Opinion: Commentary: In Virginia: Vaccines & COVID Recovery

Opinion: Commentary: In Virginia: Vaccines & COVID Recovery

The Virginia Department of Health (VDH), health care professionals, and Virginia’s Medical Reserve Corps continue to work overtime to care for those afflicted with COVID-19. This work now involves the distribution of vaccines to prevent future cases. Unfortunately even as we grow our capacity to vaccinate, Virginia, like many other states, continues to see an increase in the number of cases and hospitalizations daily.

In the General Assembly we continue to feel the great burden of the deaths, the fears, and the long-term effects of this virus. Our colleague Sen. Ben Chafin (R-Russell County) passed away from COVID-19 complications just days before our session began, and his empty seat is a continual reminder of the loss far too many have experienced over the last year.

While we must take as many steps as possible to mitigate the damage of this pandemic, the key to beginning our recovery is vaccinations. The good news in Virginia is that we are on the way. At the time of writing, close to 420,000 Virginians have received their first dose of either the Moderna or Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.

While the vaccine is not mandatory, I strongly encourage everyone to get vaccinated as soon as you are able, and continue to comply with the recommendations of health experts to wear a mask, maintain social distance, and frequently wash hands to prevent the spread.

Vaccine prioritization is coordinated at a Federal level — through the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Department of Defense, in collaboration with state health officials. There is, obviously, high demand for the vaccine and many groups merit early vaccination. To complicate matters, there is only so much of the vaccine available for each state. That said, I am confident that the CDC and VDH are following the science and working hard to ensure that vaccinations are equitably distributed as efficiently as possible based on the schedule developed with the Federal Government. Let me be clear: everyone deserves an opportunity to be vaccinated, and eventually everyone who wants to be will be vaccinated. With the whole world seeking and competing for doses, we are faced with the difficult decision of prioritizing people by definable groupings. In Virginia, this does not speak to any person’s merits, but rather to the risk posed to the majority of that pool for contracting and dying from the novel Coronavirus. You can determine when you will get vaccinated by checking your local Department of Health website’s phase schedule.

Only thirteen other states have vaccinated more people than Virginia, the twelfth largest state. But the reality is that every state is struggling to meet the demand for vaccines due to the expansiveness of this undertaking and the former administration’s handling of the vaccine distribution. The needed stockpile of vaccine doses from the federal government, promised by former President Trump’s administration, has failed to materialize. This failure means every state is undersupplied. Right now shot-giving in Virginia is outpacing the supply we're receiving from the federal government. We are administering an average of 19,000 shots per day -- 5,000 more than we're receiving.

I am glad that Governor Northam has responded to this curveball by assigning Dr. Danny Avula to coordinate the necessary work between state health officials, local health departments, hospitals, private providers, and communities. The Virginia National Guard will provide logistical support and help local health departments in the administration of vaccines. The Virginia Department of Health, the Governor’s Administration, and Virginia Hospital Association are coordinating with medical facilities around the Commonwealth to get shots in people’s arms. I co-sponsored legislation from Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico) which will expand locations where vaccines can be distributed and mobilize volunteers to provide vaccines. This emergency legislation has passed the Senate and is headed to the House for their consideration.

The first goal laid out by Governor Northam is to clear all our storage freezers. Medical facilities have been directed to use up everything they have, quickly, to get more. Our immediate target is to move to vaccinating 25,000 people a day. Within a few days, Virginia will meet this goal: by the end of last week, more than 18,000 shots were being given daily. Ultimately, 50,000 people a day will receive a dose. Online tools are being rolled out to answer your questions about the vaccine, to understand your phase of the process, and to register locally.

Beyond vaccinations, the pandemic continues to compound other issues in our society and daily lives. We see this as cases of Covid per 10,000 people are higher for Latinos and other communities of color than among White people. We see this as those without a safety net are evicted or threatened with eviction. We see this as food insecurity rises in our communities and volunteers at food banks decline. That is why Virginia’s vaccine campaign is rooted in health equity, prioritizing those with an elevated risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19, including those in long term care facilities, people sixty-five or older, frontline workers, the homeless, people with underlying conditions, the incarcerated, and migrant workers.

To address these inequities, I am proposing legislation that will expand the statutory damages a tenant can recover when unlawfully evicted, a trend we have seen growing throughout the pandemic. As a member of the Finance and Appropriations Committee, I have also filed several budget amendments to alleviate the strain of this pandemic. These include:

  • $500,000 to the Capital Area Food Bank, to assist with their vital food distribution services in northern Virginia.

  • Funding to expand Medicaid coverage in relation to COVID-19 to currently underserved immigrant populations.

  • Additional funding to Northern Virginia Family Services for wrap-around services including food, homelessness prevention, and child care.

  • An amendment to ensure that our Free Clinics are included in new Federally allocated aid dollars.

I acknowledge the frustration many of us feel. We finally have a way to the end of this nightmarish chapter, and that makes any delays, errors, or setbacks all the more exasperating. I would like to thank you for your commitment to protecting one another and for your patience as, one by one, we each receive the protection of a trusted, scientifically proven, preventive medicine.