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.
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.
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