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Virginia Lawmakers Now Eligible For COVID-19 Vaccination

Senators in chamber
The Virginia Senate convened in the Capitol during the 2019 General Assembly session. The 2021 session is set to kick off Wednesday, though the Senate will instead meet in a pavilion behind the Science Museum of Richmond which allows for greater social distancing. (Photo: Craig Carper/VPM News)

Virginia lawmakers can begin getting vaccinated for COVID-19, a spokesperson for Gov. Ralph Northam confirmed Tuesday.

Some General Assembly members are already eligible for vaccines in their home districts as part of Phase 1b, the second priority in the commonwealth’s current guidelines. But Alena Yarmosky said the Richmond and Henrico Health Districts are offering all lawmakers vaccines to help streamline the process.

“Elected officials are essential to the functioning of government, and many are required to regularly interact with the public as part of their job,” Yarmosky said in an email. “In addition, this effort is intended to boost public confidence in the vaccine, as members of the General Assembly take a more public-facing role in the upcoming weeks.”

Lawmakers are set to kick off their 2021 regular session on Wednesday. The state Senate is meeting in-person at a pavilion behind the Science Museum of Virginia, while the House of Delegates will meet virtually.

Republican Sen. Ben Chafin (R-Russell) died of complications caused by COVID-19 earlier this month. A handful of other lawmakers have contracted and recovered from the illness.

Some lawmakers are already eligible for the vaccine under the state’s phased approach. At least one lawmaker -- Sen. Shiobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico) -- was included in the first phase because she works in a hospital. Dunnavant, an obstetrician-gynecologist, said she is now fully vaccinated. 

Some regions of the commonwealth have begun opening up vaccines to the next phase of eligible people, which includes people over the age of 75 and some essential workers. Many lawmakers are in higher-risk age brackets, including the Senate’s 80 year-old majority leader, Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax County), and the House of Delegates’ longest-serving lawmaker, 79 year-old Del. Ken Plum (D-Fairfax). 

Susan Schaar, the clerk of Virginia’s Senate, said she sent out successive emails to members last week informing them of the vaccination efforts.   

“Initially it was members due to age and underlying health conditions, and then the governor’s office changed the criteria to put all of them in [category] 1b,” Schaar said. 

The rollout means some younger lawmakers may be vaccinated before people in the next priority group, 1c, which includes people 65 and older as well as people 16 and older with underlying medical conditions that make them especially vulnerable to the disease.

Northam has faced criticism for the slow rollout of vaccines. Virginia has administered a little more than a quarter of the roughly 775,000 vaccines it has received, according to data collected by the Virginia Department of Health. Health experts said those figures lag and Northam has vowed to increase the pace of vaccinations this month, with the short-term goal of vaccinating 25,000 people per day and the long-term hope of doubling that number. As of Jan. 8, about 11,000 doses are being administered in the state daily.

Cases have soared in Virginia over the last two months. Over 16% of COVID-19 tests are still coming back positive. The state’s largest hospital group, the Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association, urged Northam to speed up vaccinations and consider new restrictions on gatherings, indoor dining and occupancy limits in a letter sent on Dec. 30.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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