Opinion: Commentary: Special Session Looks at Nursing Homes, Reporting Outbreaks, Election Reform

Opinion: Commentary: Special Session Looks at Nursing Homes, Reporting Outbreaks, Election Reform

As the third week of the General Assembly’s Special Session draws to a close, several major legislative accomplishments are moving forward. The floor of our makeshift chamber in the Science Museum of Virginia was emptier than usual when Senator Bryce Reeves (R-Spotsylvania) contracted the novel coronavirus and was absent for a week. Thankfully, he returned this week, having recovered fully. The complexity of crafting legislation to address the dire health and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as addressing urgent calls for racial justice and police reform, all while navigating a new location and virtual meetings, has led to some unusual occurrences. It is rare to have any member absent for an extended period of time during session, even rarer to have several missing, but as this protracted session is occuring in August and September--when legislators are usually working on our other jobs, many Senators have been absent for extended periods. Senator Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfield), who claims to have a medical condition that prevents her from wearing a mask, has been confined to a plexiglass box, akin to a hockey penalty box, to keep herself and others safe from possible infection. Through the fog of these distractions, the Senate has remained focused and deliberate, passing a number of bills to adapt to COVID-19, ensure folks can stay safely at home during the pandemic, and enact equitable reform in our justice system.

Nursing homes have been hit especially hard during the pandemic, where close quarters causes infections to spread incredibly quickly through the most vulnerable populations. As the pandemic continues into the fall, the toll taken by isolation has increased, with many Virginians unable to visit their parents and grandparents for up to six months. The Senate passed legislation, sponsored by Senator Jen Kiggans (R-Virginia Beach), to require all certified nursing homes to remedy this situation by providing an opportunity for weekly visits to patients either virtually or in-person, provided special safety precautions are observed. We passed legislation to ensure transparency and accountability by requiring the Virginia Department of Health to report outbreaks of communicable diseases publicly on its website, and require school boards to post their coronavirus mitigation plans on their public websites. Key election reforms have advanced from both chambers, expanding the ability to vote absentee and enacting safety measures to protect the health of voters and election officials.

In addition to these pressing reforms, we passed several bills to protect frontline workers and healthcare professionals. Legislation to ensure frontline workers in healthcare, nursing homes, schools, and public safety have access to rapid diagnostic testing for COVID-19 passed unanimously. Bills to supply school employees and childcare providers with personal protective equipment (PPE) also advanced.

In addition to these public safety measures, the General Assembly has begun to reassess who is sent to prison and for how long they stay incarcerated.

America incarcerates more people per 100,000 than any first world nation by a long shot, and most of the people incarcerated are people of color; In Virginia, over 60% are Black or Latinx. That’s why I was glad the Senate took much-needed steps to provide prosecutors with discretion over which transgressions they take to trial, and which ones they defer penalties on for extenuating circumstances. The Senate also passed legislation to allow for the release of terminally ill patients from confinement, give the Attorney General oversight of patterns and practice investigations of local police departments, and to expunge criminal records for certain nonviolent offenders who have served their time and repaid their debt to society.

I had originally hoped for this Special Session to last for a few weeks, but due to a week-long delay by the House of Delegates while setting their rules, and the complex nature of some of the proposals before us, the end is still not in sight. Leadership has told us to plan on spending the next several Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays in Richmond for floor sessions. While most committee meetings are occurring in person during those days, some are also meeting virtually on Mondays or Tuesdays. SB5015, the special session budget bill, which offers a number of amendments to our state budget has yet to be taken up, and, as of writing, the House has only reported about ten bills for our review, with nearly 100 still yet to be acted upon in their chamber. We are in it for the long haul, but the final product will be worth the time spent.

It is my continued honor to serve the citizens of the 30th District.