and a lot of time Black and brown folks are the people who are bearing the brunt of this.”

But Dana Schrad at the police chiefs association says local governments get that money, not police.  “The financial incentive is not on the part of the police department,” Schrad argues. “It might be on the part of the locality. But the locality has always expressed that their chief concern is that speeding on that route that goes through their community presents risks for the business owners and presents risks for the residents, and they want to see speeding laws enforced.”

McAuliffe opponents struggle to break through in Virginia
Politico, Maya KingMay 1, 2021 (Short)

Former state Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy’s supporters say she is best-positioned to challenge the former governor, but she has yet to gain broad name recognition.

In Virginia, 2021 was the best chance yet to elect a Black politician — and possibly the first Black woman in any state — to the governor’s mansion.

But with five weeks until the commonwealth’s Democratic primary, Terry McAuliffe, its white male former governor, is on track to secure the nomination easily.

 

A COVID-19 vaccine mandate is not being ruled out in Virginia but it won’t happen in the near future, if at all. That’s according to the state’s Vaccine Coordinator Dr. Danny Avula, who spoke to 8News via Zoom on Thursday.

In the meantime, Dr. Avula said the use of so-called “vaccine passports” or certifications are a more likely solution for skepticism.

“If our ability to move forward as a society, to open back up businesses, to open back up schools, is contingent on this, then I think we find every way we can to incentivize it and potentially even get to a point where we require it, but I think we’re a long way from that,” Dr. Avula said.

Virginia Mercury wins honors in press competition
Virginia Mercury, StaffApril 30, 2021 (Short)

The Virginia Mercury took nine first-place awards and one of its journalists earned a top individual honor in the 2020 Virginia Press Association competition.

Mercury reporter Ned Oliver was named the year’s outstanding journalist for his work covering how the COVID-19 pandemic affected Virginia’s most vulnerable people. That included stories about prisoners, workers who lost jobs or were forced to come back as safety protocols were in flux, those who struggled with Virginia’s problem-plagued administration of unemployment benefits and renters who faced eviction, among other stories.

“In a year when nearly every journalist was writing about COVID-19, the judge said that Oliver’s work stands out. His reporting held officials accountable, and he kept an eye on the pandemic’s impact on those who could not speak for themselves,” the VPA said in a news release.

Northam amends Virginia’s mask mandate to match CDC guidance
Virginia Mercury, Kate Masters April 28, 2021 (Short)

The first of three minimum wage increases approved by Virginia lawmakers will take effect Saturday, guaranteeing the state’s lowest paid workers an hourly rate of $9.50 an hour.

While some businesses warned the hikes will force them to layoff workers and cut hours, low-wage employees celebrated the coming raises.

“I just feel like we deserve it,” said Jenee Long, who until recently was paid just over the current minimum of $7.25 an hour making sandwiches at a Subway franchise in Richmond. “Luckily, I had family to take care of me, because how would I pay rent?”

The last minimum wage increase in Virginia came courtesy of the federal government more than a decade ago in 2009, when Congress raised the wage floor to $7.25.

More than 53,000 delegates register to vote in Virginia GOP convention
Virginia Mercury, Ned Oliver April 28, 2021 (Short)

The Virginia GOP says 53,524 delegates have registered to vote in the party’s nominating convention next week, in which Republicans will select their candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.

Republican Party of Virginia Chairman Rich Anderson announced the number at a candidate forum on Tuesday evening, predicting the event would be “the largest state party convention ever in American history.”

The convention is set for Saturday, May 8, and, unlike a traditional convention held at a single location, will take place at voting locations set up around the state to comply with COVID-19 safety rules.

A minor political furor erupted in Virginia last week — over math.

It started with a Fox News story declaring that the state Department of Education was moving to eliminate all accelerated math classes before 11th grade, “effectively keeping higher-achieving students from advancing as they usually would in the school system.”

Republican leaders soon joined a chorus of dissenters. House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert criticized the department’s “plan to lower standards,” stating that “Virginians have had enough of the insatiable agenda to eliminate opportunities for students to excel in the quest to achieve mediocrity for all.” Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin slammed the decision in another statement, saying families across the state were “up in arms.”

When Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam looks back at his tenure, the inflection point between being a run-of-the-mill executive and the progressive leader he has become is a painful one.

The scandal — born of the discovery of a decades-old yearbook photo that featured someone in blackface — was an existential crisis for Northam and his administration. After initially saying the person in question was him, he denied it but admitted to darkening his skin as part of a Michael Jackson dance contest in 1984. Almost every Virginia Democrat called for his ouster as the state examined its racist past. Those closest to Northam said he was close to resigning.

How the governor survived was a surprise even to his most ardent supporters. The man who was nearly thrown out of office by his own party has, in the two years since, become a progressive champion, working with the same Democrats who called for his resignation to tighten gun laws in the commonwealth, restore the voting rights to nearly 70,000 felons, approve voting rights legislation and abolish the death penalty in the state. And just this week Northam signed legislation that would legalize marijuana this summer, the first Southern state to do so.

When she was sworn in as the first woman to serve as speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, Eileen Filler-Corn said she was struck by the diversity of the new Democratic majority looking back at her.

A year later, she was standing in a mostly empty room, speaking to “squares on a computer” as the oldest continuous legislative body in the Western Hemisphere tried lawmaking via Zoom.

It’s not yet clear when the House will return to normal. But after two years in power, Filler-Corn says she’s confident Virginia voters still want Democrats in charge.

“We heard the issues that were important to Virginians,” Filler-Corn said in a recent interview with The Virginia Mercury. “We campaigned saying we were going to do X, Y and Z. We were very upfront about it. Very bold. And there is no doubt about it that we followed through.”

Will Virginia colleges require COVID-19 vaccinations? Should they?
Capital News Service, Hunter BrittApril 22, 2021 (Short)

Virginia universities plan a return to campuses in the fall, but there are questions if the COVID-19 vaccine can be mandated.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration only authorized the vaccine for emergency purposes, according to Lisa Lee, professor of public health at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. The vaccine does not yet have full FDA approval.

The vaccine was authorized for emergency use, so people have to be given the choice to take it and be informed of the consequences if they don’t, Lee said.

“Many legal scholars have interpreted that as saying that people cannot be required to take a vaccine that is under an emergency use authorization,” Lee said. “They can be when it has full approval, so that’s where the hitch is.”

Starting May 15, Virginia will significantly relax capacity restrictions on social gatherings and entertainment venues as COVID-19 numbers plateau across much of the state.

Gov. Ralph Northam announced the latest rollback in a video message on Thursday, citing the state’s continued progress in vaccinations. Data from the Virginia Department of Health indicates that more than 40 percent of the population has received at least one shot and more than 26 percent are fully vaccinated. Every Virginian 16 and older became eligible for the vaccine on Sunday.

“Vaccination numbers are up, and our COVID case numbers are substantially lower than they were earlier this year,” Northam said in a statement. “So, we have been able to begin easing some mitigation measures.”

FOIA bill allows some access to criminal investigation records
Capital News Service , Anya SczerzenieApril 20, 2021 (Short)

A bill allowing the public access to limited criminal investigation records will go into effect in July, along with a handful of other bills related to government transparency.

Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg, a former television reporter, introduced House Bill 2004. The bill requires files related to non-ongoing criminal investigations be released under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act law.

“I’d been a journalist for 10 years, and I frequently saw that access to police records was very difficult,” Hurst said. “In denying those records, accountability and transparency were lost.”

Hurst said he hopes the bill will give the public reasonable access to criminal investigation files.

Virginia public defenders face resistance in push for pay parity with prosecutors
Virginia Mercury, Ned OliverApril 20, 2021 (Short)

In many Virginia courtrooms, commonwealth’s attorneys charged with prosecuting crimes continue to earn significantly more than the government employees responsible for defending the accused.

It’s an imbalance that bakes inequity into the criminal justice system, say public defenders, whose state-funded offices represent poor defendants who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford an attorney.

They say it’s not uncommon to spend years training a new hire only to lose them to a higher paying job, often in prosecutors offices.

“They literally just go across the street to make a significantly increased salary to prosecute people instead of defend them,” said Ashley Shapiro, a senior assistant public defender in Richmond, where lawyers on staff learned they were almost all making less than the highest-paid administrative assistant in the prosecutor’s office.

Pushing broadband into rural Va. gives us a chance to act like a commonwealth
Virginia Mercury, Bob Lewis -April 19, 2021 (Short)

Writing this column in a Richmond suburb, I expect instant responses to data inquiries from across the Internet. And, far more often than not, I get them.

Fiber-optic digital access (which ain’t cheap) also allows me to stream movies, shop the virtual marketplace, conduct business videoconferences and correspond at light speed with anyone in the world via email or social media.

By the time you read this, I will have used this fast connection to communicate with sources whom I have interviewed for this piece, downloaded all sorts of data and collaborated with The Virginia Mercury’s editors to get it ready for your consumption.

Over the last month, state and federal officials have directed thousands of COVID-19 vaccines to large-scale clinics in vulnerable communities with high rates of coronavirus cases — all in areas with significant or majority Black and Latino populations.

The sites have been touted by leaders as a core strategy in expanding access to vaccines among communities of color, where immunization rates are consistently lower than they are for White Virginians. “We have done a very good job in the commonwealth in addressing this issue,” state Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said at a news briefing last month in response to questions over vaccine equity.

“We have brought on staff in our emergency support team that is doing outreach in these communities,” he added. “We’ve put boots on the ground in all 35 of our health districts and those teams are doing your basic sort of community organizing — door to door, working with faith leaders, community-based organizations to bring people from these vulnerable populations to our vaccination sites.”

When top aides to Gov. Ralph Northam sat down last summer to meet with the state inspector general, whose office had just issued a critical watchdog report on the Virginia Parole Board, Northam Chief of Staff Clark Mercer opened by saying he wanted to hear what was being done to prevent future reports from “getting forwarded to the Associated Press again.” 

Republican General Assembly leaders had just given media outlets an unredacted copy of a report accusing the Parole Board of mishandling the release of Vincent Martin, who was convicted of the 1979 killing of a Richmond police officer but won praise as a model inmate. Before that, the inspector general had only released an unreadable version with virtually every sentence blacked-out, citing an interpretation of confidentiality laws disputed by open-government advocates.

Mercer said he was hoping for a “collegial” discussion of what had happened and the aspects of the report that were in dispute.

What would a carbon-free grid look like for Virginia?
Virginia Mercury, Ivy MainApril 16, 2021 (Short)

Joe Biden wants a carbon-free electric grid by 2035. What does that look like in Virginia?

Virginia’s General Assembly made history in 2020 by becoming the first state in the South to pass a law requiring the full decarbonization of its electric sector. The Virginia Clean Economy Act requires our two largest utilities, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power, to close all Virginia carbon-emitting power plants by 2045. As of 2050, the state will not issue carbon allowances to any other power plants in the commonwealth, including those owned by electric cooperatives and independent generators.

Less than a year later, President Joe Biden wants to move up the date for a carbon-free electric grid nationwide to 2035. Biden is also targeting a net-zero carbon economy by 2050. On that, Virginia is actually more ambitious, at least on paper, since the Commonwealth Energy Policy sets a goal for a net-zero economy by 2045.

Viral police stop in small Virginia town renews focus on qualified immunity
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw| Ned OliverApril 13, 2021 (Short)

Standing across from the gas station where an Army lieutenant became another viral example of aggressive policing directed at a person of color, members of the Virginia NAACP called Monday for lawmakers to hold a special session on an unfinished piece of the police reform agenda.

Though the Democratic-controlled General Assembly twice failed to approve legislation rolling back qualified immunity, some say what happened to Black and Latino Army Lt. Caron Nazario in this small town demands that policymakers try again.

“To tell us that a Black Army second lieutenant in uniform can have that type of treatment imposed upon him, imagine what happens when the body cameras are off,” said NAACP Executive Director Da’Quan Marcell Love. “Imagine what happens on dark roads across the length and breadth of this commonwealth.”

As Dominion’s rate review gears up, a broader fight about regulatory balance resurges
Virginia Mercury, Sarah VogelsongApril 9, 2021 (Short)
Virginia explained: What’s a triennial review and why should you care?
Virginia Mercury, Sarah Vogelsong April 9, 2021 (Short)

For the first time in six years, Virginia’s largest utility, which serves two-thirds of Virginia’s residential customers, will submit to a review of its base rates. Dominion Energy’s “triennial review,” coming after years of regulators reporting hundreds of millions of dollars in company overearnings, will likely be the powerful utility’s biggest battle of the year.

The outcome will determine whether the base rates it charges have been reasonable, how much it’s earned over the past four years and what profits shareholders will be allowed to reap as the company embarks on an ambitious Democrat-driven mission to transform the foundation of Virginia’s electric grid from fossil fuels to renewables.

But instead of playing out in political skirmishes in the General Assembly, this contest will unfold before the State Corporation Commission, one of the most powerful and little-known of Virginia’s government bodies which since 1902 has had the authority under the state Constitution to regulate utilities.

Done right, legal pot could bring social equity and opportunity to Virginia
Virginia Mercury, Bob Lewis - OpinionApril 5, 2021 (Short)

Virginia owes much to a smokable weed.

Look no farther than the ceiling of the state Capitol Rotunda to see painted representations of garlands of the golden-brown leaf that was essential to Virginia’s founding 400 years ago.

The Virginia Company of London, chartered as a joint stock company, encountered lean times in the early years after it established a foothold at Jamestown. Tobacco was one of its few success stories. The crop flourished in the fertile loam and sunny summers along the James River. Across the Atlantic, demand became insatiable for what was called the “joviall weed,” the “precious stink” and the “chopping herbe of hell,” according to “Virginia: The New Dominion” by historian and editor Virginius Dabney. It remained a leading cash crop in Virginia through the 20th century.

On July 1, another smokable weed, once damned by the establishment, is expected to become legal for adult recreational use. And 2½ years later, the legal commercial cultivation, processing and sale of marijuana would begin in Virginia.

The final say on that comes Wednesday when the Virginia General Assembly is expected to adopt amendments Gov. Ralph Northam made to a bill passed during the winter legislative session that at long last legalized ganja in the Old Dominion.

Should Virginia bus systems go fare free forever?
Virginia Mercury, Wyatt Gordon April 6, 2021 (Medium)

When the General Assembly created the Transit Rider Incentive Program (TRIP) as part of Gov. Ralph Northam’s 2020 transportation omnibus, the lion’s share of the funding was allocated to support new regional bus routes. With COVID’s cancellation of much commuter service across the commonwealth, those dollars are now being dedicated to TRIP’s secondary goal: fare free transit pilot projects.

With large localities like Lynchburg, Roanoke, Alexandria, Richmond, Charlottesville, and Fairfax County now expressing interest in eliminating bus fares for at least three years, could the shift to zero fares in Virginia become permanent?

Nearly every transit system in the commonwealth dropped fares last year as a public health measure in response to COVID, but until recently none had announced intentions to make that move to protect riders and operators more permanent. Based on the responses to a request for ideas DRPT issued to transit providers last fall, the list of bus systems seeking to stay fare free beyond the pandemic could soon grow substantially longer.

Virginia to expand vaccine eligibility to everyone 16 and older by mid-Ap
Virginia Mercury, Kate Masters -April 1, 2021 (Short)

Gov. Ralph Northam announced Thursday that the state will expand vaccine eligibility to all Virginians 16 and older by April 18.

The news puts Virginia nearly two weeks ahead of the May 1 deadline set by President Joe Biden earlier this month. In a news release, the administration said that nearly every high-risk Virginian who pre-registered for a vaccine has already received a shot, allowing the state to expand eligibility sooner than expected. Those still on the state’s pre-registration list will receive an appointment invitation within the next two weeks.

“Expanding vaccine eligibility to all adults marks an important milestone in our ongoing efforts to put this pandemic behind us,” Northam said in a statement. “I thank all of the public health staff, health care workers, vaccinators, and volunteers who have helped make this possible.”

Apparently fed up with paperwork coming in late, Virginia’s State Board of Elections has refused to extend a key campaign filing deadline this year, potentially affecting eight candidates running for the House of Delegates.

Three are Democrats looking to challenge incumbent lawmakers, meaning, if the decision stands, Dels. Luke Torian, D-Prince William, Betsy Carr, D-Richmond, and Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, may not face primary challengers after all. Because they represent strongly Democratic districts, their primary opponents being disqualified on technical grounds all but guarantees the incumbents will win re-election.

The decision to insist on meaningful deadlines comes after years of officials wrestling with how to handle paperwork errors, reflecting a growing feeling on the board that candidates must take responsibility for their own campaigns and follow through to ensure their documents get to the right place.

The geography of Mathews County was carved by catastrophe.

Thirty-five million years ago, a meteorite or comet tore through the Earth’s atmosphere and slammed into its surface somewhere between the county and what is now called Cape Charles. In the ruin it left behind, the Chesapeake Bay would form. Mathews, at the very tip of Virginia’s Middle Peninsula, remains one of the state’s lowest-lying areas, surrounded on three sides by the Chesapeake Bay and the waters that flow into it. 

“We’re flat as a pancake,” said Thomas Jenkins, the county’s planning, zoning and wetlands director. “Much of the county is close to sea level.” 

Today a far slower but perhaps no less catastrophic force is reshaping Mathews. As climate change drives seas upward, the county is struggling to keep its waterfront properties above the tides. 

 
Audit overwhelmingly confirms Virginia’s election results
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw March 31, 2021 (Short)

statewide audit of Virginia’s 2020 election results verified President Joe Biden’s victory in the state, finding only a 0.00000065117 percent chance the state’s voting system could have produced an inaccurate outcome.

“Election officials are over 99 percent confident in the reported outcome,” Karen Hoyt-Stewart, voting technology manager at the Virginia Department of Elections, told the State Board of Elections as she presented the audit report Wednesday.

The only way to reach 100 percent certainty would be for officials to manually review every ballot cast in the state. In other words, the audit found there’s almost zero chance a full recount would show a different outcome.

The risk-limiting audit, more of a mathematical exercise than an expansive investigation into how ballots were cast and counted, involved checking a random sample of paper ballots against the results reported by scanner machines.

It’s already too late for Virginia to redraw political districts in time for the 2021 House of Delegates races, but the U.S. Census Bureau’s decision to speed up its delivery of new population data means Virginia lawmakers could be voting on future maps right before the November elections.

Census officials had told states to expect to get the data by late September, but Virginia officials say they now expect to receive it by the second week of August.

Under the newly created Virginia Redistricting Commission’s constitutional timeline, receipt of the data starts a 45-day clock for the commission to submit new legislative maps to the General Assembly for an up-or-down vote. Once the legislature received the proposed maps, it has 15 days to vote on them.

Virginians could be harvesting their first legal crops of home-grown marijuana later this year under legislative amendments Gov. Ralph Northam says he’s sending to the General Assembly.

Northam said Wednesday he is proposing changes to the marijuana legalization bill passed by the General Assembly last month that would end the state’s prohibition on the drug beginning July 1 — up from a 2024 date proposed by lawmakers. He says he also wants to allow limited home cultivation to begin at the same time.

“Virginia will become the 15th state to legalize marijuana — and these changes will ensure we do it with a focus on public safety, public health and social justice,” he said in a statement.

Virginia lawmakers ban police use of facial recognition
AP, Denise LavoieMarch 29, 2021 (Short)

Last month, Virginia lawmakers quietly passed one of the most restrictive bans in the country on the use of facial recognition technology.

The legislation, which won unusually broad bipartisan support, prohibits all local law enforcement agencies and campus police departments from purchasing or using facial recognition technology unless it is expressly authorized by the state legislature.

But now, some law enforcement officials are asking Gov. Ralph Northam to put the brakes on the legislation, arguing that it is overly broad and hasn’t been thoroughly vetted.

Makya Little was helping her fourth-grade daughter review for the Virginia Studies SOL, a standardized test on state history, when she found herself taken aback by one of the questions on the study guide.

“She gets to this one question that says ‘What’s the status of the early African?’” said Little, who lives in Prince William County. The correct answer, according to the class materials, was “unknown. They were either servants or enslaved.”

“I got really, really upset,” Little said. While historians widely agree that the first Africans to arrive at the Jamestown settlement were enslaved, there’s been contentious discussion on the topic — some of the state’s own study materials also state that it’s “unknown” whether they arrived as slaves or indentured servants. The school division didn’t provide any of that context, and Little said multiple thoughts flashed through her head. The information was “misleading,” she added, and seemed designed to “soften how early Americans treated Black and Indigenous people” (another prompt on the study guide stated that native people and English settlers had a “trade relationship”).

Northam signs bill funding Va. community-college education costs
WTOP, Rick Massimo March 29, 2021 (Short)

Low-income students in Virginia will soon be getting financial help with all the costs of getting an education.

Gov. Ralph Northam on Monday signed into law the “Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back” program, which will provide full tuition for community college for low-income students in certain majors, as well as incidental expenses such as food and transportation.

The bill, which passed the legislature overwhelmingly last month, budgets $36 million a year over the next two years.

The bill covers education that leads to in-demand jobs in fields such as technology, skilled labor and health care. Officials gathered at Northern Virginia Community College for the signing Monday said the bill would open doors to people who were considering higher education.

“I am so incredibly proud of this initiative,” said House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn. “This has been something that we’ve been working on for a number of years.” She said there was a lot of bipartisan support for the bill even before COVID-19, but with a lot of lower-skill jobs disappearing because of the pandemic, “It’s more important now than ever.”

Va. House leaders back legalizing home-grown marijuana this summer
Virginia Mercury, Ned Oliver March 26, 2021 (Short)

Democratic leaders in the House of Delegates say they now support legalizing marijuana on July 1, joining the Senate in backing amendments to a legalization bill lawmakers passed last month.

They also went a step further, endorsing the legalization of personal cultivation at the same time.

“The time is now for us to act,” wrote speaker Eileen Filler-Corn in a statement.

The General Assembly voted at the end of February to legalize marijuana, but not until Jan. 1, 2024, when the state’s first legal marijuana businesses would open. The decision to tie legalization to commercial sales disappointed activists, who argued that waiting three years would needlessly prolong the racial disparities in policing that lawmakers said they were trying to address.

Virginia governor signs historic bill abolishing death penalty into law
CNN, Veronica StracqualursiMarch 24, 2021 (Medium)

After centuries of carrying out executions, Virginia on Wednesday became the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty after Gov. Ralph Northam signed historic legislation into law that ends capital punishment in the commonwealth.

“We can’t give out the ultimate punishment without being 100% sure that we’re right. And we can’t sentence people to that ultimate punishment knowing that the system doesn’t work the same for everyone,” Northam, a Democrat, said ahead of signing the legislation at the Greensville Correctional Center, which houses Virginia’s death chamber.

With Northam’s signature, Virginia became the first Southern state to repeal the death penalty since the US Supreme Court reinstated the punishment in 1976. The new law, set to go into effect in July, comes as a major shift for Virginia, which has put to death more people in its history than any other state.

What was expected to be a pretty predictable special election in Southwest Virginia has turned into a surprisingly intense fight in its closing days.

Voters in Virginia’s 38th Senate District will elect a new state senator through 2023 on Tuesday. Incumbent Ben Chafin died on Jan. 1 from complications related to COVID-19.

The district includes Bland, Buchanan, Dickenson, Pulaski, Russell and Tazewell counties, the cities of Norton and Radford, and portions of Montgomery, Smyth and Wise counties. 

Metro is finally catching a break, and it’s a plus for workers in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs poised to start heading back to the office once they’re vaccinated.

The $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package signed by President Joe Biden last week ends — for now — the prospect that the bus and subway operator in the D.C. area officially known as the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, would have to resort to deep service cuts to stay solvent.

Metro, hammered when commuters abandoned the system beginning a year ago to work from home, had proposed the shutdown of more than 20 of its train stations across the region’s far-flung system, ranging from College Park-University of Maryland to Smithsonian to Arlington Cemetery to Clarendon.

Virginia has $43 million in carbon market revenues. How is it going to spend it?
Virginia Mercury, Sarah VogelsongMarch 17, 2021 (Medium)

The $43 million was “in the state’s hot little hands,” Mike Dowd told the group.

So what next?

That was the question facing not only Dowd, director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s Air Division, but also a collection of developers, state officials and environmental and low-income advocacy groups who had gathered over Zoom on Monday.

All were focused on the best uses of that $43 million in carbon money, the first round of funds Virginia had received through its participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, an 11-state agreement that puts a price on the carbon emissions that are driving climate change, requires power plants to pay that price and then channels the proceeds back to the states.

Most of that funding will eventually be paid for by customers of the state’s electric utilities, which are allowed under state law to pass on the costs of carbon allowances to customers, with no extra returns for investors. State officials had conservatively projected annual proceeds from RGGI’s carbon auctions to be in the range of $106 to $109 million. But with allowances trading at $7.60 per short ton of emissions at this March’s quarterly auction, actual revenues now look to be much higher, amounting to perhaps as much as $174 million annually if prices hold.

Virginia could soon push more workers to save for retirement. Here’s how:
Virginia Mercury, Graham MoomawMarch 16, 2021 (Short)

Thousands of Virginia workers would gain the option of automatically putting away part of their paychecks for retirement under legislation the General Assembly passed last month to help private-sector employees who lack access to a savings plan through their employer.

The bill, awaiting action by Gov. Ralph Northam, establishes a state-administered program that would offer IRA accounts to workers with no other retirement plan options, particularly employees of small businesses, self-employed people and gig workers. 

The accounts would be optional, but workers would be enrolled by default and would have to opt out if they want to keep their whole paycheck. The plans would be portable, meaning workers could keep putting money into the same account even if they switch jobs.

Covered businesses would have to help interested workers participate in the program, mainly by setting up their accounting systems to allow payroll deductions to be made, but they wouldn’t have to contribute funds of their own.

Did Virginia lawmakers accidentally vote to legalize skill games for another year?
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw March 16, 2021 (Short)

After giving so-called skill games another year to operate in Virginia late in the 2020 General Assembly session, legislators seemed to decide the time has come to pull the plug on thousands of slots-like gambling machines that have proliferated in convenience stores, restaurants and truck stops all over the state.

But some statehouse watchers think lawmakers may have actually voted to do the opposite.

Confusion recently spread among gambling lobbyists over a little-noticed provision attached to a bill that, on its face, makes it easier for officials to crack down on unregulated gambling.

On environmental justice, Democrats split over the best path forward
Virginia Mercury, Sarah Vogelsong -March 12, 2021 (Medium)

When the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down an air permit last year for a compressor station Dominion Energy wanted to site in the majority-Black community of Union Hill as part of the 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline, the judges admonished state officials that “environmental justice is not merely a box to be checked.”

In the wake of the ruling, newly ascendant Democrats in the General Assembly looked to legislation as a fix. Environmental justice — the idea that no group should bear a disproportionate share of negative environmental consequences and that communities impacted should have “meaningful involvement” in the decision-making process — was added to state code and its promotion became declared state policy.

But as the 2021 session drew to a close, Democrats split over what to do next.

“I’m sorry to say we are very far apart on environmental justice issues with the other body,” Del. Shelly Simonds, D-Newport News, told colleagues in a late-night floor speech in the House of Delegates on the last day of the session. “I think that we are a long way off from where we need to be in having consensus on the need for environmental justice.”

Virginia’s black bears are flourishing. Officials have the bear teeth to prove it.
Virginia Mercury, Sarah Vogelsong -March 9, 2021 (Short)

From numbers that had dwindled to around 1,000 at midcentury, Virginia’s black bears have been making a comeback.

For the past few decades, thanks to reforestation and state management, the black bear has become more and more common in the commonwealth. And while population estimates aren’t an exact science, relying as they do on factors like hunting data and human-bear interactions, one Virginia wildlife official puts the current count at between 18,000 and 20,000.

“Surveys show bears are very popular. Citizens like bears. They want to have bears,” said Nelson Lafon, the Forest Wildlife Program manager for the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources.

A senior investigator in Virginia’s watchdog agency has filed a lawsuit claiming she was wrongfully suspended from her job last week after giving General Assembly leaders documents dealing with her investigation into wrongdoing by the Virginia Parole Board.

Jennifer Moschetti, an employee of the Office of the State Inspector General, filed the suit Monday in Richmond, claiming she had been subjected to “retaliatory actions” for conduct protected under the state’s whistleblower law.

The lawsuit is the latest explosive development in a controversy over how the Parole Board handled several high-profile cases last year and whether other state officials sought to conceal the extent of OSIG’s findings detailing numerous violations of Parole Board policies and state law.

Big uptick in vaccine supplies for states expected soon
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.

Emily’s Tale: Where government programs fail, humanity must step up
Virginia Mercury, Bob Lewis, opinionFebruary 22, 2021 (Short)

Government spending and programs are not the only answer to some of the nation’s most persistent needs.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t enact more federal relief for people who’ve been financially wrecked by no fault of their own during the coronavirus pandemic. We should, and soon! But target the spending to those whose livelihoods and economic security have been crushed, their families left homeless and queued in long lines outside food pantries. Put the cash where it’s needed, not with those who’ve fared well.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t spend — and mightily — on our crumbling national infrastructure, on America’s vulnerable electrical grid and information technology networks. The past month’s headlines prove the dire urgency of it and there is ready bipartisan concurrence on those needs, yet somehow nothing gets done.

When Virginia senators passed a bill requiring local school divisions to provide in-person instruction by the summer, some anticipated the legislation would face an uphill battle in the House.

Nearly a month later, though, the same legislation is now on the verge of passing both chambers after several rounds of revisions — and mounting pressure to return children to school buildings.

Just a few days after the Senate vote, Gov. Ralph Northam directed Virginia’s 132 local divisions to begin offering in-person classes by March 15, saying that months of remote learning was “taking a toll on our children and our families.” Northam’s announcement followed a pledge from President Joe Biden to reopen schools within his first 100 days of office, and new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on safely reopening schools and mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in buildings.

Virginia legislature sends death penalty repeal to Northam
Virginia Mercury, Ned OliverFebruary 22, 2021 (Short)

Virginia lawmakers gave final passage to legislation abolishing the death penalty Monday, sending the bill to Gov. Ralph Northam, who has said he’ll sign it.

Northam’s signature would make Virginia the first state in the South and the 23rd in the nation to end capital punishment.

“This legislation says a lot about who we are as a commonwealth, what kind of values we have as a commonwealth,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, who sponsored the legislation in the Senate. “It says a lot about how we value human life. It says a lot about how our commonwealth is going to move past some of our darkest moments in terms of how this punishment was applied and who it was applied to. This vote also says a lot about justice.”

Push to extend minimum wage increase to farmworkers voted down by Virginia Senate
Virginia Mercury, Ned OliverFebruary 23, 2021 (Short)

When the General Assembly voted last year to ramp up Virginia’s minimum wage to $12, agricultural employees were among a handful of groups excluded from the increase — an exemption that traces its roots to Jim Crow-era segregation.

Lawmakers in the Senate said Monday they stand by that decision, voting down legislation passed by the House of Delegates that would have extended the state’s employment laws to farmworkers for the first time.

“I understand the exuberance and I understand the need to move forward, but we just had a robust discussion on this last year,” said Sen. Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack, one of 10 lawmakers on the Senate’s Commerce and Labor Committee who opposed the legislation.

Electric utility rate reform efforts quashed by Senate committee
Virginia Mercury, Sarah VogelsongFebruary 15, 2021 (Short)

The Senate Commerce and Labor Committee on Monday swiftly killed the last of more than half a dozen bills this session that aimed to reform Virginia’s system of electric utility rate review, which is seen by Wall Street investors as favorable to the utilities and by critics as an example of legislative capture by companies with an outsize influence over the General Assembly.

The move angered the growing number of groups and lawmakers of both parties in Virginia that over the past few years have been lobbying to roll back regulations seen as enabling excessive profits for the state’s two largest electric monopolies, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power.

“It’s a shame that the committee decided that it should not be the policy of the commonwealth that monopoly utility rates should be just and reasonable,” said Will Cleveland, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center who frequently argues against the utilities before the State Corporation Commission. “It was clear that the Senate committee had no intention of debating the merits or the policy of the bills today.”

Fifteen years ago, more than 1.3 million Virginians said marriage should only mean a union between a man and a woman and same-sex couples shouldn’t be entitled to similar status that would give them the same rights under the law as straight couples.

That was the view of 57 percent of Virginians who voted in 2006, more than enough to put a same-sex marriage ban in the state Constitution.

Much has changed since then. And Democratic lawmakers want to give a new generation of Virginians an opportunity to make a different statement in 2022.

A bill that would let millions of electric customers in Virginia again begin purchasing renewable energy from companies other than the utility that controls their territory cleared the House of Delegates last week but now faces a Senate committee that struck the proposal down in 2020.

“The Senate oftentimes is a higher hurdle to get over,” said Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, the sponsor of House Bill 2048. “I think we’ve got a puncher’s chance, right? So we’re going to go in and give it all we got.”

Bourne’s bill targets a provision of state code that allows licensed third-party suppliers to sell “100 percent renewable energy” to customers in utility territory as long as the utility isn’t offering the same product. On the books since 2007, the law was rarely used until relatively recently, when renewables prices began to fall and more Americans began to shy away from carbon-emitting fossil fuels.

At General Assembly’s halftime, consumers hold a narrow lead
Virginia Mercury, Ivy MainFebruary 8, 2021 (Medium)

Virginia is, famously, a state that prides itself on being business-friendly. That makes it all the more interesting that a number of bills favoring consumers have made it through the House. Democrats have led the charge, but several of the bills earned bipartisan support even in the face of utility opposition.

This doesn’t guarantee their luck will hold. Democrats aren’t just more numerous in the House, they are also younger and more independent-minded than the old guard Democrats in control of the Senate. The second half of the session is going to be a lot more challenging for pro-consumer legislation.

The action will be especially hot in the coming days around five bills dealing with utility reform and a customer’s “right to shop” for renewable energy (HB2048). All these bills passed the House with at least some Republican support. But they are headed to Senate Commerce and Labor, which, though dominated by Democrats, has a long history of protecting utilities.

Democrats pushing to create incentives for drivers to buy electric vehicles as part of a broader goal of weaning Virginia’s transportation sector off fossil fuels are running into a roadblock: too little state money in a budget constrained by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have more priorities now than we do funding,” said Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun, who this session is carrying a bill to create an electric vehicle rebate program. “This would be a really tough priority to be able to fund right now.”

Slowing climate change through decarbonization has been a major priority of Virginia Democrats since they won majorities in both chambers of the legislature in 2019, handing them control of state government. Last year they passed the Virginia Clean Economy Act, a marquee environmental law that committed the state’s electric grid to being carbon-free by 2050. This year they are focusing on transportation, which according to federal calculations is responsible for nearly half of Virginia’s carbon emissions.

Va. House leaders block delegate’s effort to force vote on right-to-work repeal
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw -February 3, 2021 (Short)

The right-to-work law, which dates back to 1947 in Virginia, prevents unions from forcing workers to pay union dues as a condition of their employment, which effectively weakens organized labor.

Carter is running as a staunch progressive in Democratic gubernatorial field that also includes former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond and former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy.

Simon, a co-sponsor of the legislation to repeal right-to-work, said that even if Carter got his bill onto the House floor it would not pass. He also called his motion to reject the maneuver a “purely procedural vote.”

Virginia Senate votes to abolish death penalty
Virginia Mercury, Ned OliverFebruary 3, 2021 (Short)

Lawmakers in the Virginia Senate voted Wednesday to abolish the death penalty, setting the state on a course to become the first in the South to end capital punishment.

“If we look back 50 years from now, the electric chair, the lethal injection table — they’re going to be sitting in a museum,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, who sponsored the bill. “This thing is going to be a museum piece and people are going to look back and wonder how it ever was we used these things.”

The legislation passed on a party-line vote, with all 21 of the Democrats in the chamber supporting it. One Republican, Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, abstained. The bill would commute the sentences of the two men currently on Virginia’s death row to life sentences with no possibility of parole.

State lawmakers are angling to pass legislation before the session ends Feb. 11.

 

In the past year, the state has ended criminal penalties for minor marijuana offenses and established a medical marijuana program. Now, Virginia lawmakers are scrambling to pass full legalization before their 30-day legislative session wraps up in less than two weeks.

If signed into law, the move would represent weed’s deepest incursion into the southeast, where only a handful of states have even embraced medical marijuana and still have some of the nation’s harshest punishments over the drug.

Legalization still faces pushback from many Republicans, cops and substance abuse treatment professionals, who argue the state is moving way too fast on an issue with huge public health ramifications.

 

More than three years after Amazon announced that it was expanding beyond its current Seattle headquarters, construction at the Virginia site — located across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. — is now well underway. Dubbed PenPlace, the newly unveiled proposal for the project’s second phase will provide a further 2.8 million square feet of office space across three 22-story buildings.

The site’s focal point will be The Helix, a tree-covered glass structure where a series of “alternative work environments” will be set amid indoor gardens and greenery from the nearby area, tended to by a team of horticulturalists. According to the architecture firm behind the project, NBBJ, a spiral “hill climb” will meanwhile allow employees and visitors to ascend the outside of the structure.

Virginia Republicans appear to be sticking with their plans to hold a convention to select their nominees for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.

The decision has not come easily. The party’s central committee has been divided for weeks, leading to procedural deadlock, convoluted parliamentary maneuvers and increasingly heated debate that on Saturday left members exasperated.

“We have had cursing on this call; the last meeting devolved into people yelling,” said Willie Deutsch, a committee member representing the state’s 1st Congressional District. “There comes a time when we have to come together as a party and stop the vicious incivility and attacks.”

The central committee, which governs the operations of the state party and includes 80 members from around the state, had already decided to hold a convention at a meeting in December.

The company that operates Virginia’s only private prison doled out campaign contributions to 29 Virginia lawmakers ahead of a push to pass legislation banishing the for-profit corrections industry from the state, according to campaign finance records compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project.

And when the bill came before a Senate panel last week for its first hearing, it died a quick and sudden death, with some of the legislators who received the donations speaking most forcefully against it.

Lawmakers, who almost always maintain that there is no connection between campaign contributions and their legislative decision making, called it a coincidence.

“Did not even realize they made a contribution,” said Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, who received $500 from the company and spoke against the bill at length during last week’s committee hearing. He attributed his opposition to a convincing phone call from a lobbyist and the fact that it would not address other prison contractors he views as more problematic, such as the companies that charge inmates inflated prices for phone calls and packs of ramen.

Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe entered 2021 with more money in the bank than all other candidates for governor combined, according to year-end campaign finance reports that were due Friday.

McAuliffe, who was expected to have a strong money advantage given his background in political fundraising and ties to national Democrats, began the year with more than $5.5 million on hand.

Former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy reported almost $1.3 million on hand, state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond reported about $633,000 and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax reported nearly $80,000.

Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, who just officially entered the field Jan. 1, reported about $7,000 on hand in his House of Delegates re-election account.

Matchmaker, matchmaker make Democrats a match
Jeff SchapiroJanuary 15, 2021 (Short)

Democrats agree their ticket can’t be three white guys and it shouldn’t be overweighted to the party’s anchor, Northern Virginia. The backlash to Donald Trump, the fury over George Floyd and the aftershocks of Ralph Northam’s blackface moment — all factors in the ballooning field — demand a ticket that looks like the New Virginia.

If only Democrats, mindful of demographic and geographic balance, could assemble it the old-fashioned way, the un-democratic way in which the whims of grandees carried disproportionate weight. This worked when the party was a white segregationist cabal and, because of laws limiting access to the polls, only a sliver of eligible population voted.

Modern Democrats acknowledge that synching up slates of candidates ahead of the June primary is perilous and would fuel resentments that would weaken the party. That doesn’t mean they don’t consider the possibility — as an abstract exercise. Put another way: Democrats can dream.

State of the Commonwealth 2021
January 14, 2021 (58:16)
The outside world intrudes on Virginia politics — again
Jeff SchapiroJanuary 13, 2021 (Short)

Defining issues for Democrats are those on which there are deep divisions within the majority party. That will become clear as the General Assembly lurches toward adjournment in late February, relying on a parliamentary sleight of hand to bypass one by Republicans that threatened to squeeze the session to 30 days from the usual 46.

These issues include taxes, marijuana, paid sick leave, police reform, civil and voting rights, campaign finance, gambling and reopening public schools during the pandemic. Differences on policy are exacerbated by differences in personality, especially House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, both of Fairfax.

Virginians got a taste of both during the interminable special session that, over nearly 85 days, pivoted from repairs to the COVID-19-wracked budget and post-George Floyd police reform to an all-you-can-eat legislative buffet that restyled the General Assembly as a mini-Congress.

Terry McAuliffe wants to be governor again. Women: Not so fast.
Sabrina Rodriguez and Maya KingDecember 8, 2020 (Medium)

“I understand the desire for someone to come back and have a sequel, second chapter,” said one Virginia Democrat. “But times change, and new leaders evolve.”

Terry McAuliffe has long signaled he wants his old job back as Virginia governor. But a slew of political groups focused on women and Black voters have a message before he jumps in the race: It’s not your time.

McAuliffe’s 2021 run — he is planning to announce on Wednesday, POLITICO confirmed — has rankled a number of groups across the commonwealth and country. They argue he shouldn’t be trying to reclaim the post he vacated three years ago when there are already two Black female candidates in the field— state Sen. Jennifer McClellan and state Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy.

“We’ve never elected a Black woman governor in this country’s history,” said Glynda Carr, CEO of the Higher Heights PAC, which supports Black women running for political office.

Virginia certifies 2020 election results
APNovember 18, 2020 (Short)

The State Board of Elections in Virginia voted Wednesday to certify the state’s election results, two days later than expected because of a COVID-19 outbreak in the city of Richmond’s voter registration office.

The board’s 3-0 vote certified results for president, U.S. Senate, U.S. House elections and state constitutional amendments in a 10-minute meeting without comment, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported. Virginia’s certification comes as former Vice President Joe Biden prepares to assume the presidency and President Donald Trump continues to sow doubt about the national election.

The Associated Press on Sunday projected that U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger will be reelected to her seat in Virginia’s 7th District after a dayslong count of votes that was prolonged by mail-in votes in the midst of the pandemic.

Spanberger, a Democrat, is nearly 8,000 votes ahead of Republican Del. Nick Freitas in the strip-shaped district in central Virginia that includes Culpeper, Chesterfield, Henrico and Nottoway counties and skirts to the west of Richmond.

Spanberger’s apparent result means that the only non-incumbent to win a seat in Congress from Virginia was a member of the incumbent’s own party. The partisan breakdown remains seven Democrats to four Republicans.

Biden, Warner wins show Democrats still dominate in Virginia
Gregory S. Schneider and Laura VozzellaNovember 4, 2020 (Medium)

The apparently comfortable margins of victory for both former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Mark R. Warner (D) in Virginia on Tuesday extended an 11-year record of dominance for Democrats in statewide races and cemented the commonwealth’s status as reliably blue.

But at the local and regional level, a different dynamic holds — as evidenced by Republican strength in three close congressional contests driven by rural and military voters energized by support for President Trump.

The results suggest how much the state mirrors the nation as a whole, becoming more polarized and less attuned to the old “Virginia way” of consensus politics, said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

“This was an intensified partisan vote,” Rozell said.

AP: Mark Warner wins third term as US Senator
13News Now Staff, Associated PressNovember 3, 2020 (Short)

Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia has won a third term to office.
Warner defeated Republican challenger Daniel Gade on Tuesday in a low-key race whose outcome was never in doubt.

Democrats have not lost a statewide election in Virginia since 2009. Warner is a former governor and current vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He had a massive cash advantage and scared off well-known Republicans from running against him.

Election results for Virginia's House of Representatives candidates
Jonathan FranklinNovember 4, 2020 (Short)

All of Virginia’s U.S. House seats were up for re-election, as well as one critical U.S. Senate seat. Virginia also voted on whether or not to create a commission to re-draw lines of congressional districts.

In District 8, Donald Beyer, Jr., the Democratic incumbent, is the projected winner according to the Associated Press. Beyer has held this office since 2015.

At the headquarters of the Fauquier County Republican Committee in Warrenton, Virginia, a cardboard cutout of John Wayne gripping a rifle leans against a wall. Chair Gregory Schumacher says Wayne was “the great American Western hero,” and he says Republicans who held the Fifth District in Congress for all but two of the last 20 years will keep it in their hands this November.

Although the populous counties of Northern Virginia have powered the state’s drift into Democratic control, Schumacher says he sits on the political boundary. “When you come out from the Beltway, Fauquier County’s the first one that goes red,” Schumacher said.

But there are signs that this year could be different as Republican contender Bob Good faces Democratic challenger Cameron Webb in what political prediction site FiveThirtyEight calls the most competitive House race in the country. Webb has outraised Good fourfold and held a slight lead in the last three polls. Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia and The Cook Political Report call the congressional race a toss-up. If Democrats can win this seat, they will continue a blue wave that flipped three House seats in 2018.

Top News

General Laws Committee – Host, Delegate David Bulova
May 20, 2021 – 6:00 pm (ET)

Aircast on the recent activities of the General Laws committee during this winter’s General Assembly.

These aircasts will be focused on the recent activities of House and Senate committees  during the 2021 General Assembly. Committee chairs will host these aircasts with members of their committees and their invited audience.

Aircasts are Zoom meetings with a host, featured guests, and an online audience livestreamed to the public and archived as YouTube videos.

A recording of the livestreams will be archived in the Virginia onAir Hub and in our Virginia onAir YouTube channel.

For more information:General Laws Committee Post

Curator:

  • Jordan Toledo

Host:

  • Committee Chair, Delegate David Bulova

Featured Guest(s):

  • Delegate Betsy Carr, Chair, Open Government/Procurement Subcommittee

  • Delegate Chris Hurst, Chair, Professions/Occupations and Administrative Process Subcommittee

Producer:

  • Shuaib Ahmed, Democracy onAir – shuaib.ahmed@onair.cc

Archived Locations: YouTube Channel, General Laws Committee post, David Bulova post, Chris Hurst post

If the last public poll was any indicator, Virginia Democrats still have lots of homework to do before making their picks in the primary for lieutenant governor.

A Christopher Newport University poll conducted in mid-April found 64 percent of likely primary voters undecided in the race, with Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, the apparent leader with 12 percent support.

“We’re glad to see the way things are trending,” Rasoul said in an interview, attributing his leading status to a “values-based campaign” focused on in-person trips to cities and counties throughout Virginia, including areas where voters “feel forgotten.”

The numbers suggest there’s still lots of room for movement in an open field that once stood at eight candidates but has shrunk to six heading into the final month before the June 8 primary.

As lawmakers prepare to study the prospects for campaign finance reform in Virginia, the sheer size of some checks flowing to Democratic candidates for statewide office has renewed debate about the boosts offered by a wealthy Charlottesville couple topping charts as the biggest donors in state politics.

Though they backed opposing candidates in the 2017 Democratic primary for governor, donations connected to Michael Bills, a hedge fund manager and primary backer of the advocacy group Clean Virginia, and Sonjia Smith, a philanthropist and former lawyer married to Bills, are working in tandem this year in a big way.

Smith and Clean Virginia have given a combined $1.1 million, $600,000 from Clean Virginia and $500,000 from Smith, to former delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy, whom they believe has the best shot at challenging former Gov. Terry McAuliffe in a five-person Democratic primary field. That’s almost a third of the roughly $3.6 million in cash contributions Carroll Foy reported raising as of March 31.

Dimmerling is among thousands of Virginians who have lived for months with the daily panic of impending financial doom because of the Virginia Employment Commission’s lagging performance in dealing with contested pandemic unemployment claims within the 21 days as prescribed by federal law.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Labor, for each full quarter since the pandemic began Virginia has ranked at or near the bottom against other states in the percentage of “nonmonetary determinations of claimants” within the required three weeks.

That’s bureaucratic jargon that means people whose unemployment insurance claims have been called into question or have prompted other concerns. For instance, employees who quit without good cause or are fired for misconduct are generally ineligible for benefits. Those separated because of layoffs — particularly in the pandemic — are eligible. Sometimes, employers will object to a former employee’s claim, and specialists known as “deputy adjudicators” decide who’s right.

 

Should my child get the COVID-19 vaccine? 7 questions answered by a pediatric infectious disease expert
Virginia Mercury, Dr. Debbie-Ann Shirley, University of VirginiaMay 18, 2021 (Short)

The Food and Drug Administration expanded emergency use authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to include adolescents 12 to 15 years of age on May 10. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention followed with recommendations endorsing use in this age group after their advisory group meeting on May 12. The American Academy of Pediatrics also supports this decision.

Dr. Debbie-Ann Shirley is an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Virginia specializing in pediatric infectious diseases. Here she addresses some of the concerns parents may have about their teen or preteen getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

1. Does the vaccine work in adolescents?
Yes, recently released data from Pfizer-BioNTech shows that the COVID-19 vaccine seems to work really well in this age group. The COVID-19 vaccine was found to be 100 percent efficacious in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 in an ongoing clinical trial of children in the U.S. aged 12 to 15. Adolescents made high levels of antibody in response to the vaccine, and their immune response was just as strong as what has been seen in older teens and young adults 16-25 years of age.

After chaotic Virginia GOP convention, Democrats see extreme ticket while Republicans feel ‘relief’
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw and Ned OliverMay 14, 2021 (Short)

Despite the early efforts to paint the Republicans’ 2021 ticket as an overwhelming lurch to the right, the slate isn’t nearly as extreme as it might’ve been. Instead of Chase, a self-described “Trump in heels,” becoming the party’s standard-bearer in a state former President Donald Trump lost twice, she logged off and went to the beach.

After failing to win a statewide election since 2009, some Republicans say they feel surprisingly good about where the party stands coming out of a chaotic unassembled convention marked by procedural confusion, mysterious attack ads and infighting.

“I think some of the ebullience you see in Republicans right now is that this could’ve been very bad. And it turned into the exact opposite,” said Shaun Kenney, a former Republican Party of Virginia executive director who has criticized fringe elements in the party. “But it’s more than just a sigh of relief. It’s like we finally know where we’re headed.”

As he tries to become Virginia’s first Black attorney general, Del. Jay Jones made clear on the debate stage Wednesday night that he wasn’t going to tiptoe around the topic of race.

Facing off against incumbent Attorney General Mark Herring in the first televised debate of the Democratic primary, Jones introduced himself as the descendant of slaves and the grandson of civil rights activists, going on to make several references to the perspective gained from his “lived experience as a Black man.”

Perhaps the most remarkable experience Jones recounted on the debate stage was being in the room in early 2019 when Herring met with the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus to deliver a pre-emptive apology for wearing blackface while in college at the University of Virginia.

Virginia’s GOP gambles on creative ranked-choice voting for 2021 nominees
Virginia Mercury, Mark J. Rozell May 4, 2021 (Short)

The Republican Party of Virginia has a chance this year to reestablish itself as a competitive force in statewide elections.

After a dozen years without a statewide victory, the GOP leadership needed to take a careful look within to understand why voters have turned their backs on the once dominant political party in Virginia. It appears that party leaders decided that with the right method of nominating candidates for statewide office, they can change their fortunes.

Republican Party leaders   generally have favored conventions as a means of selecting nominees for statewide offices. The closed process, open only to the most inside of GOP insiders and dominated by some of its most conservative voices, has had a mixed record of success.

Delegate Suggests Removing Financial Incentive For Traffic Stops
WVTF, Michael PopleMay 3, 2021 (Short)

The firestorm caused by the Windsor police officer who pepper sprayed an African-American Army officer may end up changing the relationship between money and policing in Virginia.

Delegate Betsy Carr of Richmond says this incident reveals why police departments and sheriff’s offices should be de-incentivized from making traffic stops.  “Police are incentivized if they’re going to get money from it just to make more traffic stops, and a lot of time Black and brown folks are the people who are bearing the brunt of this.”

But Dana Schrad at the police chiefs association says local governments get that money, not police.  “The financial incentive is not on the part of the police department,” Schrad argues. “It might be on the part of the locality. But the locality has always expressed that their chief concern is that speeding on that route that goes through their community presents risks for the business owners and presents risks for the residents, and they want to see speeding laws enforced.”

McAuliffe opponents struggle to break through in Virginia
Politico, Maya KingMay 1, 2021 (Short)

Former state Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy’s supporters say she is best-positioned to challenge the former governor, but she has yet to gain broad name recognition.

In Virginia, 2021 was the best chance yet to elect a Black politician — and possibly the first Black woman in any state — to the governor’s mansion.

But with five weeks until the commonwealth’s Democratic primary, Terry McAuliffe, its white male former governor, is on track to secure the nomination easily.

 

A COVID-19 vaccine mandate is not being ruled out in Virginia but it won’t happen in the near future, if at all. That’s according to the state’s Vaccine Coordinator Dr. Danny Avula, who spoke to 8News via Zoom on Thursday.

In the meantime, Dr. Avula said the use of so-called “vaccine passports” or certifications are a more likely solution for skepticism.

“If our ability to move forward as a society, to open back up businesses, to open back up schools, is contingent on this, then I think we find every way we can to incentivize it and potentially even get to a point where we require it, but I think we’re a long way from that,” Dr. Avula said.

Virginia Mercury wins honors in press competition
Virginia Mercury, StaffApril 30, 2021 (Short)

The Virginia Mercury took nine first-place awards and one of its journalists earned a top individual honor in the 2020 Virginia Press Association competition.

Mercury reporter Ned Oliver was named the year’s outstanding journalist for his work covering how the COVID-19 pandemic affected Virginia’s most vulnerable people. That included stories about prisoners, workers who lost jobs or were forced to come back as safety protocols were in flux, those who struggled with Virginia’s problem-plagued administration of unemployment benefits and renters who faced eviction, among other stories.

“In a year when nearly every journalist was writing about COVID-19, the judge said that Oliver’s work stands out. His reporting held officials accountable, and he kept an eye on the pandemic’s impact on those who could not speak for themselves,” the VPA said in a news release.

Northam amends Virginia’s mask mandate to match CDC guidance
Virginia Mercury, Kate Masters April 28, 2021 (Short)

The first of three minimum wage increases approved by Virginia lawmakers will take effect Saturday, guaranteeing the state’s lowest paid workers an hourly rate of $9.50 an hour.

While some businesses warned the hikes will force them to layoff workers and cut hours, low-wage employees celebrated the coming raises.

“I just feel like we deserve it,” said Jenee Long, who until recently was paid just over the current minimum of $7.25 an hour making sandwiches at a Subway franchise in Richmond. “Luckily, I had family to take care of me, because how would I pay rent?”

The last minimum wage increase in Virginia came courtesy of the federal government more than a decade ago in 2009, when Congress raised the wage floor to $7.25.

More than 53,000 delegates register to vote in Virginia GOP convention
Virginia Mercury, Ned Oliver April 28, 2021 (Short)

The Virginia GOP says 53,524 delegates have registered to vote in the party’s nominating convention next week, in which Republicans will select their candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.

Republican Party of Virginia Chairman Rich Anderson announced the number at a candidate forum on Tuesday evening, predicting the event would be “the largest state party convention ever in American history.”

The convention is set for Saturday, May 8, and, unlike a traditional convention held at a single location, will take place at voting locations set up around the state to comply with COVID-19 safety rules.

A minor political furor erupted in Virginia last week — over math.

It started with a Fox News story declaring that the state Department of Education was moving to eliminate all accelerated math classes before 11th grade, “effectively keeping higher-achieving students from advancing as they usually would in the school system.”

Republican leaders soon joined a chorus of dissenters. House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert criticized the department’s “plan to lower standards,” stating that “Virginians have had enough of the insatiable agenda to eliminate opportunities for students to excel in the quest to achieve mediocrity for all.” Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin slammed the decision in another statement, saying families across the state were “up in arms.”

When Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam looks back at his tenure, the inflection point between being a run-of-the-mill executive and the progressive leader he has become is a painful one.

The scandal — born of the discovery of a decades-old yearbook photo that featured someone in blackface — was an existential crisis for Northam and his administration. After initially saying the person in question was him, he denied it but admitted to darkening his skin as part of a Michael Jackson dance contest in 1984. Almost every Virginia Democrat called for his ouster as the state examined its racist past. Those closest to Northam said he was close to resigning.

How the governor survived was a surprise even to his most ardent supporters. The man who was nearly thrown out of office by his own party has, in the two years since, become a progressive champion, working with the same Democrats who called for his resignation to tighten gun laws in the commonwealth, restore the voting rights to nearly 70,000 felons, approve voting rights legislation and abolish the death penalty in the state. And just this week Northam signed legislation that would legalize marijuana this summer, the first Southern state to do so.

When she was sworn in as the first woman to serve as speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, Eileen Filler-Corn said she was struck by the diversity of the new Democratic majority looking back at her.

A year later, she was standing in a mostly empty room, speaking to “squares on a computer” as the oldest continuous legislative body in the Western Hemisphere tried lawmaking via Zoom.

It’s not yet clear when the House will return to normal. But after two years in power, Filler-Corn says she’s confident Virginia voters still want Democrats in charge.

“We heard the issues that were important to Virginians,” Filler-Corn said in a recent interview with The Virginia Mercury. “We campaigned saying we were going to do X, Y and Z. We were very upfront about it. Very bold. And there is no doubt about it that we followed through.”

Will Virginia colleges require COVID-19 vaccinations? Should they?
Capital News Service, Hunter BrittApril 22, 2021 (Short)

Virginia universities plan a return to campuses in the fall, but there are questions if the COVID-19 vaccine can be mandated.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration only authorized the vaccine for emergency purposes, according to Lisa Lee, professor of public health at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. The vaccine does not yet have full FDA approval.

The vaccine was authorized for emergency use, so people have to be given the choice to take it and be informed of the consequences if they don’t, Lee said.

“Many legal scholars have interpreted that as saying that people cannot be required to take a vaccine that is under an emergency use authorization,” Lee said. “They can be when it has full approval, so that’s where the hitch is.”

Starting May 15, Virginia will significantly relax capacity restrictions on social gatherings and entertainment venues as COVID-19 numbers plateau across much of the state.

Gov. Ralph Northam announced the latest rollback in a video message on Thursday, citing the state’s continued progress in vaccinations. Data from the Virginia Department of Health indicates that more than 40 percent of the population has received at least one shot and more than 26 percent are fully vaccinated. Every Virginian 16 and older became eligible for the vaccine on Sunday.

“Vaccination numbers are up, and our COVID case numbers are substantially lower than they were earlier this year,” Northam said in a statement. “So, we have been able to begin easing some mitigation measures.”

FOIA bill allows some access to criminal investigation records
Capital News Service , Anya SczerzenieApril 20, 2021 (Short)

A bill allowing the public access to limited criminal investigation records will go into effect in July, along with a handful of other bills related to government transparency.

Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg, a former television reporter, introduced House Bill 2004. The bill requires files related to non-ongoing criminal investigations be released under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act law.

“I’d been a journalist for 10 years, and I frequently saw that access to police records was very difficult,” Hurst said. “In denying those records, accountability and transparency were lost.”

Hurst said he hopes the bill will give the public reasonable access to criminal investigation files.

Virginia public defenders face resistance in push for pay parity with prosecutors
Virginia Mercury, Ned OliverApril 20, 2021 (Short)

In many Virginia courtrooms, commonwealth’s attorneys charged with prosecuting crimes continue to earn significantly more than the government employees responsible for defending the accused.

It’s an imbalance that bakes inequity into the criminal justice system, say public defenders, whose state-funded offices represent poor defendants who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford an attorney.

They say it’s not uncommon to spend years training a new hire only to lose them to a higher paying job, often in prosecutors offices.

“They literally just go across the street to make a significantly increased salary to prosecute people instead of defend them,” said Ashley Shapiro, a senior assistant public defender in Richmond, where lawyers on staff learned they were almost all making less than the highest-paid administrative assistant in the prosecutor’s office.

Pushing broadband into rural Va. gives us a chance to act like a commonwealth
Virginia Mercury, Bob Lewis –April 19, 2021 (Short)

Writing this column in a Richmond suburb, I expect instant responses to data inquiries from across the Internet. And, far more often than not, I get them.

Fiber-optic digital access (which ain’t cheap) also allows me to stream movies, shop the virtual marketplace, conduct business videoconferences and correspond at light speed with anyone in the world via email or social media.

By the time you read this, I will have used this fast connection to communicate with sources whom I have interviewed for this piece, downloaded all sorts of data and collaborated with The Virginia Mercury’s editors to get it ready for your consumption.

Over the last month, state and federal officials have directed thousands of COVID-19 vaccines to large-scale clinics in vulnerable communities with high rates of coronavirus cases — all in areas with significant or majority Black and Latino populations.

The sites have been touted by leaders as a core strategy in expanding access to vaccines among communities of color, where immunization rates are consistently lower than they are for White Virginians. “We have done a very good job in the commonwealth in addressing this issue,” state Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said at a news briefing last month in response to questions over vaccine equity.

“We have brought on staff in our emergency support team that is doing outreach in these communities,” he added. “We’ve put boots on the ground in all 35 of our health districts and those teams are doing your basic sort of community organizing — door to door, working with faith leaders, community-based organizations to bring people from these vulnerable populations to our vaccination sites.”

When top aides to Gov. Ralph Northam sat down last summer to meet with the state inspector general, whose office had just issued a critical watchdog report on the Virginia Parole Board, Northam Chief of Staff Clark Mercer opened by saying he wanted to hear what was being done to prevent future reports from “getting forwarded to the Associated Press again.” 

Republican General Assembly leaders had just given media outlets an unredacted copy of a report accusing the Parole Board of mishandling the release of Vincent Martin, who was convicted of the 1979 killing of a Richmond police officer but won praise as a model inmate. Before that, the inspector general had only released an unreadable version with virtually every sentence blacked-out, citing an interpretation of confidentiality laws disputed by open-government advocates.

Mercer said he was hoping for a “collegial” discussion of what had happened and the aspects of the report that were in dispute.

What would a carbon-free grid look like for Virginia?
Virginia Mercury, Ivy MainApril 16, 2021 (Short)

Joe Biden wants a carbon-free electric grid by 2035. What does that look like in Virginia?

Virginia’s General Assembly made history in 2020 by becoming the first state in the South to pass a law requiring the full decarbonization of its electric sector. The Virginia Clean Economy Act requires our two largest utilities, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power, to close all Virginia carbon-emitting power plants by 2045. As of 2050, the state will not issue carbon allowances to any other power plants in the commonwealth, including those owned by electric cooperatives and independent generators.

Less than a year later, President Joe Biden wants to move up the date for a carbon-free electric grid nationwide to 2035. Biden is also targeting a net-zero carbon economy by 2050. On that, Virginia is actually more ambitious, at least on paper, since the Commonwealth Energy Policy sets a goal for a net-zero economy by 2045.

Viral police stop in small Virginia town renews focus on qualified immunity
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw| Ned OliverApril 13, 2021 (Short)

Standing across from the gas station where an Army lieutenant became another viral example of aggressive policing directed at a person of color, members of the Virginia NAACP called Monday for lawmakers to hold a special session on an unfinished piece of the police reform agenda.

Though the Democratic-controlled General Assembly twice failed to approve legislation rolling back qualified immunity, some say what happened to Black and Latino Army Lt. Caron Nazario in this small town demands that policymakers try again.

“To tell us that a Black Army second lieutenant in uniform can have that type of treatment imposed upon him, imagine what happens when the body cameras are off,” said NAACP Executive Director Da’Quan Marcell Love. “Imagine what happens on dark roads across the length and breadth of this commonwealth.”

As Dominion’s rate review gears up, a broader fight about regulatory balance resurges
Virginia Mercury, Sarah VogelsongApril 9, 2021 (Short)
Virginia explained: What’s a triennial review and why should you care?
Virginia Mercury, Sarah Vogelsong April 9, 2021 (Short)

For the first time in six years, Virginia’s largest utility, which serves two-thirds of Virginia’s residential customers, will submit to a review of its base rates. Dominion Energy’s “triennial review,” coming after years of regulators reporting hundreds of millions of dollars in company overearnings, will likely be the powerful utility’s biggest battle of the year.

The outcome will determine whether the base rates it charges have been reasonable, how much it’s earned over the past four years and what profits shareholders will be allowed to reap as the company embarks on an ambitious Democrat-driven mission to transform the foundation of Virginia’s electric grid from fossil fuels to renewables.

But instead of playing out in political skirmishes in the General Assembly, this contest will unfold before the State Corporation Commission, one of the most powerful and little-known of Virginia’s government bodies which since 1902 has had the authority under the state Constitution to regulate utilities.

Done right, legal pot could bring social equity and opportunity to Virginia
Virginia Mercury, Bob Lewis – OpinionApril 5, 2021 (Short)

Virginia owes much to a smokable weed.

Look no farther than the ceiling of the state Capitol Rotunda to see painted representations of garlands of the golden-brown leaf that was essential to Virginia’s founding 400 years ago.

The Virginia Company of London, chartered as a joint stock company, encountered lean times in the early years after it established a foothold at Jamestown. Tobacco was one of its few success stories. The crop flourished in the fertile loam and sunny summers along the James River. Across the Atlantic, demand became insatiable for what was called the “joviall weed,” the “precious stink” and the “chopping herbe of hell,” according to “Virginia: The New Dominion” by historian and editor Virginius Dabney. It remained a leading cash crop in Virginia through the 20th century.

On July 1, another smokable weed, once damned by the establishment, is expected to become legal for adult recreational use. And 2½ years later, the legal commercial cultivation, processing and sale of marijuana would begin in Virginia.

The final say on that comes Wednesday when the Virginia General Assembly is expected to adopt amendments Gov. Ralph Northam made to a bill passed during the winter legislative session that at long last legalized ganja in the Old Dominion.

Should Virginia bus systems go fare free forever?
Virginia Mercury, Wyatt Gordon April 6, 2021 (Medium)

When the General Assembly created the Transit Rider Incentive Program (TRIP) as part of Gov. Ralph Northam’s 2020 transportation omnibus, the lion’s share of the funding was allocated to support new regional bus routes. With COVID’s cancellation of much commuter service across the commonwealth, those dollars are now being dedicated to TRIP’s secondary goal: fare free transit pilot projects.

With large localities like Lynchburg, Roanoke, Alexandria, Richmond, Charlottesville, and Fairfax County now expressing interest in eliminating bus fares for at least three years, could the shift to zero fares in Virginia become permanent?

Nearly every transit system in the commonwealth dropped fares last year as a public health measure in response to COVID, but until recently none had announced intentions to make that move to protect riders and operators more permanent. Based on the responses to a request for ideas DRPT issued to transit providers last fall, the list of bus systems seeking to stay fare free beyond the pandemic could soon grow substantially longer.

Virginia to expand vaccine eligibility to everyone 16 and older by mid-Ap
Virginia Mercury, Kate Masters –April 1, 2021 (Short)

Gov. Ralph Northam announced Thursday that the state will expand vaccine eligibility to all Virginians 16 and older by April 18.

The news puts Virginia nearly two weeks ahead of the May 1 deadline set by President Joe Biden earlier this month. In a news release, the administration said that nearly every high-risk Virginian who pre-registered for a vaccine has already received a shot, allowing the state to expand eligibility sooner than expected. Those still on the state’s pre-registration list will receive an appointment invitation within the next two weeks.

“Expanding vaccine eligibility to all adults marks an important milestone in our ongoing efforts to put this pandemic behind us,” Northam said in a statement. “I thank all of the public health staff, health care workers, vaccinators, and volunteers who have helped make this possible.”

Apparently fed up with paperwork coming in late, Virginia’s State Board of Elections has refused to extend a key campaign filing deadline this year, potentially affecting eight candidates running for the House of Delegates.

Three are Democrats looking to challenge incumbent lawmakers, meaning, if the decision stands, Dels. Luke Torian, D-Prince William, Betsy Carr, D-Richmond, and Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, may not face primary challengers after all. Because they represent strongly Democratic districts, their primary opponents being disqualified on technical grounds all but guarantees the incumbents will win re-election.

The decision to insist on meaningful deadlines comes after years of officials wrestling with how to handle paperwork errors, reflecting a growing feeling on the board that candidates must take responsibility for their own campaigns and follow through to ensure their documents get to the right place.

The geography of Mathews County was carved by catastrophe.

Thirty-five million years ago, a meteorite or comet tore through the Earth’s atmosphere and slammed into its surface somewhere between the county and what is now called Cape Charles. In the ruin it left behind, the Chesapeake Bay would form. Mathews, at the very tip of Virginia’s Middle Peninsula, remains one of the state’s lowest-lying areas, surrounded on three sides by the Chesapeake Bay and the waters that flow into it. 

“We’re flat as a pancake,” said Thomas Jenkins, the county’s planning, zoning and wetlands director. “Much of the county is close to sea level.” 

Today a far slower but perhaps no less catastrophic force is reshaping Mathews. As climate change drives seas upward, the county is struggling to keep its waterfront properties above the tides. 

 
Audit overwhelmingly confirms Virginia’s election results
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw March 31, 2021 (Short)

statewide audit of Virginia’s 2020 election results verified President Joe Biden’s victory in the state, finding only a 0.00000065117 percent chance the state’s voting system could have produced an inaccurate outcome.

“Election officials are over 99 percent confident in the reported outcome,” Karen Hoyt-Stewart, voting technology manager at the Virginia Department of Elections, told the State Board of Elections as she presented the audit report Wednesday.

The only way to reach 100 percent certainty would be for officials to manually review every ballot cast in the state. In other words, the audit found there’s almost zero chance a full recount would show a different outcome.

The risk-limiting audit, more of a mathematical exercise than an expansive investigation into how ballots were cast and counted, involved checking a random sample of paper ballots against the results reported by scanner machines.

It’s already too late for Virginia to redraw political districts in time for the 2021 House of Delegates races, but the U.S. Census Bureau’s decision to speed up its delivery of new population data means Virginia lawmakers could be voting on future maps right before the November elections.

Census officials had told states to expect to get the data by late September, but Virginia officials say they now expect to receive it by the second week of August.

Under the newly created Virginia Redistricting Commission’s constitutional timeline, receipt of the data starts a 45-day clock for the commission to submit new legislative maps to the General Assembly for an up-or-down vote. Once the legislature received the proposed maps, it has 15 days to vote on them.

Virginians could be harvesting their first legal crops of home-grown marijuana later this year under legislative amendments Gov. Ralph Northam says he’s sending to the General Assembly.

Northam said Wednesday he is proposing changes to the marijuana legalization bill passed by the General Assembly last month that would end the state’s prohibition on the drug beginning July 1 — up from a 2024 date proposed by lawmakers. He says he also wants to allow limited home cultivation to begin at the same time.

“Virginia will become the 15th state to legalize marijuana — and these changes will ensure we do it with a focus on public safety, public health and social justice,” he said in a statement.

Virginia lawmakers ban police use of facial recognition
AP, Denise LavoieMarch 29, 2021 (Short)

Last month, Virginia lawmakers quietly passed one of the most restrictive bans in the country on the use of facial recognition technology.

The legislation, which won unusually broad bipartisan support, prohibits all local law enforcement agencies and campus police departments from purchasing or using facial recognition technology unless it is expressly authorized by the state legislature.

But now, some law enforcement officials are asking Gov. Ralph Northam to put the brakes on the legislation, arguing that it is overly broad and hasn’t been thoroughly vetted.

Makya Little was helping her fourth-grade daughter review for the Virginia Studies SOL, a standardized test on state history, when she found herself taken aback by one of the questions on the study guide.

“She gets to this one question that says ‘What’s the status of the early African?’” said Little, who lives in Prince William County. The correct answer, according to the class materials, was “unknown. They were either servants or enslaved.”

“I got really, really upset,” Little said. While historians widely agree that the first Africans to arrive at the Jamestown settlement were enslaved, there’s been contentious discussion on the topic — some of the state’s own study materials also state that it’s “unknown” whether they arrived as slaves or indentured servants. The school division didn’t provide any of that context, and Little said multiple thoughts flashed through her head. The information was “misleading,” she added, and seemed designed to “soften how early Americans treated Black and Indigenous people” (another prompt on the study guide stated that native people and English settlers had a “trade relationship”).

Northam signs bill funding Va. community-college education costs
WTOP, Rick Massimo March 29, 2021 (Short)

Low-income students in Virginia will soon be getting financial help with all the costs of getting an education.

Gov. Ralph Northam on Monday signed into law the “Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back” program, which will provide full tuition for community college for low-income students in certain majors, as well as incidental expenses such as food and transportation.

The bill, which passed the legislature overwhelmingly last month, budgets $36 million a year over the next two years.

The bill covers education that leads to in-demand jobs in fields such as technology, skilled labor and health care. Officials gathered at Northern Virginia Community College for the signing Monday said the bill would open doors to people who were considering higher education.

“I am so incredibly proud of this initiative,” said House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn. “This has been something that we’ve been working on for a number of years.” She said there was a lot of bipartisan support for the bill even before COVID-19, but with a lot of lower-skill jobs disappearing because of the pandemic, “It’s more important now than ever.”

Va. House leaders back legalizing home-grown marijuana this summer
Virginia Mercury, Ned Oliver March 26, 2021 (Short)

Democratic leaders in the House of Delegates say they now support legalizing marijuana on July 1, joining the Senate in backing amendments to a legalization bill lawmakers passed last month.

They also went a step further, endorsing the legalization of personal cultivation at the same time.

“The time is now for us to act,” wrote speaker Eileen Filler-Corn in a statement.

The General Assembly voted at the end of February to legalize marijuana, but not until Jan. 1, 2024, when the state’s first legal marijuana businesses would open. The decision to tie legalization to commercial sales disappointed activists, who argued that waiting three years would needlessly prolong the racial disparities in policing that lawmakers said they were trying to address.

Virginia governor signs historic bill abolishing death penalty into law
CNN, Veronica StracqualursiMarch 24, 2021 (Medium)

After centuries of carrying out executions, Virginia on Wednesday became the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty after Gov. Ralph Northam signed historic legislation into law that ends capital punishment in the commonwealth.

“We can’t give out the ultimate punishment without being 100% sure that we’re right. And we can’t sentence people to that ultimate punishment knowing that the system doesn’t work the same for everyone,” Northam, a Democrat, said ahead of signing the legislation at the Greensville Correctional Center, which houses Virginia’s death chamber.

With Northam’s signature, Virginia became the first Southern state to repeal the death penalty since the US Supreme Court reinstated the punishment in 1976. The new law, set to go into effect in July, comes as a major shift for Virginia, which has put to death more people in its history than any other state.

What was expected to be a pretty predictable special election in Southwest Virginia has turned into a surprisingly intense fight in its closing days.

Voters in Virginia’s 38th Senate District will elect a new state senator through 2023 on Tuesday. Incumbent Ben Chafin died on Jan. 1 from complications related to COVID-19.

The district includes Bland, Buchanan, Dickenson, Pulaski, Russell and Tazewell counties, the cities of Norton and Radford, and portions of Montgomery, Smyth and Wise counties. 

Metro is finally catching a break, and it’s a plus for workers in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs poised to start heading back to the office once they’re vaccinated.

The $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package signed by President Joe Biden last week ends — for now — the prospect that the bus and subway operator in the D.C. area officially known as the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, would have to resort to deep service cuts to stay solvent.

Metro, hammered when commuters abandoned the system beginning a year ago to work from home, had proposed the shutdown of more than 20 of its train stations across the region’s far-flung system, ranging from College Park-University of Maryland to Smithsonian to Arlington Cemetery to Clarendon.

Virginia has $43 million in carbon market revenues. How is it going to spend it?
Virginia Mercury, Sarah VogelsongMarch 17, 2021 (Medium)

The $43 million was “in the state’s hot little hands,” Mike Dowd told the group.

So what next?

That was the question facing not only Dowd, director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s Air Division, but also a collection of developers, state officials and environmental and low-income advocacy groups who had gathered over Zoom on Monday.

All were focused on the best uses of that $43 million in carbon money, the first round of funds Virginia had received through its participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, an 11-state agreement that puts a price on the carbon emissions that are driving climate change, requires power plants to pay that price and then channels the proceeds back to the states.

Most of that funding will eventually be paid for by customers of the state’s electric utilities, which are allowed under state law to pass on the costs of carbon allowances to customers, with no extra returns for investors. State officials had conservatively projected annual proceeds from RGGI’s carbon auctions to be in the range of $106 to $109 million. But with allowances trading at $7.60 per short ton of emissions at this March’s quarterly auction, actual revenues now look to be much higher, amounting to perhaps as much as $174 million annually if prices hold.

Virginia could soon push more workers to save for retirement. Here’s how:
Virginia Mercury, Graham MoomawMarch 16, 2021 (Short)

Thousands of Virginia workers would gain the option of automatically putting away part of their paychecks for retirement under legislation the General Assembly passed last month to help private-sector employees who lack access to a savings plan through their employer.

The bill, awaiting action by Gov. Ralph Northam, establishes a state-administered program that would offer IRA accounts to workers with no other retirement plan options, particularly employees of small businesses, self-employed people and gig workers. 

The accounts would be optional, but workers would be enrolled by default and would have to opt out if they want to keep their whole paycheck. The plans would be portable, meaning workers could keep putting money into the same account even if they switch jobs.

Covered businesses would have to help interested workers participate in the program, mainly by setting up their accounting systems to allow payroll deductions to be made, but they wouldn’t have to contribute funds of their own.

Did Virginia lawmakers accidentally vote to legalize skill games for another year?
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw March 16, 2021 (Short)

After giving so-called skill games another year to operate in Virginia late in the 2020 General Assembly session, legislators seemed to decide the time has come to pull the plug on thousands of slots-like gambling machines that have proliferated in convenience stores, restaurants and truck stops all over the state.

But some statehouse watchers think lawmakers may have actually voted to do the opposite.

Confusion recently spread among gambling lobbyists over a little-noticed provision attached to a bill that, on its face, makes it easier for officials to crack down on unregulated gambling.

On environmental justice, Democrats split over the best path forward
Virginia Mercury, Sarah Vogelsong –March 12, 2021 (Medium)

When the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down an air permit last year for a compressor station Dominion Energy wanted to site in the majority-Black community of Union Hill as part of the 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline, the judges admonished state officials that “environmental justice is not merely a box to be checked.”

In the wake of the ruling, newly ascendant Democrats in the General Assembly looked to legislation as a fix. Environmental justice — the idea that no group should bear a disproportionate share of negative environmental consequences and that communities impacted should have “meaningful involvement” in the decision-making process — was added to state code and its promotion became declared state policy.

But as the 2021 session drew to a close, Democrats split over what to do next.

“I’m sorry to say we are very far apart on environmental justice issues with the other body,” Del. Shelly Simonds, D-Newport News, told colleagues in a late-night floor speech in the House of Delegates on the last day of the session. “I think that we are a long way off from where we need to be in having consensus on the need for environmental justice.”

Virginia’s black bears are flourishing. Officials have the bear teeth to prove it.
Virginia Mercury, Sarah Vogelsong –March 9, 2021 (Short)

From numbers that had dwindled to around 1,000 at midcentury, Virginia’s black bears have been making a comeback.

For the past few decades, thanks to reforestation and state management, the black bear has become more and more common in the commonwealth. And while population estimates aren’t an exact science, relying as they do on factors like hunting data and human-bear interactions, one Virginia wildlife official puts the current count at between 18,000 and 20,000.

“Surveys show bears are very popular. Citizens like bears. They want to have bears,” said Nelson Lafon, the Forest Wildlife Program manager for the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources.

A senior investigator in Virginia’s watchdog agency has filed a lawsuit claiming she was wrongfully suspended from her job last week after giving General Assembly leaders documents dealing with her investigation into wrongdoing by the Virginia Parole Board.

Jennifer Moschetti, an employee of the Office of the State Inspector General, filed the suit Monday in Richmond, claiming she had been subjected to “retaliatory actions” for conduct protected under the state’s whistleblower law.

The lawsuit is the latest explosive development in a controversy over how the Parole Board handled several high-profile cases last year and whether other state officials sought to conceal the extent of OSIG’s findings detailing numerous violations of Parole Board policies and state law.

Big uptick in vaccine supplies for states expected soon
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.

Emily’s Tale: Where government programs fail, humanity must step up
Virginia Mercury, Bob Lewis, opinionFebruary 22, 2021 (Short)

Government spending and programs are not the only answer to some of the nation’s most persistent needs.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t enact more federal relief for people who’ve been financially wrecked by no fault of their own during the coronavirus pandemic. We should, and soon! But target the spending to those whose livelihoods and economic security have been crushed, their families left homeless and queued in long lines outside food pantries. Put the cash where it’s needed, not with those who’ve fared well.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t spend — and mightily — on our crumbling national infrastructure, on America’s vulnerable electrical grid and information technology networks. The past month’s headlines prove the dire urgency of it and there is ready bipartisan concurrence on those needs, yet somehow nothing gets done.

When Virginia senators passed a bill requiring local school divisions to provide in-person instruction by the summer, some anticipated the legislation would face an uphill battle in the House.

Nearly a month later, though, the same legislation is now on the verge of passing both chambers after several rounds of revisions — and mounting pressure to return children to school buildings.

Just a few days after the Senate vote, Gov. Ralph Northam directed Virginia’s 132 local divisions to begin offering in-person classes by March 15, saying that months of remote learning was “taking a toll on our children and our families.” Northam’s announcement followed a pledge from President Joe Biden to reopen schools within his first 100 days of office, and new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on safely reopening schools and mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in buildings.

Virginia legislature sends death penalty repeal to Northam
Virginia Mercury, Ned OliverFebruary 22, 2021 (Short)

Virginia lawmakers gave final passage to legislation abolishing the death penalty Monday, sending the bill to Gov. Ralph Northam, who has said he’ll sign it.

Northam’s signature would make Virginia the first state in the South and the 23rd in the nation to end capital punishment.

“This legislation says a lot about who we are as a commonwealth, what kind of values we have as a commonwealth,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, who sponsored the legislation in the Senate. “It says a lot about how we value human life. It says a lot about how our commonwealth is going to move past some of our darkest moments in terms of how this punishment was applied and who it was applied to. This vote also says a lot about justice.”

Push to extend minimum wage increase to farmworkers voted down by Virginia Senate
Virginia Mercury, Ned OliverFebruary 23, 2021 (Short)

When the General Assembly voted last year to ramp up Virginia’s minimum wage to $12, agricultural employees were among a handful of groups excluded from the increase — an exemption that traces its roots to Jim Crow-era segregation.

Lawmakers in the Senate said Monday they stand by that decision, voting down legislation passed by the House of Delegates that would have extended the state’s employment laws to farmworkers for the first time.

“I understand the exuberance and I understand the need to move forward, but we just had a robust discussion on this last year,” said Sen. Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack, one of 10 lawmakers on the Senate’s Commerce and Labor Committee who opposed the legislation.

Electric utility rate reform efforts quashed by Senate committee
Virginia Mercury, Sarah VogelsongFebruary 15, 2021 (Short)

The Senate Commerce and Labor Committee on Monday swiftly killed the last of more than half a dozen bills this session that aimed to reform Virginia’s system of electric utility rate review, which is seen by Wall Street investors as favorable to the utilities and by critics as an example of legislative capture by companies with an outsize influence over the General Assembly.

The move angered the growing number of groups and lawmakers of both parties in Virginia that over the past few years have been lobbying to roll back regulations seen as enabling excessive profits for the state’s two largest electric monopolies, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power.

“It’s a shame that the committee decided that it should not be the policy of the commonwealth that monopoly utility rates should be just and reasonable,” said Will Cleveland, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center who frequently argues against the utilities before the State Corporation Commission. “It was clear that the Senate committee had no intention of debating the merits or the policy of the bills today.”

Fifteen years ago, more than 1.3 million Virginians said marriage should only mean a union between a man and a woman and same-sex couples shouldn’t be entitled to similar status that would give them the same rights under the law as straight couples.

That was the view of 57 percent of Virginians who voted in 2006, more than enough to put a same-sex marriage ban in the state Constitution.

Much has changed since then. And Democratic lawmakers want to give a new generation of Virginians an opportunity to make a different statement in 2022.

A bill that would let millions of electric customers in Virginia again begin purchasing renewable energy from companies other than the utility that controls their territory cleared the House of Delegates last week but now faces a Senate committee that struck the proposal down in 2020.

“The Senate oftentimes is a higher hurdle to get over,” said Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, the sponsor of House Bill 2048. “I think we’ve got a puncher’s chance, right? So we’re going to go in and give it all we got.”

Bourne’s bill targets a provision of state code that allows licensed third-party suppliers to sell “100 percent renewable energy” to customers in utility territory as long as the utility isn’t offering the same product. On the books since 2007, the law was rarely used until relatively recently, when renewables prices began to fall and more Americans began to shy away from carbon-emitting fossil fuels.

At General Assembly’s halftime, consumers hold a narrow lead
Virginia Mercury, Ivy MainFebruary 8, 2021 (Medium)

Virginia is, famously, a state that prides itself on being business-friendly. That makes it all the more interesting that a number of bills favoring consumers have made it through the House. Democrats have led the charge, but several of the bills earned bipartisan support even in the face of utility opposition.

This doesn’t guarantee their luck will hold. Democrats aren’t just more numerous in the House, they are also younger and more independent-minded than the old guard Democrats in control of the Senate. The second half of the session is going to be a lot more challenging for pro-consumer legislation.

The action will be especially hot in the coming days around five bills dealing with utility reform and a customer’s “right to shop” for renewable energy (HB2048). All these bills passed the House with at least some Republican support. But they are headed to Senate Commerce and Labor, which, though dominated by Democrats, has a long history of protecting utilities.

Democrats pushing to create incentives for drivers to buy electric vehicles as part of a broader goal of weaning Virginia’s transportation sector off fossil fuels are running into a roadblock: too little state money in a budget constrained by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have more priorities now than we do funding,” said Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun, who this session is carrying a bill to create an electric vehicle rebate program. “This would be a really tough priority to be able to fund right now.”

Slowing climate change through decarbonization has been a major priority of Virginia Democrats since they won majorities in both chambers of the legislature in 2019, handing them control of state government. Last year they passed the Virginia Clean Economy Act, a marquee environmental law that committed the state’s electric grid to being carbon-free by 2050. This year they are focusing on transportation, which according to federal calculations is responsible for nearly half of Virginia’s carbon emissions.

Va. House leaders block delegate’s effort to force vote on right-to-work repeal
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw –February 3, 2021 (Short)

The right-to-work law, which dates back to 1947 in Virginia, prevents unions from forcing workers to pay union dues as a condition of their employment, which effectively weakens organized labor.

Carter is running as a staunch progressive in Democratic gubernatorial field that also includes former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond and former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy.

Simon, a co-sponsor of the legislation to repeal right-to-work, said that even if Carter got his bill onto the House floor it would not pass. He also called his motion to reject the maneuver a “purely procedural vote.”

Virginia Senate votes to abolish death penalty
Virginia Mercury, Ned OliverFebruary 3, 2021 (Short)

Lawmakers in the Virginia Senate voted Wednesday to abolish the death penalty, setting the state on a course to become the first in the South to end capital punishment.

“If we look back 50 years from now, the electric chair, the lethal injection table — they’re going to be sitting in a museum,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, who sponsored the bill. “This thing is going to be a museum piece and people are going to look back and wonder how it ever was we used these things.”

The legislation passed on a party-line vote, with all 21 of the Democrats in the chamber supporting it. One Republican, Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, abstained. The bill would commute the sentences of the two men currently on Virginia’s death row to life sentences with no possibility of parole.

State lawmakers are angling to pass legislation before the session ends Feb. 11.

 

In the past year, the state has ended criminal penalties for minor marijuana offenses and established a medical marijuana program. Now, Virginia lawmakers are scrambling to pass full legalization before their 30-day legislative session wraps up in less than two weeks.

If signed into law, the move would represent weed’s deepest incursion into the southeast, where only a handful of states have even embraced medical marijuana and still have some of the nation’s harshest punishments over the drug.

Legalization still faces pushback from many Republicans, cops and substance abuse treatment professionals, who argue the state is moving way too fast on an issue with huge public health ramifications.

 

More than three years after Amazon announced that it was expanding beyond its current Seattle headquarters, construction at the Virginia site — located across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. — is now well underway. Dubbed PenPlace, the newly unveiled proposal for the project’s second phase will provide a further 2.8 million square feet of office space across three 22-story buildings.

The site’s focal point will be The Helix, a tree-covered glass structure where a series of “alternative work environments” will be set amid indoor gardens and greenery from the nearby area, tended to by a team of horticulturalists. According to the architecture firm behind the project, NBBJ, a spiral “hill climb” will meanwhile allow employees and visitors to ascend the outside of the structure.

Virginia Republicans appear to be sticking with their plans to hold a convention to select their nominees for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.

The decision has not come easily. The party’s central committee has been divided for weeks, leading to procedural deadlock, convoluted parliamentary maneuvers and increasingly heated debate that on Saturday left members exasperated.

“We have had cursing on this call; the last meeting devolved into people yelling,” said Willie Deutsch, a committee member representing the state’s 1st Congressional District. “There comes a time when we have to come together as a party and stop the vicious incivility and attacks.”

The central committee, which governs the operations of the state party and includes 80 members from around the state, had already decided to hold a convention at a meeting in December.

The company that operates Virginia’s only private prison doled out campaign contributions to 29 Virginia lawmakers ahead of a push to pass legislation banishing the for-profit corrections industry from the state, according to campaign finance records compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project.

And when the bill came before a Senate panel last week for its first hearing, it died a quick and sudden death, with some of the legislators who received the donations speaking most forcefully against it.

Lawmakers, who almost always maintain that there is no connection between campaign contributions and their legislative decision making, called it a coincidence.

“Did not even realize they made a contribution,” said Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, who received $500 from the company and spoke against the bill at length during last week’s committee hearing. He attributed his opposition to a convincing phone call from a lobbyist and the fact that it would not address other prison contractors he views as more problematic, such as the companies that charge inmates inflated prices for phone calls and packs of ramen.

McAuliffe dominates gubernatorial fundraising, reporting more cash than all opponents combined
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw –January 16, 2021 (Short)

Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe entered 2021 with more money in the bank than all other candidates for governor combined, according to year-end campaign finance reports that were due Friday.

McAuliffe, who was expected to have a strong money advantage given his background in political fundraising and ties to national Democrats, began the year with more than $5.5 million on hand.

Former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy reported almost $1.3 million on hand, state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond reported about $633,000 and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax reported nearly $80,000.

Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, who just officially entered the field Jan. 1, reported about $7,000 on hand in his House of Delegates re-election account.

Matchmaker, matchmaker make Democrats a match
Jeff SchapiroJanuary 15, 2021 (Short)

Democrats agree their ticket can’t be three white guys and it shouldn’t be overweighted to the party’s anchor, Northern Virginia. The backlash to Donald Trump, the fury over George Floyd and the aftershocks of Ralph Northam’s blackface moment — all factors in the ballooning field — demand a ticket that looks like the New Virginia.

If only Democrats, mindful of demographic and geographic balance, could assemble it the old-fashioned way, the un-democratic way in which the whims of grandees carried disproportionate weight. This worked when the party was a white segregationist cabal and, because of laws limiting access to the polls, only a sliver of eligible population voted.

Modern Democrats acknowledge that synching up slates of candidates ahead of the June primary is perilous and would fuel resentments that would weaken the party. That doesn’t mean they don’t consider the possibility — as an abstract exercise. Put another way: Democrats can dream.

State of the Commonwealth 2021
January 14, 2021 (58:16)
The outside world intrudes on Virginia politics — again
Jeff SchapiroJanuary 13, 2021 (Short)

Defining issues for Democrats are those on which there are deep divisions within the majority party. That will become clear as the General Assembly lurches toward adjournment in late February, relying on a parliamentary sleight of hand to bypass one by Republicans that threatened to squeeze the session to 30 days from the usual 46.

These issues include taxes, marijuana, paid sick leave, police reform, civil and voting rights, campaign finance, gambling and reopening public schools during the pandemic. Differences on policy are exacerbated by differences in personality, especially House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, both of Fairfax.

Virginians got a taste of both during the interminable special session that, over nearly 85 days, pivoted from repairs to the COVID-19-wracked budget and post-George Floyd police reform to an all-you-can-eat legislative buffet that restyled the General Assembly as a mini-Congress.

Terry McAuliffe wants to be governor again. Women: Not so fast.
Sabrina Rodriguez and Maya KingDecember 8, 2020 (Medium)

“I understand the desire for someone to come back and have a sequel, second chapter,” said one Virginia Democrat. “But times change, and new leaders evolve.”

Terry McAuliffe has long signaled he wants his old job back as Virginia governor. But a slew of political groups focused on women and Black voters have a message before he jumps in the race: It’s not your time.

McAuliffe’s 2021 run — he is planning to announce on Wednesday, POLITICO confirmed — has rankled a number of groups across the commonwealth and country. They argue he shouldn’t be trying to reclaim the post he vacated three years ago when there are already two Black female candidates in the field— state Sen. Jennifer McClellan and state Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy.

“We’ve never elected a Black woman governor in this country’s history,” said Glynda Carr, CEO of the Higher Heights PAC, which supports Black women running for political office.

Virginia certifies 2020 election results
APNovember 18, 2020 (Short)

The State Board of Elections in Virginia voted Wednesday to certify the state’s election results, two days later than expected because of a COVID-19 outbreak in the city of Richmond’s voter registration office.

The board’s 3-0 vote certified results for president, U.S. Senate, U.S. House elections and state constitutional amendments in a 10-minute meeting without comment, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported. Virginia’s certification comes as former Vice President Joe Biden prepares to assume the presidency and President Donald Trump continues to sow doubt about the national election.

The Associated Press on Sunday projected that U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger will be reelected to her seat in Virginia’s 7th District after a dayslong count of votes that was prolonged by mail-in votes in the midst of the pandemic.

Spanberger, a Democrat, is nearly 8,000 votes ahead of Republican Del. Nick Freitas in the strip-shaped district in central Virginia that includes Culpeper, Chesterfield, Henrico and Nottoway counties and skirts to the west of Richmond.

Spanberger’s apparent result means that the only non-incumbent to win a seat in Congress from Virginia was a member of the incumbent’s own party. The partisan breakdown remains seven Democrats to four Republicans.

Biden, Warner wins show Democrats still dominate in Virginia
Gregory S. Schneider and Laura VozzellaNovember 4, 2020 (Medium)

The apparently comfortable margins of victory for both former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Mark R. Warner (D) in Virginia on Tuesday extended an 11-year record of dominance for Democrats in statewide races and cemented the commonwealth’s status as reliably blue.

But at the local and regional level, a different dynamic holds — as evidenced by Republican strength in three close congressional contests driven by rural and military voters energized by support for President Trump.

The results suggest how much the state mirrors the nation as a whole, becoming more polarized and less attuned to the old “Virginia way” of consensus politics, said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

“This was an intensified partisan vote,” Rozell said.

AP: Mark Warner wins third term as US Senator
13News Now Staff, Associated PressNovember 3, 2020 (Short)

Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia has won a third term to office.
Warner defeated Republican challenger Daniel Gade on Tuesday in a low-key race whose outcome was never in doubt.

Democrats have not lost a statewide election in Virginia since 2009. Warner is a former governor and current vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He had a massive cash advantage and scared off well-known Republicans from running against him.

Election results for Virginia’s House of Representatives candidates
Jonathan FranklinNovember 4, 2020 (Short)

All of Virginia’s U.S. House seats were up for re-election, as well as one critical U.S. Senate seat. Virginia also voted on whether or not to create a commission to re-draw lines of congressional districts.

In District 8, Donald Beyer, Jr., the Democratic incumbent, is the projected winner according to the Associated Press. Beyer has held this office since 2015.

At the headquarters of the Fauquier County Republican Committee in Warrenton, Virginia, a cardboard cutout of John Wayne gripping a rifle leans against a wall. Chair Gregory Schumacher says Wayne was “the great American Western hero,” and he says Republicans who held the Fifth District in Congress for all but two of the last 20 years will keep it in their hands this November.

Although the populous counties of Northern Virginia have powered the state’s drift into Democratic control, Schumacher says he sits on the political boundary. “When you come out from the Beltway, Fauquier County’s the first one that goes red,” Schumacher said.

But there are signs that this year could be different as Republican contender Bob Good faces Democratic challenger Cameron Webb in what political prediction site FiveThirtyEight calls the most competitive House race in the country. Webb has outraised Good fourfold and held a slight lead in the last three polls. Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia and The Cook Political Report call the congressional race a toss-up. If Democrats can win this seat, they will continue a blue wave that flipped three House seats in 2018.

X
Covid-19
Should my child get the COVID-19 vaccine? 7 questions answered by a pediatric infectious disease expert
Virginia Mercury, Dr. Debbie-Ann Shirley, University of VirginiaMay 18, 2021 (Short)

The Food and Drug Administration expanded emergency use authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to include adolescents 12 to 15 years of age on May 10. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention followed with recommendations endorsing use in this age group after their advisory group meeting on May 12. The American Academy of Pediatrics also supports this decision.

Dr. Debbie-Ann Shirley is an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Virginia specializing in pediatric infectious diseases. Here she addresses some of the concerns parents may have about their teen or preteen getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

1. Does the vaccine work in adolescents?
Yes, recently released data from Pfizer-BioNTech shows that the COVID-19 vaccine seems to work really well in this age group. The COVID-19 vaccine was found to be 100 percent efficacious in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 in an ongoing clinical trial of children in the U.S. aged 12 to 15. Adolescents made high levels of antibody in response to the vaccine, and their immune response was just as strong as what has been seen in older teens and young adults 16-25 years of age.

A COVID-19 vaccine mandate is not being ruled out in Virginia but it won’t happen in the near future, if at all. That’s according to the state’s Vaccine Coordinator Dr. Danny Avula, who spoke to 8News via Zoom on Thursday.

In the meantime, Dr. Avula said the use of so-called “vaccine passports” or certifications are a more likely solution for skepticism.

“If our ability to move forward as a society, to open back up businesses, to open back up schools, is contingent on this, then I think we find every way we can to incentivize it and potentially even get to a point where we require it, but I think we’re a long way from that,” Dr. Avula said.

Northam amends Virginia’s mask mandate to match CDC guidance
Virginia Mercury, Kate Masters April 29, 2021 (Short)

Gov. Ralph Northam amended Virginia’s mask mandate to match recently issued guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The changes, announced in a Thursday press release, went into effect immediately, according to Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky. They allow fully vaccinated Virginians to “participate in outdoor activities and recreation without a mask,” based on language from the CDC. Those include solo activities and small outside gatherings of fully vaccinated people.

People are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving their second shot (or two weeks after their first, in the case of Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose vaccine). Neither the state nor the CDC has specified whether there’s an exact size limit for “small” outdoor gatherings, but Yarmosky said the administration is “asking folks to use their best judgement.”

Will Virginia colleges require COVID-19 vaccinations? Should they?
Capital News Service, Hunter BrittApril 22, 2021 (Short)

Virginia universities plan a return to campuses in the fall, but there are questions if the COVID-19 vaccine can be mandated.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration only authorized the vaccine for emergency purposes, according to Lisa Lee, professor of public health at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. The vaccine does not yet have full FDA approval.

The vaccine was authorized for emergency use, so people have to be given the choice to take it and be informed of the consequences if they don’t, Lee said.

“Many legal scholars have interpreted that as saying that people cannot be required to take a vaccine that is under an emergency use authorization,” Lee said. “They can be when it has full approval, so that’s where the hitch is.”

Starting May 15, Virginia will significantly relax capacity restrictions on social gatherings and entertainment venues as COVID-19 numbers plateau across much of the state.

Gov. Ralph Northam announced the latest rollback in a video message on Thursday, citing the state’s continued progress in vaccinations. Data from the Virginia Department of Health indicates that more than 40 percent of the population has received at least one shot and more than 26 percent are fully vaccinated. Every Virginian 16 and older became eligible for the vaccine on Sunday.

“Vaccination numbers are up, and our COVID case numbers are substantially lower than they were earlier this year,” Northam said in a statement. “So, we have been able to begin easing some mitigation measures.”

Over the last month, state and federal officials have directed thousands of COVID-19 vaccines to large-scale clinics in vulnerable communities with high rates of coronavirus cases — all in areas with significant or majority Black and Latino populations.

The sites have been touted by leaders as a core strategy in expanding access to vaccines among communities of color, where immunization rates are consistently lower than they are for White Virginians. “We have done a very good job in the commonwealth in addressing this issue,” state Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said at a news briefing last month in response to questions over vaccine equity.

“We have brought on staff in our emergency support team that is doing outreach in these communities,” he added. “We’ve put boots on the ground in all 35 of our health districts and those teams are doing your basic sort of community organizing — door to door, working with faith leaders, community-based organizations to bring people from these vulnerable populations to our vaccination sites.”

Virginia doctors worry that pandemic burnout could push providers out of the field
Virginia Mercury, Kate Masters -April 9, 2021 (Short)

National data is shedding new light on how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting medical providers and their mental health as they balance the emotional and physical demands of a sometimes deadly virus. For frontline hospital workers, it’s often the visceral jolt — and exhausting work — of caring for critically ill patients. But primary care physicians are also reporting fears of infection and ongoing stress that comes from a radical shift in how their businesses operate.

In Virginia, there’s growing concern that burnout and extreme stress could lead more providers to leave the field or grapple with long-term mental health problems. On an individual level, it’s bad for doctors and their patients. But on a systemic level, there’s also worry that COVID-19 could make an existing physician shortage worse.

“One of the things we always talk about is physicians, nurses, support staff — they’re taking care of patients every day,” said Taylor Woody, the communications manager for the Medical Society of Virginia. “But who’s focusing on taking care of them?”

Virginia to pilot COVID-19 testing program in public schools
Virginia Mercury, Kate Masters -April 5, 2021 (Medium)

Virginia is one of a growing number of states exploring testing as a way to combat COVID-19 in K-12 schools.

Dr. Laurie Forlano, a deputy commissioner for the Virginia Department of Health, said the agency is launching a pilot program to provide rapid antigen tests to schools across the state. VDH is rolling out the program with Abbott BinaxNOW tests — portable kits, roughly the size of a credit card, that provide results in around 15 minutes.

“We agree that testing can be a layer of prevention,” said Forlano, who oversees population health for the department. The concept of screening students and staff isn’t a new one, and some colleges and private K-12 schools have been testing since the fall. But it’s taken on a new importance since Virginia — like many states across the country — began encouraging local school divisions to reopen for in-person instruction.

As of March 22, only three of Virginia’s 132 school districts were operating fully remotely. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have also issued interim guidance for K-12 testing, which is largely mirrored by VDH in its own reopening guidelines for schools.

Virginia to expand vaccine eligibility to everyone 16 and older by mid-April
Virginia Mercury, Kate Masters -April 1, 2021 (Short)

Gov. Ralph Northam announced Thursday that the state will expand vaccine eligibility to all Virginians 16 and older by April 18.

The news puts Virginia nearly two weeks ahead of the May 1 deadline set by President Joe Biden earlier this month. In a news release, the administration said that nearly every high-risk Virginian who pre-registered for a vaccine has already received a shot, allowing the state to expand eligibility sooner than expected. Those still on the state’s pre-registration list will receive an appointment invitation within the next two weeks.

“Expanding vaccine eligibility to all adults marks an important milestone in our ongoing efforts to put this pandemic behind us,” Northam said in a statement. “I thank all of the public health staff, health care workers, vaccinators, and volunteers who have helped make this possible.”

In late September, when Virginia health officials launched a dashboard that detailed outbreaks in K-12 schools across the state, it was applauded as a long-needed step toward more transparency — and a relief for parents hesitant over the prospect of sending their children back to the classroom.

Six months later, the data on reopening has gained even more importance amid a state and nationwide push to return students to the classroom. But there are limits on what it can and can’t tell officials, parents and others looking for answers on the relative risks of in-person school.

In early February, Gov. Ralph Northam directed local divisions to begin offering in-person instruction by March 15. Three weeks later, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation — with bipartisan support — that mandates a return to the classroom by July 1.

As a result, only three of the state’s 132 local school divisions were operating fully remotely as of March 22, according to data from the Virginia Department of Education. Thirty-eight are fully in-person — defined by the agency as providing at least four days of in-person instruction for all students.

Pandemic deaths fail to shake loose a legislative solution on nursing home staffing
Virginia Mercury, Kate Masters -March 25, 2021 (Short)

Sam Kukich was initially excited to join a workgroup she thought would focus on improving staffing levels at Virginia nursing homes.

The director of Dignity for the Aged, a Poquoson-based nonprofit, Kukich had become an almost inadvertent advocate for reforming standards of care in the nursing home industry. She and her family had already made headlines across the state when they detailed a nearly five-year-long struggle to find care for her mother-in-law, who lost 65 pounds and suffered dozens of falls at multiple facilities in the Hampton Roads region.

When she started Dignity for the Aged in 2018, largely out of frustration, Kukich started hearing from “all sorts of people” about cases of abuse and neglect in Virginia nursing homes. Many of the cases, she said, were linked to understaffing — certified nursing assistants and other health care workers who were simply too overworked and overwhelmed to properly care for residents.

So Kukich was disappointed last year, when a Virginia Senate subcommittee rejected a bill from Sen. Jennifer Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach, that would set minimum staffing ratios for the industry. It was the 16th straight year similar legislation had died, but this time, legislators ordered the state Department of Health to organize a work group to “review and make recommendations” on increasing the nursing home workforce in Virginia.

With COVID-19 cases down after a winter surge, and with nearly a quarter of the population having received at least one dose of vaccine, Gov. Ralph Northam is again rolling back some of Virginia’s pandemic restrictions — cautiously.

At a Tuesday news briefing, the governor announced the expansion of the attendance cap on indoor social gatherings from 10 to 50 people. Outdoor gatherings, currently limited to 25 attendees, will be allowed up to 100.

Alena Yarmosky, the governor’s spokeswoman, said the new guidelines will offer slightly more flexibility to events-oriented businesses — including Virginia’s wedding industry, which has lobbed some of the harshest criticism at Northam’s health and safety guidelines (at least two venue owners have sued over the restrictions).

But the governor is still taking a moderate approach to reopening compared to some neighboring states, including Maryland, where Gov. Larry Hogan lifted all capacity restrictions for the vast majority of businesses earlier this month. Northam’s executive order requiring mask wearing in indoor public areas remains in effect.

More essential workers and Virginians with underlying medical conditions can now access COVID-19 vaccines through major pharmacies across the state, the Virginia Department of Health announced Wednesday.

There are currently eight large chains that offer vaccines through a partnership with the federal government, including CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, Kroger and Albertson’s, which owns Safeway grocery stores.

Some independent pharmacies are also included in the partnership, which provides doses to more than 300 locations across Virginia, according to Stephanie Wheawill, director of VDH’s Division of Pharmacy Services.

While the doses supplied to pharmacies are separate from Virginia’s overall allotment, Wheawill said locations are asked to follow the state’s distribution guidelines. Until this week, state health officials instructed pharmacies to limit doses to residents 65 and older, as well as certain essential worker categories.

Vaccine passports’ that show you’re inoculated are on the way
Virginia Mercury, Laura OlsonMarch 17, 2021 (Short)

More than 70 million Americans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine — and along with that shot, a small paper card with the CDC’s label detailing the timing and manufacturer of the dose.

Those paper cards at the moment are the only proof readily available to Americans of their vaccination against a virus that has upended businesses, schools and most other aspects of daily life.

That could soon change, with multiple companies and nonprofit groups working to create “vaccine passports” — smartphone-based apps that would allow someone to certify that they’ve been vaccinated. The apps so far are aimed at travelers, who may be required to show proof of their vaccination status before boarding a plane or entering another country.

In early January, Gov. Ralph Northam warned that the worst of Virginia’s winter surge may not have happened yet.

“The virus is worse now than it’s ever been,” he said at a news briefing. At the time, the state had reached an all-time high in daily new cases and hospitalizations — a trend that threatened to overwhelm some hospital systems. Many local health departments were forced to suspend contact tracing programs amid the spike, warning residents that winter travel and holiday gatherings had made it impossible to keep up with cases.

“Case numbers are about four times higher than they were last spring, and we can expect them to go higher,” Northam continued. “In fact, the [University of Virginia] model shows cases could keep rising until Valentine’s Day or even later.”

The COVID-19 crisis and senior living: an insider’s perspective
Virginia Mercury, Morris S. Funk, guest columnMarch 17, 2021 (Short)

The pandemic has made this past year unlike any other at Beth Sholom, a senior living center in Henrico.

In late February, it seemed we were facing a typical long-term care viral threat, but I could not shake the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that this was going to be much bigger. In the early, there was so little information available, making it difficult to anticipate and prepare for the reality of what was coming. We were one of the first senior living communities in our area to lock down, and like so many others in our industry, we faced extraordinary daily challenges and heartbreaking losses.

Here is our story.

Our frontline staff put themselves and their families at risk every day simply by coming to work. Once the March lockdown was in place, many of our staff found it difficult to meet the challenges of working and managing their families. When schools closed, they scrambled to find ways to address the needs of their children while continuing to work. Daily, our employees faced the fear of bringing the virus — which was not understood — home to their family.

Participation in Virginia’s Immunization Information System is critical for keeping Virginia healthy
Virginia Mercury, Dr. Michael Martin, commentaryMarch 12, 2021 (Short)

As Virginia continues to combat the public health challenges of COVID-19, the distribution of vaccines in the commonwealth provides a long-needed glimmer of hope.

The complex COVID-19 vaccine distribution process underscores the importance of accurate immunization histories and records. While Virginia had the foresight years ago to invest in an immunization registry for individuals, families, medical providers and public health researchers, recent action by the General Assembly has strengthened the statewide database of vaccine history and distribution. To keep our communities healthy even after the pandemic, all health care providers that administer vaccines, starting in January 2022, will participate in the Virginia Immunization Information System.

VIIS is a free, statewide, digital immunization registry that records reported vaccination doses distributed by health care providers to individuals, thus increasing the ability to appropriately react to vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks. Vaccine registry systems like VIIS are incredibly helpful for improving the public health response to outbreaks of diseases like measles, Hepatitis A, H1N1, and now COVID-19. By sharing the data with the state, appropriate resources can be deployed to counteract outbreaks and help increase community immunization rates. Currently, the Virginia Department of Health reports that 2.1 million children are under-immunized.

For public health experts across Virginia, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was a more-than-welcome addition to the state’s weekly allocation.

The one-dose shot boosted Virginia’s shipments by 69,000 this week, spurring a slew of new mass vaccination events. It doesn’t have the same cold storage requirements, making it easier to ship and redistribute. And at the national level, it’s prompting a new wave of optimism, with President Joe Biden promising a vaccine “for every adult in America by the end of May.”

But state health officials also worry the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has an image problem. When trial data was released, many reports honed in on the numbers: 72 percent effective against COVID-19 infections in the United States, 66 percent effective in South America and 57 percent effective in South Africa. Pfizer’s, by contrast, showed 95 percent effectiveness at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 after two doses. Moderna’s showed 94.1 percent.

Biden urges states to speed up COVID-19 vaccinations for teachers
Virginia Mercury, Laura OlsonMarch 3, 2021 (Short)

President Joe Biden is urging states to prioritize teachers for COVID-19 vaccines, setting a goal of ensuring that every pre-kindergarten through 12th grade educator, school staff member and childcare worker is able to receive at least one shot this month.

At least 34 states and the District of Columbia have some or all teachers eligible to receive the coronavirus vaccine, according to tracking data from Education Week.

That tally has been growing in recent weeks, as many students across the country approach the one-year mark for switching to virtual classes due to the pandemic.

Biden’s latest directive to states is the latest step in his administration’s effort to aid schools in safely reopening their buildings to in-person classes. In a televised statement from the White House on Tuesday, Biden described teachers as “essential workers,” and said that accelerating vaccinations can help assuage anxieties about school reopenings.

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.

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 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
October 28, 2020 (59:00)
Virginia health officials issue COVID-19 warning over small gatherings
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
October 13, 2020 (54:00)
Virginia COVID-19 Briefing
September 15, 2020 (40:00)
Virginia COVID-19 Briefing
August 5, 2020 (01:00:00)
Virginia COVID-19 Briefing
July 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

Should my child get the COVID-19 vaccine? 7 questions answered by a pediatric infectious disease expert
Virginia Mercury, Dr. Debbie-Ann Shirley, University of VirginiaMay 18, 2021 (Short)

The Food and Drug Administration expanded emergency use authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to include adolescents 12 to 15 years of age on May 10. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention followed with recommendations endorsing use in this age group after their advisory group meeting on May 12. The American Academy of Pediatrics also supports this decision.

Dr. Debbie-Ann Shirley is an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Virginia specializing in pediatric infectious diseases. Here she addresses some of the concerns parents may have about their teen or preteen getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

1. Does the vaccine work in adolescents?
Yes, recently released data from Pfizer-BioNTech shows that the COVID-19 vaccine seems to work really well in this age group. The COVID-19 vaccine was found to be 100 percent efficacious in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 in an ongoing clinical trial of children in the U.S. aged 12 to 15. Adolescents made high levels of antibody in response to the vaccine, and their immune response was just as strong as what has been seen in older teens and young adults 16-25 years of age.

A COVID-19 vaccine mandate is not being ruled out in Virginia but it won’t happen in the near future, if at all. That’s according to the state’s Vaccine Coordinator Dr. Danny Avula, who spoke to 8News via Zoom on Thursday.

In the meantime, Dr. Avula said the use of so-called “vaccine passports” or certifications are a more likely solution for skepticism.

“If our ability to move forward as a society, to open back up businesses, to open back up schools, is contingent on this, then I think we find every way we can to incentivize it and potentially even get to a point where we require it, but I think we’re a long way from that,” Dr. Avula said.

Northam amends Virginia’s mask mandate to match CDC guidance
Virginia Mercury, Kate Masters April 29, 2021 (Short)

Gov. Ralph Northam amended Virginia’s mask mandate to match recently issued guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The changes, announced in a Thursday press release, went into effect immediately, according to Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky. They allow fully vaccinated Virginians to “participate in outdoor activities and recreation without a mask,” based on language from the CDC. Those include solo activities and small outside gatherings of fully vaccinated people.

People are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving their second shot (or two weeks after their first, in the case of Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose vaccine). Neither the state nor the CDC has specified whether there’s an exact size limit for “small” outdoor gatherings, but Yarmosky said the administration is “asking folks to use their best judgement.”

Will Virginia colleges require COVID-19 vaccinations? Should they?
Capital News Service, Hunter BrittApril 22, 2021 (Short)

Virginia universities plan a return to campuses in the fall, but there are questions if the COVID-19 vaccine can be mandated.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration only authorized the vaccine for emergency purposes, according to Lisa Lee, professor of public health at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. The vaccine does not yet have full FDA approval.

The vaccine was authorized for emergency use, so people have to be given the choice to take it and be informed of the consequences if they don’t, Lee said.

“Many legal scholars have interpreted that as saying that people cannot be required to take a vaccine that is under an emergency use authorization,” Lee said. “They can be when it has full approval, so that’s where the hitch is.”

Starting May 15, Virginia will significantly relax capacity restrictions on social gatherings and entertainment venues as COVID-19 numbers plateau across much of the state.

Gov. Ralph Northam announced the latest rollback in a video message on Thursday, citing the state’s continued progress in vaccinations. Data from the Virginia Department of Health indicates that more than 40 percent of the population has received at least one shot and more than 26 percent are fully vaccinated. Every Virginian 16 and older became eligible for the vaccine on Sunday.

“Vaccination numbers are up, and our COVID case numbers are substantially lower than they were earlier this year,” Northam said in a statement. “So, we have been able to begin easing some mitigation measures.”

Over the last month, state and federal officials have directed thousands of COVID-19 vaccines to large-scale clinics in vulnerable communities with high rates of coronavirus cases — all in areas with significant or majority Black and Latino populations.

The sites have been touted by leaders as a core strategy in expanding access to vaccines among communities of color, where immunization rates are consistently lower than they are for White Virginians. “We have done a very good job in the commonwealth in addressing this issue,” state Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said at a news briefing last month in response to questions over vaccine equity.

“We have brought on staff in our emergency support team that is doing outreach in these communities,” he added. “We’ve put boots on the ground in all 35 of our health districts and those teams are doing your basic sort of community organizing — door to door, working with faith leaders, community-based organizations to bring people from these vulnerable populations to our vaccination sites.”

Virginia doctors worry that pandemic burnout could push providers out of the field
Virginia Mercury, Kate Masters –April 9, 2021 (Short)

National data is shedding new light on how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting medical providers and their mental health as they balance the emotional and physical demands of a sometimes deadly virus. For frontline hospital workers, it’s often the visceral jolt — and exhausting work — of caring for critically ill patients. But primary care physicians are also reporting fears of infection and ongoing stress that comes from a radical shift in how their businesses operate.

In Virginia, there’s growing concern that burnout and extreme stress could lead more providers to leave the field or grapple with long-term mental health problems. On an individual level, it’s bad for doctors and their patients. But on a systemic level, there’s also worry that COVID-19 could make an existing physician shortage worse.

“One of the things we always talk about is physicians, nurses, support staff — they’re taking care of patients every day,” said Taylor Woody, the communications manager for the Medical Society of Virginia. “But who’s focusing on taking care of them?”

Virginia to pilot COVID-19 testing program in public schools
Virginia Mercury, Kate Masters –April 5, 2021 (Medium)

Virginia is one of a growing number of states exploring testing as a way to combat COVID-19 in K-12 schools.

Dr. Laurie Forlano, a deputy commissioner for the Virginia Department of Health, said the agency is launching a pilot program to provide rapid antigen tests to schools across the state. VDH is rolling out the program with Abbott BinaxNOW tests — portable kits, roughly the size of a credit card, that provide results in around 15 minutes.

“We agree that testing can be a layer of prevention,” said Forlano, who oversees population health for the department. The concept of screening students and staff isn’t a new one, and some colleges and private K-12 schools have been testing since the fall. But it’s taken on a new importance since Virginia — like many states across the country — began encouraging local school divisions to reopen for in-person instruction.

As of March 22, only three of Virginia’s 132 school districts were operating fully remotely. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have also issued interim guidance for K-12 testing, which is largely mirrored by VDH in its own reopening guidelines for schools.

Virginia to expand vaccine eligibility to everyone 16 and older by mid-April
Virginia Mercury, Kate Masters –April 1, 2021 (Short)

Gov. Ralph Northam announced Thursday that the state will expand vaccine eligibility to all Virginians 16 and older by April 18.

The news puts Virginia nearly two weeks ahead of the May 1 deadline set by President Joe Biden earlier this month. In a news release, the administration said that nearly every high-risk Virginian who pre-registered for a vaccine has already received a shot, allowing the state to expand eligibility sooner than expected. Those still on the state’s pre-registration list will receive an appointment invitation within the next two weeks.

“Expanding vaccine eligibility to all adults marks an important milestone in our ongoing efforts to put this pandemic behind us,” Northam said in a statement. “I thank all of the public health staff, health care workers, vaccinators, and volunteers who have helped make this possible.”

In late September, when Virginia health officials launched a dashboard that detailed outbreaks in K-12 schools across the state, it was applauded as a long-needed step toward more transparency — and a relief for parents hesitant over the prospect of sending their children back to the classroom.

Six months later, the data on reopening has gained even more importance amid a state and nationwide push to return students to the classroom. But there are limits on what it can and can’t tell officials, parents and others looking for answers on the relative risks of in-person school.

In early February, Gov. Ralph Northam directed local divisions to begin offering in-person instruction by March 15. Three weeks later, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation — with bipartisan support — that mandates a return to the classroom by July 1.

As a result, only three of the state’s 132 local school divisions were operating fully remotely as of March 22, according to data from the Virginia Department of Education. Thirty-eight are fully in-person — defined by the agency as providing at least four days of in-person instruction for all students.

Pandemic deaths fail to shake loose a legislative solution on nursing home staffing
Virginia Mercury, Kate Masters –March 25, 2021 (Short)

Sam Kukich was initially excited to join a workgroup she thought would focus on improving staffing levels at Virginia nursing homes.

The director of Dignity for the Aged, a Poquoson-based nonprofit, Kukich had become an almost inadvertent advocate for reforming standards of care in the nursing home industry. She and her family had already made headlines across the state when they detailed a nearly five-year-long struggle to find care for her mother-in-law, who lost 65 pounds and suffered dozens of falls at multiple facilities in the Hampton Roads region.

When she started Dignity for the Aged in 2018, largely out of frustration, Kukich started hearing from “all sorts of people” about cases of abuse and neglect in Virginia nursing homes. Many of the cases, she said, were linked to understaffing — certified nursing assistants and other health care workers who were simply too overworked and overwhelmed to properly care for residents.

So Kukich was disappointed last year, when a Virginia Senate subcommittee rejected a bill from Sen. Jennifer Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach, that would set minimum staffing ratios for the industry. It was the 16th straight year similar legislation had died, but this time, legislators ordered the state Department of Health to organize a work group to “review and make recommendations” on increasing the nursing home workforce in Virginia.

With COVID-19 cases down after a winter surge, and with nearly a quarter of the population having received at least one dose of vaccine, Gov. Ralph Northam is again rolling back some of Virginia’s pandemic restrictions — cautiously.

At a Tuesday news briefing, the governor announced the expansion of the attendance cap on indoor social gatherings from 10 to 50 people. Outdoor gatherings, currently limited to 25 attendees, will be allowed up to 100.

Alena Yarmosky, the governor’s spokeswoman, said the new guidelines will offer slightly more flexibility to events-oriented businesses — including Virginia’s wedding industry, which has lobbed some of the harshest criticism at Northam’s health and safety guidelines (at least two venue owners have sued over the restrictions).

But the governor is still taking a moderate approach to reopening compared to some neighboring states, including Maryland, where Gov. Larry Hogan lifted all capacity restrictions for the vast majority of businesses earlier this month. Northam’s executive order requiring mask wearing in indoor public areas remains in effect.

More essential workers and Virginians with underlying medical conditions can now access COVID-19 vaccines through major pharmacies across the state, the Virginia Department of Health announced Wednesday.

There are currently eight large chains that offer vaccines through a partnership with the federal government, including CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, Kroger and Albertson’s, which owns Safeway grocery stores.

Some independent pharmacies are also included in the partnership, which provides doses to more than 300 locations across Virginia, according to Stephanie Wheawill, director of VDH’s Division of Pharmacy Services.

While the doses supplied to pharmacies are separate from Virginia’s overall allotment, Wheawill said locations are asked to follow the state’s distribution guidelines. Until this week, state health officials instructed pharmacies to limit doses to residents 65 and older, as well as certain essential worker categories.

Vaccine passports’ that show you’re inoculated are on the way
Virginia Mercury, Laura OlsonMarch 17, 2021 (Short)

More than 70 million Americans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine — and along with that shot, a small paper card with the CDC’s label detailing the timing and manufacturer of the dose.

Those paper cards at the moment are the only proof readily available to Americans of their vaccination against a virus that has upended businesses, schools and most other aspects of daily life.

That could soon change, with multiple companies and nonprofit groups working to create “vaccine passports” — smartphone-based apps that would allow someone to certify that they’ve been vaccinated. The apps so far are aimed at travelers, who may be required to show proof of their vaccination status before boarding a plane or entering another country.

In early January, Gov. Ralph Northam warned that the worst of Virginia’s winter surge may not have happened yet.

“The virus is worse now than it’s ever been,” he said at a news briefing. At the time, the state had reached an all-time high in daily new cases and hospitalizations — a trend that threatened to overwhelm some hospital systems. Many local health departments were forced to suspend contact tracing programs amid the spike, warning residents that winter travel and holiday gatherings had made it impossible to keep up with cases.

“Case numbers are about four times higher than they were last spring, and we can expect them to go higher,” Northam continued. “In fact, the [University of Virginia] model shows cases could keep rising until Valentine’s Day or even later.”

The COVID-19 crisis and senior living: an insider’s perspective
Virginia Mercury, Morris S. Funk, guest columnMarch 17, 2021 (Short)

The pandemic has made this past year unlike any other at Beth Sholom, a senior living center in Henrico.

In late February, it seemed we were facing a typical long-term care viral threat, but I could not shake the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that this was going to be much bigger. In the early, there was so little information available, making it difficult to anticipate and prepare for the reality of what was coming. We were one of the first senior living communities in our area to lock down, and like so many others in our industry, we faced extraordinary daily challenges and heartbreaking losses.

Here is our story.

Our frontline staff put themselves and their families at risk every day simply by coming to work. Once the March lockdown was in place, many of our staff found it difficult to meet the challenges of working and managing their families. When schools closed, they scrambled to find ways to address the needs of their children while continuing to work. Daily, our employees faced the fear of bringing the virus — which was not understood — home to their family.

Participation in Virginia’s Immunization Information System is critical for keeping Virginia healthy
Virginia Mercury, Dr. Michael Martin, commentaryMarch 12, 2021 (Short)

As Virginia continues to combat the public health challenges of COVID-19, the distribution of vaccines in the commonwealth provides a long-needed glimmer of hope.

The complex COVID-19 vaccine distribution process underscores the importance of accurate immunization histories and records. While Virginia had the foresight years ago to invest in an immunization registry for individuals, families, medical providers and public health researchers, recent action by the General Assembly has strengthened the statewide database of vaccine history and distribution. To keep our communities healthy even after the pandemic, all health care providers that administer vaccines, starting in January 2022, will participate in the Virginia Immunization Information System.

VIIS is a free, statewide, digital immunization registry that records reported vaccination doses distributed by health care providers to individuals, thus increasing the ability to appropriately react to vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks. Vaccine registry systems like VIIS are incredibly helpful for improving the public health response to outbreaks of diseases like measles, Hepatitis A, H1N1, and now COVID-19. By sharing the data with the state, appropriate resources can be deployed to counteract outbreaks and help increase community immunization rates. Currently, the Virginia Department of Health reports that 2.1 million children are under-immunized.

For public health experts across Virginia, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was a more-than-welcome addition to the state’s weekly allocation.

The one-dose shot boosted Virginia’s shipments by 69,000 this week, spurring a slew of new mass vaccination events. It doesn’t have the same cold storage requirements, making it easier to ship and redistribute. And at the national level, it’s prompting a new wave of optimism, with President Joe Biden promising a vaccine “for every adult in America by the end of May.”

But state health officials also worry the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has an image problem. When trial data was released, many reports honed in on the numbers: 72 percent effective against COVID-19 infections in the United States, 66 percent effective in South America and 57 percent effective in South Africa. Pfizer’s, by contrast, showed 95 percent effectiveness at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 after two doses. Moderna’s showed 94.1 percent.

Biden urges states to speed up COVID-19 vaccinations for teachers
Virginia Mercury, Laura OlsonMarch 3, 2021 (Short)

President Joe Biden is urging states to prioritize teachers for COVID-19 vaccines, setting a goal of ensuring that every pre-kindergarten through 12th grade educator, school staff member and childcare worker is able to receive at least one shot this month.

At least 34 states and the District of Columbia have some or all teachers eligible to receive the coronavirus vaccine, according to tracking data from Education Week.

That tally has been growing in recent weeks, as many students across the country approach the one-year mark for switching to virtual classes due to the pandemic.

Biden’s latest directive to states is the latest step in his administration’s effort to aid schools in safely reopening their buildings to in-person classes. In a televised statement from the White House on Tuesday, Biden described teachers as “essential workers,” and said that accelerating vaccinations can help assuage anxieties about school reopenings.

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.

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 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)