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Northam to those who refuse COVID vaccine: 'Think how you want your obituary to read'

RICHMOND — As frustration continues over people who refuse to get the free COVID-19 vaccine, Gov. Ralph Northam issued strong words on Monday and suggested that such people think about their obituaries.

Nearly all new COVID-19 cases are of those who were not vaccinated, and the data show that vaccinations have few serious side effects, Northam said at a Monday news conference. Choosing not to get a vaccine could mean death, he reminded the public.

“If you know that and you still don’t want the shot then I hope you give some thought to how your family will remember you,” he said. “Give some thought to what they’ll do without you. Think about how you want your obituary to read because you’re taking a foolish, dangerous chance and it affects many more people than just you.”

COVID case numbers in Virginia have dropped in the past few days but are still way too high, Northam said.

“Ask any exhausted nurse in any hospital in Virginia,” he said. “Today we reported 1,997 new cases. That’s better than a couple weeks ago, but it’s a whole lot more than the start of the summer when at one point we had fewer than 100 cases in a day.”

“Patience is wearing thin” among those who chose to get vaccinated and want normal life back, he said.

“By choosing not to get vaccinated, you are absolutely hurting other people,” he said. “Unvaccinated COVID patients are the people filling up our hospitals right now, making it difficult for everyone else to get the hospital care that they need, and you are costing everyone a lot of money.”

Northam acknowledged there was probably little he could do to convince people who still haven’t gotten the vaccine. But he reminded the public that a year after contracting the disease himself, he still cannot taste or smell.

“Believe me, you don’t want to get it.”

More than 80% of adults in Virginia have had one COVID-19 vaccination shot and 60% of the population is fully vaccinated. State employees are vaccinated at comparable rates, officials said. The governor issued a directive requiring many state employees to either get vaccinated or show weekly proof of a negative COVID-19 test.

Virginia State Police is one agency falling short. About 63.6% of troopers have been partially or fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to State Police.

Although Northam’s directive to state employees was to go into effect Sept. 1, the testing requirements apparently haven’t gone into effect yet.

“The testing protocol, per Governor Northam’s Executive Directive 18, has not been implemented and is still being finalized,” State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said by email. “This is in keeping with guidance provided by the Virginia Department of Human Resource for state agencies. The VSP Procurement Unit is still in the process of ordering antigen (rapid test) test kits for unvaccinated employees statewide.”

Geller said State Police are encouraging troopers to talk to their personal doctors about the vaccine and “continuously providing all sworn and civilian employees with the latest Virginia Department of Health and CDC recommendations.”

Northam also discussed booster shots and upcoming vaccines for children under 12.

Booster shots are available for people who received the Pfizer vaccine and are immune compromised, have an underlying medical condition, are over age 65 or are a front-line worker. Shots are not yet available for people who received the Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccines. Information is available at

Children ages 12 to 17 became eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine in the spring and are vaccinated at close to the same rate as adults. Vaccines aren’t yet available for children under 12, but the state will be ready when they are, Northam said.

There are strong disparities in vaccination rates among children who are eligible for a vaccine, the governor said. In Alexandria, for example, nearly all children ages 12 to 15 have received at least one shot, while in rural areas like Highland County and Patrick County the rate is just 17 percent, he said.

GOP blocks stopgap funding

WASHINGTON — Republican senators blocked a bill Monday night to keep the government operating and allow federal borrowing, but Democrats aiming to avert a shutdown are likely to try again — at the same time pressing ahead on President Joe Biden’s big plans to reshape government.

The efforts are not necessarily linked, but the fiscal year-end deadline to fund the government past Thursday is bumping up against the Democrats’ desire to make progress on Biden’s expansive $3.5 trillion federal overhaul.

It’s all making for a tumultuous moment for Biden and his party, with consequences certain to shape his presidency and the lawmakers’ own political futures.

Success would mean a landmark accomplishment, if Democrats can helm Biden’s big bill to passage. Failure — or a highly unlikely government shutdown and debt crisis — could derail careers.

“You know me, I’m a born optimist,” Biden told reporters Monday, as he rolled up his sleeve for a COVID-19 booster shot. “We’re gonna get it done.”

In Monday night’s vote, senators voted 50-48 against taking up the bill, well short of the 60 “yes” votes needed to proceed. Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer switched his “yes” to “no” at the end in order to allow Democrats to reconsider the bill later.

With days to go, Democrats are likely to try again before Thursday’s deadline to pass a bill funding government operations past the Sept. 30 fiscal yearend, stripping out the debate over the debt limit for another day, closer to a separate October deadline.

Meanwhile, the real action is unfolding behind the scenes over the $3.5 trillion measure, with Biden and his Democratic allies in Congress seeking a once-in-a-generation reworking of the nation’s balance sheets.

From fee pre-kindergarten and child care subsidies for families with small children to dental care and hearing aids for seniors with Medicare, there’s a lot in the president’s proposal — all to be paid for with higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy.

With Republicans solidly opposed, Democrats are rushing to trim the total and win holdouts within their own party.

Building on a separate $1 trillion bipartisan public works package that’s already cleared the Senate and is heading for a House vote, Biden is seeking major spending for health care, education and efforts to tackle climate change. The total price tag, he contends, is actually “zero” — covered by the expected increase in tax revenue.

He is personally calling fellow Democrats in Congress an effort to resolve differences and bring his sweeping domestic policy vision forward.

Ticking off the weighty list of goals to accomplish, Biden said: “If we do that, the country’s going to be in great shape.”

But Republicans say it’s real spending that can’t be afforded, and a reflection of the Democrats’ drive to insert government into people’s lives.

And so far, the bill is also too big for key Democrats whose votes are needed in the face of the GOP opposition. Two Democratic holdouts, Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have said they won’t support a bill of that size. Manchin has previously proposed spending of $1 trillion to $1.5 trillion.

With all Republicans opposed, Democratic leaders can’t spare a single vote in the 50-50 Senate, relying on Vice President Kamala Harris to break a tie to pass the eventual package.

All this, as other deadlines swirl this week to pay for government operations and allow more borrowing or risk a devastating federal shutdown or debt default — though those dire scenarios appear unlikely.

The bill Senate Republicans rejected Monday night would have funded government operations temporarily, to early December, while also providing emergency funds for hurricane and other disaster relief and for Afghan refugees in the aftermath of the 20-year war.

Republican leader Mitch McConnell rejected that approach because Democrats also included a provision to suspend the debt limit, which would allow continued borrowing to pay off the nation’s bills.

Once a routine matter, raising the debt limit is now a political weapon of choice wielded by Republicans to attack Democrats — even though both parties have been responsible for piling on debt.

“The Democrats will do the responsible thing—the right thing, the thing that has been done for decades by both parties—and vote yes,” said Majority Leader Schumer ahead of the vote

Schumer called the Republican opposition “unhinged.”

McConnell has said he wants to fund the government and prevent a devastating debt default, but wants to force Democrats to split the package in two and take the politically uncomfortable debt ceiling vote on their own.

“Republicans are not rooting for a shutdown or a debt limit breach,” he said.

Thursday is a new deadline of sorts, and Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Schumer won some breathing room after Pelosi postponed Monday’s planned vote on the public works bill to Thursday, which is also the expiration date of transportation programs in the public works bill.

As Pelosi huddled privately Monday with House Democrats, the more difficult action now lies in the Senate, as Democrats are under pressure to amass the votes for Biden’s package.

Pelosi said Sunday it seems “self-evident” that the price tag will come down to meet the concerns of remaining lawmakers.

Her comments reflected the enormous stakes for the coming week, one that could define the Biden presidency and shape the political contours of next year’s midterm elections.

Democrats have only a few votes to spare in the House for Biden’s massive agenda. Some Republican senators did back the $1 trillion public works bill, but now House Republicans are objecting, saying it is too much.

While progressives say they have already compromised enough on Biden’s big bill, having come down from a bill they originally envisioned at $6 trillion, some are also acknowledging the more potential changes.

10 years after ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ cadets see progress
Military academy students say that 10 years after the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell," there is wide acceptance of gays, lesbians and bisexuals, but that work remains

NEW LONDON, Conn. — Kelli Normoyle was nervous as she arrived at the Coast Guard Academy campus in Connecticut in 2008. She had come out as a lesbian to a few friends near the end of high school, but she faced a military environment where “don’t ask, don’t tell” was still the policy prohibiting gay people from serving openly.

She kept quiet about her sexuality for her freshman year, fearing expulsion and the ruin of her not-yet-begun career. She started testing the waters her second year.

“OK, maybe this is somebody that I can trust, maybe this is somebody that identifies the way I do,” said Normoyle, now a lieutenant on the cutter Sanibel, based in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. “But then you always have that moment that was that kind of leap of faith.”

Marking the 10th anniversary this week of the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” a new generation of military academy students say that their campuses are now tolerant, welcoming and inclusive for the most part — but that more work needs to be done.

Homophobic or ignorant comments still arise occasionally. Many transgender students still do not feel comfortable coming out. And advocates say the military needs to do more to include people with HIV, as well as nonbinary and intersex people.

Normoyle, 32, of Mount Laurel, New Jersey, and fellow cadet Chip Hall led the formation of the Coast Guard Academy’s Spectrum Diversity Council, the first advocacy group for LGBTQ students at a U.S. military academy, a few months after “don’t ask, don’t tell” ended on Sept. 20, 2011. Similar groups later formed at the other four service academies.

Gays and lesbians were banned in the military until the 1993 approval of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which allowed them to serve only if they did not openly acknowledge their sexual orientation. Rather than helping, advocates say, the policy actually created more problems. In its entire history, the military dismissed more than 100,000 service members based on their sexual or gender identities — 14,000 of them during “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Repeal of the law was approved by Congress and President Barack Obama in late 2010 and took effect nine months later, allowing lesbian, gay and bisexual people to serve openly.

At the Air Force Academy in Colorado, second-year cadet Marissa Howard, who came out as a lesbian a few years ago, said she admires LGBTQ service members who struggled under the former policy.

“I commend them,” said Howard, of San Antonio, a member of the academy’s Spectrum group. “I feel very included in the environment, and it’s just a good place to feel like my identity is seen and I don’t have to hide who I am here.”

Some fellow cadets, however, don’t support their LGBTQ classmates, she said. Once, during an online class, someone called her “weird” for being gay, perhaps thinking they were muted, she said.

The Coast Guard Academy in New London was the only U.S. military academy to hold a public event Monday to mark the 10th anniversary. About 100 people attended a dinner that included a viewing of a documentary on “don’t ask, don’t tell,” followed by a discussion.

For many cadets, it is difficult to imagine what it was like because their generation has been more accepting, said K.C. Commins, a bisexual Coast Guard Academy senior from Altoona, Iowa, and current Spectrum Diversity Council president.

“There are so many of us now. It’s hard to ignore that we’re here and ... it is the new normal,” said Commins.

Rear Adm. William G. Kelly, the Coast Guard Academy’s superintendent, told the crowd Monday that officials have worked hard on LGBTQ inclusion and are developing a campus policy for transgender students.

Transgender people were allowed to serve openly in the military beginning in 2016, but the Trump administration largely banned them in 2019. Although President Joe Biden overturned the ban earlier this year, formal policies are still being drafted at some locations.

At the U.S. Naval Academy, sexual orientation is mostly a nonissue, said Andre Rascoe, a senior midshipman who is gay.

“In my experience, you always have the one or two people who kind of feel uncomfortable either rooming with or being on, like, a sports team with someone who’s in the queer community, but they are anomalies,” he said.

After students graduate, they will face a military environment where sexual assault and harassment continue to be pervasive and where lesbian, gay and bisexual service members are disproportionately victimized, according to an independent review commission’s report submitted to Biden in June.

In its latest annual report on sexual assaults and harassment at West Point and the Air Force and Naval academies, the Defense Department said 129 sexual assaults were reported during the 2019-20 school year, down from 149 the year before. Twelve complaints of sexual harassment were received, down from 17 the previous year.

“Obviously there’s a lot more room to grow,” said Jennifer Dane, chief executive and director of the Modern Military Association of America, an LGBTQ advocacy group.

Dane, who served in the Air Force from 2010 to 2016, said the Air Force began investigating her sexuality during her first year but dropped the probe after “don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed.

“When it was repealed ... I was finally able to be my authentic self, and it was very empowering,” she said.

CASEY: The word may be unprintable, but it's not illegal
A reader writes in about a flag she observed, featuring a four-letter word in conjunction with our 46th president's surname.

The last time I heard from reader Jami Poff, she was peeved about her mail.

That was August 2020. She and her husband, Marty, were missing some important business correspondence. They knew because they had signed up for Informed Delivery, a free service the U.S. Postal Service offers.

That sends you an email image of soon-to-be delivered letters before they make it to your house. But not all those mail pieces were getting to the Poffs’ home in the Cave Spring area of Roanoke County.

Anyway, more recently the retired teacher reached out on a different matter of concern. She posed a multipart question that carries significant constitutional implications, and there’s at least a tenuous historical connection to Western Virginia.

“I have a question for you,” Poff’s email began. “I saw a truck with large flags flying saying ‘[Blank] Biden.’ Is that really legal?”

Just to be clear, the four-letter word in question is considered unprintable in newspapers such as The Roanoke Times. In more polite vernacular, it’s commonly referred to as the “F” word. And although it typically refers to sexual intercourse, the term has a broad tableau of uses in English vocabulary.

Because Poff used to teach English at Patrick Henry High, let’s first analyze it from a grammatical perspective.

The word is most commonly used as a verb, and in that respect it may be transitive (as in, “I [blanked] so-and-so”) or intransitive (“So-and-so was [blanked] by me”).

It’s also useful as a noun, (“I don’t give a [blank]”). On many occasions, I’ve heard cyclist-friends use it as an adjective in the form of a gerund — a la, “This hill is [blank]ing steep.”

Perhaps the term’s greatest fan was the late, great comedian George Carlin. He called it “a magical word,” because “just by its sound it can describe, pain, pleasure, hate and love.”

Now what about Poff’s first question? Is the flag legal? The answer to that is a resounding “Yes!” As a political statement, the magical word is protected by the First Amendment. Even when it’s used to describe sodomizing the 46th president of the United States.

A couple of U.S. Supreme Court precedents seem relevant.

One involved the late Rev. Jerry Falwell — founder of Liberty University and Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg — and the late Larry Flynt, founder of Hustler magazine.

Those two had quite a tangle in the 1980s, over a fake liquor ad Hustler published as a joke. It quoted the reverend purporting that he lost his virginity to his mother when they were both “drunk off our God-fearing [posteriors]” in an outhouse loaded with buzzing flies.

Psychologically devastated, Falwell sued Hustler in U.S. District Court for Western Virginia, alleging invasion of privacy, libel and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The trial judge dismissed the invasion of privacy claim. A jury decided the other claims. It found Hustler had not libeled Falwell because no rational person would take the joke ad seriously. But jurors awarded Falwell $150,000 on the emotional distress claim.

In the fall of 1986, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that verdict. Flynt appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which disagreed. Its 8-0 decision overturned the appeal court’s decision and the jury’s award to Falwell.

Today, Hustler Magazine v. Falwell is considered a landmark case in First Amendment law.

It suggests that while Biden could sue for hurt feelings over that banner, it’s doubtful such a case would go anywhere. It seems like a sure loser in light of the Falwell-Flynt dustup.

Another precedent that seems relevant is a 1989 case, Texas v. Johnson, in which the justices ruled, 5-4, that burning the American flag was protected speech, too. If torching the stars and stripes is kosher, how could flying a flag with the magical word be against the law?

Another question Poff asked: “What about my rights or little children’s rights not to see that?”

Alas, the U.S. Constitution is entirely silent on one’s “right” not to be offended. (That’s probably a good thing for yours truly — otherwise I’d be sued every week.)

Poff’s next question was, “Where does this nonsense come from?”

If she’s talking about that particular flag, it’s quite possible it came from the Trump Store in Boones Mill. That I discovered early in July, when I dropped in to purchase a QAnon hat ($15, or two for $25). It’s another nifty item that store sells.

Set in a former church along U.S. 220, the Trump Store is owned by legendary huckster Whitey Taylor, who’s rarely been shy about chasing a quick buck. But somewhat oddly, the Trump Store doesn’t seem too proud of their magical-word + Biden banners. They don’t promote them at all.

None was on display when I shopped there. But I had seen photos of similar flags being waved by participants in the violent insurrection in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6. So I specifically asked a store clerk if any were available. Helpfully, she showed me three varieties.

They were hung on a wall, but beneath some other less offensive flags, as if the store was deliberately concealing them. That’s kind of the way tobacco shops used to hide the porn they sold on the sly.

One featured the exact two words that Poff described. Another had the word “Joe” inserted between the magical word and Biden’s surname. The third used the magical word thrice, in a two-verb plus one-adjective configuration: “[Blank] Joe Biden and [blank] you for [blank]ing voting for him.”

Charming, eh?

One question Poff didn’t ask was the best way to react to such a display. I have perfect advice for that: Close your eyes and say a prayer for the fool flying that flag.

Because, while Poff has no “right” not to be offended, the banner-bearer likewise has no “right” to force her to see the thing. (Just don’t perform that maneuver while driving.)

And what about if a child spots the banner and inquires?

Here’s another reply: “It means the driver’s an ignorant jerk.”

Contact metro columnist Dan Casey at 981-3423 or Follow him on Twitter:@dancaseysblog.