RICHMOND — The Virginia Senate is advancing a bill making it clear that information about COVID-19 outbreaks must be published for public view.
Nursing homes and assisted living centers have been hit particularly hard by the virus, with nearly half of the commonwealth’s 2,410 deaths attributed to residents in those facilities. At the onset of the pandemic, Gov. Ralph Northam and his advisers refused to identify the names of those facilities, citing the state code. As the virus spread and public criticism grew, the administration reversed its decision and identified facilities with outbreaks.
Many Democratic and Republican lawmakers disagreed with the Northam administration’s interpretation of the code. Nevertheless, legislators wanted to clarify the code to ensure that information about outbreaks would be publicly provided .
According to Senate Bill 5081 from Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, medical care facilities, residential or day programs, facilities operated by the commonwealth, schools and summer camps would have to report an outbreak of a communicable disease. The health department would publish that information for public review as long as that would not violate someone’s medical privacy.
The legislation calls for publishing of the name of the place where the outbreak occurs, the number of confirmed cases and the number of deaths. The Senate Education and Health Committee unanimously backed the bill, sending it to the floor for a full vote.
“We need to make sure this information is available,” said Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, who proposed a similar bill but supported Barker’s instead. “If you have a senior and they’re in a nursing home or long-term care facility and there’s an outbreak, the children of that individual need to know.”
Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said the administration supports the bill. The House of Delegates is considering a companion bill, which lawmakers likely will discuss next week.
Currently, there are no clear rules on informing the public about outbreaks in schools. Students are headed back to school in the next few weeks, with many school divisions in Western Virginia using hybrid plans of in-person instruction and virtual learning.
School systems are developing their own plans about informing students, parents and staff about positive cases. Dr. Molly O’Dell, who is leading the pandemic response for the Roanoke and Alleghany health districts, said earlier this month that the health department wouldn’t notify parents unless the sick child was closer than 6 feet to their son or daughter for more than 15 minutes.
Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, a physician, voiced her frustration that the Senate wasn’t spending enough time discussing the reopening of schools. Republicans have prioritized reopening schools to try to encourage more in-person instruction.
The Senate Education and Health Committee supported legislation to allow school boards flexibility to handle their future budgets to accommodate any decline in number of students who instead attend private schools during the pandemic. The average daily membership is the main figure used in per-pupil funding from the state.
It also backed two proposals from Dunnavant. One would ensure that if a student with COVID-19 is absent for 14 days, that won’t count toward a truancy report. Another bill will require school boards to provide each teacher in the school division with up to 14 days of paid sick leave to be used should the teacher be exposed to or diagnosed with COVID-19 or has to care for someone with COVID-19.
Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, tried to defeat the bill, saying the school buildings are empty of teachers and the government is too cash-strapped to support those kinds of proposals. The cost of the proposal is unknown because that information wasn’t posted online.
Dunnavant said one of the biggest challenges to reopening schools is ensuring teachers are safe, and she said providing this paid sick leave would be an incentive to encourage more in-person instruction.