Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration faced bipartisan criticism throughout much of the COVID-19 pandemic for its decision not to release the names of nursing homes and assisted living centers with outbreaks of the virus — largely leaving families and residents in the dark unless the facility chose to disclose the information itself.
The Virginia General Assembly responded this week, unanimously passing emergency bills in the House and Senate to require the disclosure. Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, and Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, sponsored identical legislation that clarifies existing state code and tasks the Virginia Department of Health with making information on outbreaks publicly available.
“This is to clarify, going forward into perpetuity, that this is the way these things have to be handled,” Sickles said in a Friday morning interview.
As legislators grapple with an unprecedented special session, marked by a historic pandemic and nationwide calls for criminal justice overhauls, reforming the state’s response to hard-struck long-term care facilities has become a rare show of bipartisan camaraderie. Republican Sens. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, and David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, were both co-patrons on Barker’s bill. Democrats from both chambers also unanimously joined Republicans on Friday to pass legislation requiring nursing homes to facilitate virtual or in-person visits for residents.
While VDH has issued phased reopening guidance for the facilities, thousands of residents have spent months confined without visits from family or any communal activities. As of Friday, more than 1,300 COVID-19 deaths had occurred in long-term care facilities — more than half of the state’s total.
“Sometimes I question Virginia’s priorities during this pandemic,” said Sen. Jen Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach, who presented her visitation bill in the Senate on Friday morning. “We have a long way to go. I look at the things that are addressed in press conferences and I sit and I wait for long-term care to be made a priority. And I feel like we’re not making it one. There’s so much room for improvement.”
Until mid-June, health officials refused to name nursing homes or assisted living centers with outbreaks of the disease. Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver frequently justified the policy with a section of state code directing him to “preserve the anonymity of each patient and practitioner” unless the disclosure is “pertinent to an investigation, research or study.” VDH also cited another code section that grants immunity to any person reporting authorized health data to the agency.
The same chapter defines “person” as “an individual, corporation, partnership, association or any other legal entity” — including health care facilities, according to the agency.
But multiple lawmakers have publicly disputed the department’s interpretation and vowed to clarify the language during the ongoing special session. The legislation from Barker and Sickles does just that, specifically directing VDH to publish information on outbreaks during any state of emergency declared in response to a contagious disease.