Constructive Criticism in a Crisis

by James C. Sherlock

Steve Haner and I have expressed the exact same three-phase reaction to state government missteps in the COVID-19 crisis. At first we gave the Governor slack because we knew he was unprepared and is supported by bureaucracies similarly unprepared for the new realities and that both needed time to adjust.

Then, when some of the Virginia bureaucracies important to this crisis showed inescapable evidence of a lack of nimbleness that rose to a level of incompetence, we called them out. Someone has to, or Governor, unschooled in the machinery of crisis response, will not get a sufficiently clear picture to seek alternative advice. Certainly, no one who works for him is likely to tell him.

That is the reason that I listed a “bill of particulars” the other day about major missteps in his April 1 press conference. He needs better advice. A follow-up article was about official malfeasance. He needs to fire the culprit.

Third, we recommended how the problems can be addressed. I recommended  the Governor seek support from MITRE to bridge the unpreparedness of his government advisors. The advice was for now, not for the post-crisis review. We want and need him to succeed.

What happens to government bureaucracies in a crisis?

Government bureaucracies often succeed at their basic day-to-day missions, but in many cases it is best not to look closer if you don’t have strong stomach. Continue reading

COVID-19 Update: Blastoff!

According to data published by the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) this morning, the number of new COVID-19 cases confirmed in Virginia Friday shot up to 395, up from 306 the previous day, bringing the total number of confirmed cases to 2,407. To emphasize the change in the number of new cases, I have changed the graph I update daily from displaying total cases to new cases.

Here’s the daily data roundup:

Total COVID-19 cases: 2,407, up 395 from the previous day.
Total hospitalizations: 390, up 68.
Total deaths: 52, up six.
Total tests: 21,547, up 2,547.
Percentage tests positive: 15.5%

And here, straight from the spreadsheet of John Butcher, are the current “doubling” rates for key metrics:

Case count: 3.4 days
Hospitalizations: 3.7 days
Deaths: 3.1 days


Thank God for Medicaid Expansion

By Peter Galuszka

For years after the Affordable Care Act, “Obamacare,” made millions of federal dollars available for states to expand Medicaid health coverage, Virginia Republicans steadfastly blocked Virginia from using the money.

Led by former House Speaker Bill Howell and Sen. Tommy Norment, the GOP claimed that expanding Medicaid to nearly 400,000 people would be too expensive and would blow out state funding.

This skinflint approach was finally put to rest after Democrat Ralph Northam became governor in 2018, foreshadowing a Democratic sweep of the General Assembly in elections last year.

Thank God the Democrats prevailed.

Virginia’s formerly robust economy has been shattered by the COVID 19 pandemic. Last week, some 110,000 Virginians filed for unemployment support. It was 46,277 the week before.

Who covers them is an open question but many would qualify for Medicaid. Expansion has boosted lower-income Virginians so that they may be able to better ride out the pandemic. Continue reading

New Northam Financial Directive Late, Clueless

By Steve Haner

When I’m wrong, I should rush to admit it. The concerns expressed by others on this blog that the Northam Administration was failing to recognize the financial aspects to the COVID-19 pandemic were valid. The person exhibiting wishful thinking was me, with my assumption they were already acting.

That’s because they just acted, with an executive order to state agencies to freeze hiring, tighten spending and otherwise batten down the fiscal hatches for a storm. “We can expect to enter a recession soon,” Chief of Staff Clark Mercer writes in a four-page memo quoted by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.   

Wrong. The economy has been in recession for a month. A month. The concern now is a depression.

Mercer said the state expects “significantly less revenue” than the most pessimistic forecast Northam’s economic and revenue advisory councils considered last fall and reduced cash balances at the end of this fiscal year that will carry into the next two-year budget and require cuts in spending.

“Our intention is not to cut the budget in the short term, but decisions will depend on how much revenue comes in,” he said.

Wrong again. The state will be slashing the budget as never before, and the Governor should have started the process weeks ago. One can only hope, and it may be a forlorn one, that agency financial managers saw the clouds and acted on their own. If the Governor’s people are only now getting serious about the amendments to the budget due in seven days, shame.  Continue reading

Percent of Positive COVID-19 Tests on Upward Trend

Ask and ye shall receive. In the comments section of a recent post, Don Rippert makes an interesting observation: “The cue for a serious outbreak seems to be a rise in percent positive for those being tested. That’s why Michigan and Indiana are being watched closely right now. As I recall from the article I read once the positive percentage hits about 15% you can be assured that the sh** is about to hit the fan.”

What, then, is the trend in here in Virginia? The percentage of positive tests is running steadily higher, surpassing 15% at least twice in the past four days of data. If Don’s rule of thumb is correct, we’re near the point where the fecal matter soon will strike the rapidly revolving blade.

Any conclusion comes with caveats, mainly pertaining to the quality and consistency of the data. However, holding all other things were equal, one would expect the percentage of positives should be heading down. With access to very few tests early on, medical practitioners hewed to strict testing protocols. Only patients with symptoms most closely matching those of COVID-19 were tested. One would expect a high rate of hits. As testing kits become more readily available, they began administering somewhat more broadly — targeting front-line healthcare workers, even those who don’t show symptoms.

Duck, you  may not like what’s coming. — JAB

COVID-19 Coverup?

by James C. Sherlock

I have published criticisms of the Northam administration’s handling of COVID-19 crisis not to embarrass the administration but to inform it and recommend how it might improve. But I find the administration’s action in removing from public view the main source of that embarrassment — “the page you are looking for no longer exists”[1] — to be profoundly unethical.

Health Commissioner M. Norman Oliver said in an interview yesterday, “Department and emergency services personnel throughout the state ran through a scenario in May 2019, looking at what would happen if a pandemic caused tens of thousands of deaths. They looked at everything from how to treat people to where to put the bodies.”

He did not say how rigorous the “run through of the scenario” was, if he or the Secretary or the Governor participated, whether the participants learned anything, or whether they took any action based on those lessons learned. But we know exactly what the scenario was, because the Virginia Department of Health got it from FEMA. (The national assumptions for such a scenario are below.)

Oliver also did not mention the Virginia Pandemic Response Annex #4 to the Virginia Emergency Operations Plan. That plan was remarkably prescient about the arrival and effects of pandemic influenza. It was built on the FEMA template which you can see here. The Virginia annex modeled it exactly. It discussed such things as state responsibility to stockpile supplies in case of such an epidemic. Continue reading

The Energy Free Market that Isn’t

by Jane Twitmyer

The South, including Virginia, has been slow to build clean, transformed utility systems. Last year,  major corporations including Costco, Cox, Kroger, Sam’s Club, Target and Walmart petitioned Virginia regulators to allow them to meet their renewable energy goals by purchasing their electricity from third parties. Dominion Energy’s response was to commission a poll, according to PV magazine, asking which of two arguments was the most compelling: (1) the claim that ratepayer bills will go up $100 per month if corporations are allowed to procure their own renewables, or (2) that in the states where deregulation was introduced, that customer rates rose 39%.

The arguments are deeply questionable now that renewable technologies are cost competitive, but the “high cost” argument ignores the ongoing federal support for fossil fuel industries. A Forbes article in January warned all investors that “power sector decarbonization” is now an “imperative.” In almost all jurisdictions, utility-scale wind and solar are now the cheapest source of new electricity without subsidies. … New unsubsidized wind costs $28-54/megawatt-hour (MWh), and solar costs $32-44/MWh, while new combined cycle natural gas costs $44-68/MWh.

Comparing the real costs of generation resources is complicated.  Subsidies, both direct and indirect, as well as “offloaded” costs, need to be included. Forbes said their cost comparisons were “without subsidies,” meaning without “direct subsidies” — or specific government funding meant to reduce the retail price of building or fueling a generation resource. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) describes these subsidies as “pre-tax subsidies”, which in 2017,  globally amounted to roughly $500 billion a year. Continue reading

COVID-19 Update: Hospitalizations, Deaths Mount

Today’s data update from the Virginia Department of Health shows an an accelerating increase in confirmed new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths yesterday.

Total COVID-19 cases: 2,012, up 306 over the previous day. The previously highest daily increase was 239.
Total hospitalizations: 312, up 66 from the previous day. The previously highest daily increase was 38.
Total deaths: 46, up five from the previous day.

And here are John Butcher’s latest calculations for the “doubling” rate for key metrics:

COVID-19 confirmed cases: 3.3 days
Hospitalizations: 3.7 days
Deaths: 3.0 days

The doubling rates have been holding steady for the past few days. There is no sign at the moment that the epidemic curve is flattening. If the current rate of increase holds, the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations will hit 10,000 in about 18 days, inundating Virginia’s healthcare system.


Virginia Shortchanged by National Stockpile? Don’t Complain, Do Something

Source: House Committee on Oversight and Reform

by James A. Bacon

Virginia has received only a fraction of the medical supplies from the Strategic National Stockpile it needs to fight the COVID-19 virus, according to documents released by the House Committee on Oversight and reform.

“The new documents we are releasing today confirm the urgent warnings we have been hearing from our nation’s governors and health care professionals for weeks — they do not have enough personal protective equipment and medical supplies, and the Administration has provided only a tiny fraction of what they desperately need,” stated Rep. Carolyn B. Mahoney, chairwoman of the committee.

“While we appreciate what we’ve received from the national stockpile, it isn’t close to enough,” Governor Ralph Northam said in a statement to the Virginia Mercury Thursday. “Virginia’s health care providers and first responders deserve basic protection, equipment and supplies. We need more, period. Virginia will continue to exhaust every option — including federal support — to get what we need on the front lines.”

As of Tuesday, the Virginia Department of Health had a total of only 78,920 N95 respirator masks available for distribution from the state stockpile, the Mercury reported, based on data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Thirteen Virginia hospitals have indicated that they would have difficulty obtaining or replenishing enough personal protective equipment (PPE) to meet demand within the next three days without assistance. Continue reading

Latest COVID-19 Job Toll: 112,000 in Virginia Last Week

by James A. Bacon

The latest unemployment claims are in, and they’re brutal — more than twice the level in Virginia (and across the country) of last week, which was, by far, the worst week in the history of the United States. For the week ending March 28, the number of seasonably unadjusted initial claims was 112,497 — up from 46,277 the previous week.

The map from the Virginia Employment Commission website above shows the geographic distribution of unemployment claims. In raw numbers, the layoffs look worse in Virginia’s major metropolitan regions — Northern Virginia, Richmond, and Hampton Roads. But it’s no surprise that the number of job losses will be highest in the most populous parts of the state. What the maps do not show is the job losses expressed as a percentage of the workforce. In that light, the jobs claims in the western part of Virginia (basically Lynchburg west) look dreadful.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond has been surveying employers in the Fifth Federal Reserve district, which includes Virginia, since late February. The questionnaires asked how the spread of COVID-19 has impacted businesses, and how the businesses expected the virus to impact operations. Both questions show a marked deterioration in expectations between Feb. 27 and March 18. Continue reading

Move 2020 Nomination Deadline To Late Summer

By Steve Haner

A week after the March 3 Democratic presidential primary I was sick, probably with a cold but I had to wonder. No fever developed and patent medicines got me through. But it could have been COVID-19 after checking in hundreds of voters in the Maple Street Firehouse.

There is no way I’m repeating that activity on June 9. Thank you, Governor Ralph Northam, for saving me from having to abandon the other nice folks who work that precinct. Even if we are on the infection down slope, holding a primary that day is a risk we don’t need to impose on those volunteers.

Republican officials exploded when the stay at home directive was advanced to June 10. A statement released by the Republican Party of Virginia whined:

“… the timeline seems all too convenient,” said RPV Chairman Jack Wilson. “We ask that Governor Northam show us the data that led to his decision. It is not our opinion that the Governor is purposefully engaging in voter suppression, but an explanation would help to mitigate any concerns.”

Did my statement mitigate your concerns, Jack? I bet thousands of poll workers feel the same way.

Let’s drop the debate over which elected official or cabinet agency is more hapless and focus on some truly clueless people – this state’s all but dead Republican Party. Yesterday the state party certified three candidates to run June 9 seeking the nomination against Senator Mark Warner, D-Virginia. Don’t look at the story yet, can you name one of them? I cannot. And I would love to see somebody give Warner a race. People forget how close Ed Gillespie came to beating Mark-not-John six years ago.  Continue reading

Is Aubrey Layne Serious about a $2B “Hit” to Virginia’s Biennial General Fund from COVID-19?

By DJ Rippert

Penny Layne. Aubrey Layne is Virginia’s Secretary of Finance under the Northam Administration. Previously, Layne served as Secretary of Transportation under the McAuliffe regime. Prior to his time in government Layne held a number of executive positions in private enterprise including the presidency of Great Atlantic Properties. Layne is listed by Wikipedia as being a Republican. If true, he must have shown considerable competence and talent to be appointed to senior positions in two consecutive Democratic administrations.

Five days ago, during a Q&A with Richmond Times-Dispatch Magazine Layne effectively made an astonishing prediction. He was asked about the economic fallout from the COVID-19 epidemic in Virginia. The interviewer noted that COVID-19 would trim $2 billion from the state’s $48 billion General Fund budget within the $135 billion biennial budget. Here’s the question, “When the state budget was passed earlier this month, it was based on a full-throttled economy. Now the state is forecasted to lose potentially $2 billion in the upcoming two-year budget because of the coronavirus pandemic. How will the Northam administration address the drastic change facing the approved $135 billion budget?” Layne went on to answer that question and others without ever calling the $2 billion estimate into question.

Is it possible that the economic hit to Virginia from COVID-19 (even after federal bailout money) will only be $2 billion from the General Fund over two years? That’s just over 4% of the General Fund and just under 1.5% of the total budget.

Continue reading

Help Is Available, Governor

Dr. Jay Schnitzer, chief medical officer of Virginia-based MITRE, is a national leader in the COVID-19 response. Could he help Virginia?

by James C. Sherlock

The issues I spotlighted yesterday in Governor Northam’s news conference are not a Democrat or a Republican thing. They just need to be fixed. If you or I were elected Governor, we would consider our new responsibilities.  We would find that we have basically four:

  • Appoint competent and hard-working cabinet and sub-cabinet people and give then the authority to do their jobs. A corollary is that we would not suffer fools once we saw them in action.
  • Produce a budget.
  • Declare state emergencies, which activate the extraordinary crisis authorities granted to us under state law.
  • Use those authorities to lead and manage the state.

We would do first things first, and ensure a competent administration. We would see that we don’t have to produce a budget for a year.

Then we would turn to the last two. Governors come to the job with a near infinite variety of skills and experience. Most don’t have any experience in state-level crisis management. We would see that we could not delegate such responsibilities and make sure that we were ready. We would have our state department of emergency management train us in the basic tools of crisis management, the National Response Plan and the National Incident Management and the state annexes to both. We would ask those same offices to schedule training and exercises in the federally pre-scripted and funded scenarios for such crises: Continue reading

More COVID-19 Innovators and Heroes

Intubation box. Photo credit: Dr. Hsien Yung Lai by way of Virginia Business.

From Taiwan with love. Dr. Scott Hickey, president of the Virginia College of Emergency Physicians, is contracting with two Powhatan County companies to produce boxes designed to protect emergency health care workers while they intubate patients with COVID-19. Designed by a doctor in Taiwan, the protective box is being replicated in the U.S. to shield doctors from droplets that can spread the disease. The builders are selling the boxes at cost for $270. They can be cleaned with bleach or alcohol.

Hickey explains the necessity of the boxes to Virginia Business. Physicians’ highest-risk exposure to patients — oral secretions, nasal secretions, eye secretions — is when they have to put them on a ventilator or intubate them. The box doesn’t provide total protection, but it does create an extra layer of defense. The box is not commercially available anywhere in the world. Hickey made a prototype and reached out to friends of his, who responded immediately. Now a major insurance carrier is interested in providing  the boxes for emergency rooms across Virginia.

Sheetz sandwiches for kidz. Sheetz Inc., a Pennsylvania-based operator of gas stations and convenience stores, will start providing fee lunches for children in need at 21 Virginia locations starting Thursday. The “Kidz Meal Bagz” program will include a turkey sandwich, chips and a drink, reports Virginia Business. Families can go to participating stores and ask an employee at the register for a meal. They’ll be offered one bag per child.

Newspaper subsidies for small business. Ogden Newspapers, the parent company of the Loudoun Times-Mirror, has established a $1 million fund to help local businesses get back to full strength by subsidizing local marketing through matching grants, reports the Times-Mirror. Businesses in the Loudoun market can apply for grants up to $15,000. The fund is open to all locally owned businesses impacted by the coronavirus. Grants can be used for print and online advertising in the Times-Mirror and


COVID-19 Update: Mounting Toll

Here’s the latest COVID-19 data from the Virginia Department of Health based on yesterday’s developments.

Total cases: 1,706, up 222 yesterday.
Total hospitalizations: 246, up 38 yesterday.
Total deaths: 41, up 7 yesterday.
Total tests: 17,589, up 2,245 yesterday.

And here, straight from Cranky’s Excel spreadsheet to you, the updated “doubling” time for key metrics:

Case count: 3.3 days
Hospitalizations: 3.7 days
Deaths: 2.9 days

Finally, we have a social justice alert! I can’t believe the racial bean counters haven’t seized on this yet. Here is the VDH breakdown of COVID-19 cases by race: Continue reading