Incompetent, Dangerously Incompetent, and the Virginia Department of Health

Clark Mercer

By James C. Sherlock

It is very hard to recommend a career in politics these days. Elected officials are at the mercy of the competence of bureaucracies they did not create and over which, under civil service protections, they have little control.

Yet never have we needed dedicated, smart and effective political leaders more than today.

Clark Mercer, Governor Northam’s Chief of Staff, and I don’t vote the same way, but that doesn’t color my view of him. He is very smart and, if you see him on the Governor’s press conferences, he is a breath of fresh air, regularly elevating the discourse like no other person on the stage. He has a bright future.

I have been documenting the failures of the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) in these pages and on the editorial pages of Virginia newspapers for more than a decade. I offer the title of this essay as a useful way to describe the hierarchy of incompetence in Virginia.

Well, VDH just reached up and bit Mr. Mercer.

He was responding to Sen. Bill DeSteph’s letter decrying the Virginia Department of Education’s overreach with their preposterous guidelines for school reopening.

It is a measure of his competence and honesty that Mr. Mercer did not try to put lipstick on that pig.

He agreed with DeSteph in a response sent to the senator’s office. From WAVY TV 10’s recounting of the letter,

“Each district has flexibility to come up with its own plan that they will submit to the Department of Education. What the state has put out is guidance based on CDC guidelines,” said Mercer.

The problem is that someone at VDH truncated and badly summarized the CDC guidelines in a way that made the VDH version both incomplete and far less clear than the original for keeping our kids and teachers safe.

The VDH version is the one on the VDOE website.

The section marked “Health and Instructional Plans for Reopening” begins with:

“Per an order of the Public Health Commissioner, before entering Phase II or III, every public and private school in Virginia will be required to submit to the VDOE a plan outlining their strategies for mitigating public health risk of COVID-19 and complying with CDC and VDH recommendations.”

When the school superintendents, principals and nurses click on “Health Plan Guidance” below that sentence, they get the 3 1/2 page VDH summary of the CDC guidelines titled – Guidance for Virginia Public and Private preK-12 Schools Submitting COVID-19 Mitigation Health Plans, not the far better written, more complete and more useful for planning 9-page CDC Guidelines at

I suspect there was no force on earth that could have prevented the VDH from publishing its own version of back to school health planning guidance rather than just posting the one from CDC.

I documented earlier here that VDH publishes its own vast regulations for hospitals and nursing homes rather that just incorporating by reference the far stronger and more complete CMS Medicaid/Medicare regulations for the same facilities.

It seems like something other than an honest effort to regulate. VDH could reduce its own workload and eliminate confusion and extra work for those Virginians trying to comply with both federal and state standards. Perhaps Dr. Oliver can explain why the department doesn’t do it.

In any event, Clark Mercer had every right to expect that the state had put out guidance “based on CDC guidelines.” He should have been able to expect a full repetition of CDC guidelines annotated with any Virginia codicils or points of contact, not a flawed subset of the CDC guidance.

Who in his position could have imagined that VDH could screw that up?

Well Mr. Mercer, imagine it next time.

I wrote the woman in charge of the web page and recommended she change the link under “Health Plan Guidance” to the CDC page. We’ll see if it gets done.

For school district superintendents, principals, and nurses, you may wish to start with the full CDC guidelines linked above.

Your plan will be both easier to create and considerably more complete and effective in keeping everyone safe.

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3 responses to “Incompetent, Dangerously Incompetent, and the Virginia Department of Health”

  1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    I am sure the VDH staff cringe when they see an e-mail with your address. Keep up the good work pressuring them.

    1. sherlockj Avatar

      Thanks for the kind words. VDH is very important, and unfortunately very bad at what they do, and have been for at least the 15 years I have been tracking them. Tough problem.

  2. Nancy_Naive Avatar

    MSWord — Giving that chance to a million monkeys.

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