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Senate Bill Aims to Put Nursing Homes First in COVID-19 Testing

Front gate of a nursing home
Westminster Canterbury in Richmond is one of the long-term care facilities that experienced an outbreak at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM)

At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, a majority of outbreaks in Virginia took place in nursing homes. Now, a bill proposed by Sen. Ben Chafin (R-Russell) calls on the Commissioner of Health to prioritize nursing home residents and staff when testing for COVID-19.

“It’s the right thing to do for our senior citizens,” Chafin said, as he called on the Senate Education and Health Committee to vote in favor of the bill. 

The bipartisan committee approved the bill unanimously, and it now heads to the full Senate for a vote.

Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration opposed the bill. A spokesperson for the governor said while the state has placed special attention on senior citizens, the administration believes Chafin’s bill could limit the state’s ability to tackle the pandemic.

“While we wholeheartedly agree with the importance of prioritizing this population, we're concerned that putting this into code would limit VDH's ability to adapt in response to this ever-evolving virus,” said Alena Yarmosky in a statement. “Virginia must be able to respond swiftly in accordance with changing health guidance.”

Northam announced the creation of a task force in April that would focus on curbing coronavirus outbreaks in long-term care facilities. Yarmosky says this task force has since conducted testing in over 200 nursing homes, and has provided over $50 million for regular testing of their residents and staff.

According to the Virginia Department of Health, 377 outbreaks have taken place in nursing homes. Since March, VDH says Virginia nursing homes have seen over 9,000 cases of COVID-19, and more than 1,300 coronavirus-related deaths.