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State-and-regional
breaking
Virginia halts use of Johnson & Johnson vaccine as federal government investigates 'extremely rare' reactions; Va. woman in her 40s died after receiving vaccine

A 45-year-old woman in Virginia who died within two weeks of receiving a Johnson & Johnson vaccine on March 6 is part of the investigation that prompted states to halt their use of the one-shot dose Tuesday morning.

The federal government is looking into six cases of an extremely rare blood clot disorder in recipients, but no link between the vaccine and the blood clots — reported in six women between the ages of 18 and 48 within six to 13 days of vaccination — has been established.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows nearly 7 million people in the U.S. have received a Johnson & Johnson vaccine, most with little to no side effects.

The woman is the state’s only reported death following a J&J shot out of the 184,000 administered since Virginia’s first shipment in late February. No additional details outside of what’s reported in the federal tracking system will be released before a conclusion is reached.

A reaction happening this rarely would not be picked up in a clinical trial. The chances of getting blood clots while infected with COVID-19 — which is roughly 20% — is far higher.

Dr. Danny Avula, the state’s vaccine coordinator, said in a statement Tuesday that Virginia is “closely monitoring the actions by the federal government” and will not continue any J&J vaccinations until the investigation is complete.

Avula received the Johnson & Johnson shot on April 1.

“This pause is reassuring in that it demonstrates that the systems that are in place to monitor vaccine safety are working,” Avula said. “Meantime, we will continue Virginia’s vaccine rollout at this time with the other two authorized vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna.”

Any upcoming appointments for the J&J vaccine will be rescheduled or switched out with Pfizer and Moderna. CVS and Walgreens, two of the largest pharmacy chains administering vaccines, said they were immediately stopping vaccinations. Publix and Wegmans followed shortly after.

Avula said around 30 total events were planned for Tuesday using J&J and about 72,000 doses were being administered in the upcoming week.

Cat Long, spokeswoman for the health districts of Richmond and Henrico County, said Tuesday that the halt will affect both their vaccination events and the partners they distribute to. The local health departments planned four small or mobile vaccine clinics for around 750 people this week using J&J.

The events were largely for walk-up vaccinations for older residents and homebound individuals who will now be receiving either Pfizer or Moderna. Those who had an appointment at these clinics do not need to reschedule.

However, the CDC’s recommendation is not a mandate, which means health care providers not in partnership with the VDH could technically continue administering the one-shot vaccine. With a low rate of incidence, compared to the risk of contracting the virus, Avula said the decision is a cost-benefit analysis.

“Six out of 6.8 million is really, really rare. A clinician might look at that and say, ‘For your situation, your underlying conditions, your age, it’s still worth it,’” Avula said. “But I think for the next few days ... they would likely offer Moderna and Pfizer instead.”

What it means for Phase 2

Tuesday’s announcement won’t impact the remaining health districts’ ability to enter Phase 2 by Sunday, Avula said, and the state plans to “max out” its Pfizer and Moderna supply while awaiting more information from the federal government.

He said he isn’t sure how long Virginia can sustain that tactic, but noted the “pause” could last anywhere from days to weeks. Other than the Northern Virginia, Blue Ridge and Richmond areas, the demand is not exceeding supply, he said.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was a critical flashpoint in the state’s ability to veer into Phase 2 sooner than expected, a shift that was always heavily dependent on incoming shipments. Avula said distribution as of Tuesday has stopped across the country.

Ahead of Gov. Ralph Northam’s Sunday target for having every person 16 and older eligible in Virginia, 26 of the 35 local health districts are in the second phase of vaccinations. The Richmond area began Phase 2 on Friday.

Virginia was already seeing a steep drop in this week’s vaccine allocation due to a Johnson & Johnson manufacturing facility spoiling 15 million shots last month. Avula said the state would be shipped fewer than 15,000 J&J doses this week.

Last week, Virginia was allotted 124,000 for state use and roughly 90,000 across pharmacies in the federal partnership program.

The most immediate consequences to forgoing Johnson & Johnson while the investigation is underway is not having as many vaccine appointments available come Sunday and the possibility of college students going home for the summer without a shot.

The shortage has since delayed an intended push for some higher education institutions that planned to start vaccinations among students in the coming weeks.

VCU Health said in a statement Tuesday that the health system has stopped administering J&J to students, faculty, staff and patients immediately following the CDC and FDA recommendation.

“To date, only a limited number of patients have received the J&J vaccine, and we will closely monitor them for any signs and symptoms of severe reactions,” the release read. “We are using our Moderna and Pfizer vaccine supply to honor any vaccination appointments today.”

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla tweeted Tuesday afternoon an imminent ramp-up of production could lead to a 10% increase to the U.S. by end of May ahead of schedule, a crutch that would boost Virginia’s capacity while the outcome of J&J remains in limbo.

How many J&J doses has Virginia received?

The Virginia Department of Health has received at least 255,600 total doses of Johnson & Johnson, according to its website, but the figure does not include the number allocated for the federal long-term care facilities program.

Avula said vials expiring are not a concern for now since expiration dates are years out, but more answers are needed to determine optimum storage in this scenario.

Administration of the one-shot vaccine has been largely reserved for pharmacies and mass vaccination clinics that specify an individual is signing up for Johnson & Johnson.

As of Tuesday, 4.8 million total doses have been administered and 3.1 million people — nearly 40% of the state’s population — have been vaccinated with at least one dose.

Anyone experiencing headaches, abdominal or leg pain and shortness of breath following a J&J vaccination is advised to immediately contact a health care provider or seek medical attention.


ABOVE: Javed Shaik prayed as others prepared for the iftar — the breaking of the fast — at the Islamic Center of Richmond in western Henrico County on Tuesday. It was the first day of the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast during the day.

RIGHT: Observances were physically distanced because of precautions for COVID-19, so Abdul Salifu (left) and Mamadu Bah broke their fast in the back of their truck outside the Islamic Center. (For more on observances around the world, see Page A10.)


Mamadu Bah and Abdul Salifu break their fast on their truck on Tuesday, April 13, 2021 at Islamic Center of Richmond in Glen Allen, Virginia. Today marks the first day of the Holy Month of Ramadan for Muslims around the world.


Govt-and-politics
After consequential session, Speaker Filler-Corn turns to defending House majority this fall

When she first got to the House of Delegates 11 years ago, House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn remembers being the only mother of school-age children on the chamber’s floor.

The Fairfax Democrat is now the first woman to ever preside over the House, which, she says, has been remade by the diversity of perspectives Democrats have ushered in: Women and Black lawmakers lead key committees, Latino and Asian Americans have recently organized their own caucuses, and Indian Americans now have one of their own in a House seat.

Filler-Corn, speaker since January 2020, says it’s led to the kind of legislation a broad coalition of Virginians can get behind, a key point she hopes will drive public support for Democrats this November.

Now that the General Assembly’s regular session is over, Filler-Corn is turning her sights to protecting and growing her party’s majority this fall, when all 100 seats in the House will be up for grabs. Democrats hold 55 seats, Republicans 45. In her coffers, her team reports, is $1.75 million with which to defend her party’s power, a record for a House speaker.

In an interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Filler-Corn said voters will see a contrast between Democrats’ coalition and Republican lawmakers, who she said are still loyal to former President Donald Trump.

Filler-Corn said the influence of Trump, though no longer in the White House, will weigh heavily on the November election as an energizer for Democrats. Anti-Trump fervor was broadly credited with Virginia’s “blue waves” in 2017, when Democrats gained 15 House seats and, in 2019, when they gained control of the House and the state Senate.

“Trump may not be in office, but ... the Trump style, [the] politics, and beliefs and policies are still alive in the Virginia Republican Party,” Filler-Corn said. “I see my role as, let’s make sure everybody knows exactly what we accomplished. And just what would be at stake if we were to lose the majority.”

From one angle, the election will be a referendum on the Democratic agenda, which has yielded headline after headline noting liberal change in the former capital of the Confederacy, the “first state in the South” to legalize recreational use of marijuana for adults and to end the death penalty, among other changes.

Filler-Corn listed bills increasing the minimum wage, forcing utilities to ramp up clean energy production, expanding voter protections, doing away with some mandatory minimum sentences, legalizing marijuana, abolishing the death penalty, banning discrimination against LGBTQ individuals and more.

“[The caucus members’] personal experiences, professional experiences, backgrounds — diversity of all kinds — led us to the issues that we focus on, and in turn the specific details of each bill,” Filler-Corn said.

She added that she’s confident these issues have broad support among voters. She pointed to bills Republicans rejected that polling shows have majority public support, including the legalization of recreational use of marijuana or the removal of a now-symbolic ban on same-sex marriage from the Virginia constitution.

Asked if her praise for diversity among House Democrats contrasts with her support of former Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Attorney General Mark Herring — white men running against history-making candidates of color in Democratic nomination contests for statewide office — Filler-Corn said both have proved effective in the roles they’re seeking.

McAuliffe, governor from 2014 to 2018, is seeking to return to the Executive Mansion. Herring is seeking a third term as attorney general.

“When I think of what McAuliffe accomplished as governor, without having a Democratic legislature, it’s exciting to think of what he will be able to do moving forward,” she said.

House primaries

A record number of House Democrats are facing intraparty challenges this fall, which Filler-Corn says is a “perfect example” of continuing fervor within the party after Trump’s time in office.

Of the 54 Democrats in the House seeking re-election, 16 face primary challenges — in many cases from Democrats who highlight themselves as more progressive. (Del. Hala Ayala, D-Prince William, is not seeking re-election; she is seeking the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor.)

“The fact that so many of my members have primaries shows that there’s a lot of energy and there’s a lot of enthusiasm. You know, I look at that as a plus,” she said. Filler-Corn has endorsed or plans to endorse all Democratic incumbents who request her backing.

Police policies

But it also shows rifts within the Democratic Party over the role of police, particularly amid nationwide tension related to violent police interactions with Black people. As protests continue in metropolitan Minneapolis over the police shooting of Daunte Wright, Virginia is investigating a traffic stop in the town of Windsor that saw a Black and Latino U.S. Army medic pepper-sprayed by police.

Filler-Corn declined to say whether she supports abolishing qualified immunity for police officers outright. But she voted in favor of a bill introduced by Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, that would have made it easier for people to sue police officers for civil damages over civil rights violations.

In September, a Senate panel killed Bourne’s bill without much fuss. The bill was not reintroduced in the regular session this past winter. Pressed on the issue, Filler-Corn suggested that lack of support in the Senate rendered the proposed policy dead on arrival.

“There are times when bills are passed by one body and not the other — need I say more — which is important when you’re thinking about how to spend your time,” she said.

She was much more emphatic when asked about calls to divert funding from police and toward social services, in hopes of minimizing the role of law enforcement in society.

“Defunding the police. I don’t really like that term, obviously, at all,” said Filler-Corn, noting that the legislature’s budget included pay raises for police officers and more money for training.

The idea and the term “defund the police” do not have much support among most Democratic leaders in Virginia, but opposition to the concepts has electrified Republican voters. Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, who is seeking the party’s nomination for governor, was the only Democrat who opposed a budget amendment allocating $1 million to state and local police for training on how to identify drivers who are under the influence of drugs, as the state moves to legalize simple possession of marijuana.

“I think there’s a lot of individuals that go into law enforcement because they want to help people, and they want to do the right thing. But systemic racism exists in every institution, and we need to help hold all of these institutions to a higher degree level of accountability,” Filler-Corn said.

COVID-19

The speaker said that for the broadest swath of voters, the pandemic will be top of mind. In some ways, the election will also test public support for how the state — controlled by Democrats — handled the COVID-19 crisis.

“We governed responsibly, we governed swiftly, and we provided support and assistance to those most vulnerable, those most heavily impacted as a result of all this crisis,” she said. She highlighted legislation forcing school districts to reopen for in-person classes next school year, which did receive broad support from Democrats but was introduced by a Republican.

House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, has challenged Democrats’ handling of the pandemic, arguing they bowed down to teachers unions and kept schools closed longer than necessary — a key talking point among Republicans running for office.

“From day one of this pandemic, Republicans have been working to give parents a real choice for their kids — either virtual school, or a 5-day-a-week in-person option,” Gilbert said in a statement.

He said Democrats also spent “months making life easier for criminals, more difficult for police.”

“November will be a referendum on one-party rule in Virginia,” Gilbert said. “That’s why we’re confident voters will return a Republican majority to control this fall.”


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Education
breaking
Chesterfield County Public Schools recommends separating virtual students from home schools in fall

As Chesterfield County’s school system encourages its students to return to the classroom in the fall, the district is offering two virtual options as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

Next year, virtual Chesterfield students could be separated from their home schools and their peers. According to a School Board presentation Tuesday, a virtual academy for students in kindergarten through eighth grade is being recommended for the fall, along with an existing online course program for high schoolers.

“We strongly encourage all students to return to face-to-face instruction during the 2021-22 school year,” Chief of Schools Lisa High said during Tuesday’s School Board work session.

“We believe face-to-face instruction is best for all students under normal circumstances, given that students miss much more than academics when not in school,” High added.

The school system began welcoming students back to school five days a week in February, first with students in elementary school, followed by those in middle school and high school. Students were able to remain virtual if desired.

Under the virtual academy proposal, K-8 students who enroll in the academy would not have the same teacher as their classmates who are back at school. Instead, academy students would be taught by an assigned virtual teacher and be in a virtual classroom with students in the same grade from across the county.

Virtual students in all grades would have the option to participate in sports and extracurricular activities at their home school.

The School Board is set to vote next month on the recommendations for virtual instruction.

***

For Shakita Stephenson, whose son is a seventh-grader at Falling Creek Middle School, having a virtual option is great, but the options are still “crummy.” She said she would like to send her son back so he can be with his classmates, but the idea gives her pause.

“I’m not confident to send him back because there are not enough studies on kids getting vaccines and how they are reacting to them and there are not enough studies that kids are not transmitting [COVID]. We don’t know,” said Stephenson, who added that she has doubts about the school system being able to accommodate hundreds of students per school for in-person learning.

Families would be able to enroll in the academy for either a semester or the full year, and students would follow the school system’s traditional calendar. The academy would be staffed by teachers, counselors, an administrative team, a special education coordinator and an instructional designer.

“I do feel pressured by the county to just say, ‘Everything’s gonna be fine, so [bring] your kids back in the building,’” Chesterfield parent Dominique Chatters said Tuesday.

Chatters, a mother of four with three enrolled in Chesterfield schools, said she finds it “disingenuous” for the school system to push a plan where if families choose to remain virtual, students would be disconnected from their home school and gifted programs would not be offered.

Chatters’ fourth-grade daughter is currently in a gifted program, but next year that could change, which gives Chatters heartburn as she and her husband figure out whether they should send their children back into school buildings in the fall.

“It’s a slippery slope for me because now it’s like OK, I’m conceding that my child will have to not have gifted services anymore because they would stay home and be behind. It’s not fair,” Chatters said.

Chesterfield high school students who want to continue with virtual learning in the fall wouldn’t have an academy option. Instead, they would enroll in the school system’s existing CCPSOnline program.

For the past 15 years, CCPSOnline has offered middle and high school courses online. Prior to the pandemic, CCPSOnline offered courses to students who needed to free up their school schedule to be able to access advanced coursework or attend a specialty or technical center. That offering is to continue, alongside the virtual option for all high schoolers.

“Based on the number of course offerings that we have, we do not have [the] staffing to create a virtual academy at the high school level,” school system spokesperson Tim Bullis wrote in an email.

CCPSOnline has designated teachers, but students have flexibility in that they can complete the online coursework on their own time.

While honors and Advanced Placement courses are available on CCPSOnline, specialty center classes are not accessible. Housed in Chesterfield’s 13 high schools and career and technical centers, specialty centers include a Spanish immersion program, an International Baccalaureate program, health sciences, and a center for the arts.

***

Sadiq Gill’s son is set to start the Humanities Specialty program at Monacan High School in the fall. Gill’s children have remained at home this entire school year.

His daughter, who has a compromised immune system as she lives with Type 1 diabetes, attends Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School, and he has a daughter who will be in first grade in the fall.

Gill’s family is grappling with either risking coronavirus exposure for their household or abandoning the Monacan specialty program.

Jarad Morton, who has a seventh-grader at Manchester Middle School, wrote in an email that he thinks “it is outstanding that we are finally comfortable enough to move forward with plans to get our children back in the classroom while still offering quality options for students who wish to remain virtual.”

Morton added that it’s “great” that teachers will no longer have to juggle teaching students in person and virtually at the same time.

Come fall, the district anticipates masks will still be required and that 3-feet distancing protocols will be in place. Schools will maintain COVID-19 cleaning procedures.

Families considering the K-8 virtual academy are asked to make a decision by June 1. For those considering CCPSOnline, registration will be open until July 9.

The school system is “asking us to make a decision before the summer potential surge happens, and I think that’s unfair,” said Chatters, the mother of four. “That’s two months prior to the start of school, not taking into account any summer activities that might result in more cases or variants, because we are seeing a rise of variants.”


Local
breaking
Va. had more than 12,000 excess deaths between March and February. Nearly 82% were from COVID

From March 2020 to February 2021, Virginia had 12,068 more deaths than the typical number recorded during past years. Nearly 82% — 9,847 — were due to COVID-19.

As of Tuesday, the state had reported 10,506 total virus deaths. The largest share occurred in December and January, the deadliest month of this past year.

“Undoubtedly, the COVID-19 pandemic will go down as one of the most significant world events in recent history,” read a preliminary Virginia Department of Health report released Monday. Specifics are likely to change as more information comes in. “The physical health, mental health, and livelihood of billions of people across the globe have been significantly impacted.”

While the report doesn’t aggregate the data by race, ethnicity or age, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that from January to October 2020, the largest percentage increases for excess deaths nationally were among Latinos and people ages 25 to 44. At the time, 2 out of 3 excess deaths reported were from COVID-19.

The VDH said Monday that the remaining 18.4%, while not directly related to a virus infection, were existing epidemics worsened during COVID-19.

Total homicides in 2020 reached the highest number recorded statewide in decades at 541, an increase of 80 from 2019. There was a 45% increase in fatal drug overdoses in Virginia, a percentage outpacing a historic 16.9% reported by the CDC.

Virginia declared fatal drug overdoses a public health emergency in 2016.

Opioid overdoses were a contributing factor to lowered life expectancies in 2020. Black and Latino populations are projected to have a 2- to 3-year drop.

In July, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration declared the opioid crisis ”an urgent issue” among Latinos following a disturbing spike in cases and implemented prevention strategies to curb the high death rates. They include widening language accessibility, having cultural competency training among medical staff, and reducing barriers to treatment, especially in low-income areas with limited medical care options.

Previously, Latinos accounted for the lowest percentage of opioid overdose deaths on the federal and state level. In 2019, the latest available update, Latinos accounted for 4% of Virginia’s fatal overdoses while Black residents were 21% of the total. Whites were 72% of total opioid overdose deaths, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Deaths where the person was not treated by a physician in the last year also increased, but annual suicide numbers did not change from past years, according to the VDH report.

About 629 deaths, or 5% of the preliminary numbers, do not have a cause recorded, and the VDH continues to investigate “to focus prevention efforts in an attempt to prevent additional deaths during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.”


Coverage inside

Henrico plan

Budget includes raises after cuts last year. Page A3

Va. revenues

Surge is good news for state economy. Page A4

Fall classes

RPS plans to be open five days a week. Page A4

Va. colleges

J&J issue could hinder plans for shots. Page A5


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