Virginians, Look to State/Local Government for COVID-19 Response

by James C. Sherlock

Our schools generally don’t do as good a job teaching civics education as they used to — that’s an old man talking! — which leaves a lot of people confused as to where to look in a crisis. The conversations we see on Bacon’s Rebellion reflect that confusion even among the sophisticated readership of this blog. Much of the press reporting is devoid of this perspective.

The United States constitution defines a federal system of government in which power is divided among the national government and state governments. Some areas of public life are under the control of the national government and some areas are under control of the state governments. The original reason for the founders choosing that system was maintenance of personal freedom and empowering the governments closest to the people. Those reasons still apply.  To that reason we can now add scale. The profound differences of all kinds among the states ensure that one size truly cannot fit all.

Virginia is a sovereign state under the constitution. The federal government does a lot of things, but it does not have direct responsibility for how well Virginia — or California, or Texas — handles COVID-19.

The Governor of Virginia and the Secretary of Health and Human Resources — physicians both — are responsible for managing the crisis in Virginia. So conversations on this blog regarding the National Stockpile and the capabilities of the Defense Department and pretty much all other issues relative to state utilization of national resources need to start with an understanding that the Governor must request those resources.

The General Assembly has granted Virginia’s Governor broad powers under state law to deal with emergencies. Code of Virginia Title 44. Military and Emergency Laws; Chapter 3.2. Emergency Services and Disaster Law; § 44-146.17. Powers and duties of Governor.

The Governor shall be Director of Emergency Management. He shall take such action from time to time as is necessary for the adequate promotion and coordination of state and local emergency services activities relating to the safety and welfare of the Commonwealth in time of disasters.

The Governor shall have, in addition to his powers hereinafter or elsewhere prescribed by law, the following powers and duties:

(1) To proclaim and publish such rules and regulations and to issue such orders as may, in his judgment, be necessary to accomplish the purposes of this chapter including, but not limited to such measures as are in his judgment required to control, restrict, allocate or regulate the use, sale, production and distribution of food, fuel, clothing and other commodities, materials, goods, services and resources under any state or federal emergency services programs.

He may adopt and implement the Commonwealth of Virginia Emergency Operations Plan, which provides for state-level emergency operations in response to any type of disaster or large-scale emergency affecting Virginia and that provides the needed framework within which more detailed emergency plans and procedures can be developed and maintained by state agencies, local governments and other organizations.

He may direct and compel evacuation of all or part of the populace from any stricken or threatened area if this action is deemed necessary for the preservation of life, implement emergency mitigation, preparedness, response or recovery actions; prescribe routes, modes of transportation and destination in connection with evacuation; and control ingress and egress at an emergency area, including the movement of persons within the area and the occupancy of premises therein.

Executive orders, to include those declaring a state of emergency and directing evacuation, shall have the force and effect of law and the violation thereof shall be punishable as a Class 1 misdemeanor in every case where the executive order declares that its violation shall have such force and effect.

Such executive orders declaring a state of emergency may address exceptional circumstances that exist relating to an order of quarantine or an order of isolation concerning a communicable disease of public health threat that is issued by the State Health Commissioner for an affected area of the Commonwealth pursuant to Article 3.02 (§ 32.1-48.05 et seq.) of Chapter 2 of Title 32.1.

Except as to emergency plans issued to prescribe actions to be taken in the event of disasters and emergencies, no rule, regulation, or order issued under this section shall have any effect beyond June 30 next following the next adjournment of the regular session of the General Assembly but the same or a similar rule, regulation, or order may thereafter be issued again if not contrary to law;

(2) To appoint a State Coordinator of Emergency Management and authorize the appointment or employment of other personnel as is necessary to carry out the provisions of this chapter, and to remove, in his discretion, any and all persons serving hereunder;

(3) To procure supplies and equipment, to institute training and public information programs relative to emergency management and to take other preparatory steps including the partial or full mobilization of emergency management organizations in advance of actual disaster, to insure the furnishing of adequately trained and equipped forces in time of need;

(4) To make such studies and surveys of industries, resources, and facilities in the Commonwealth as may be necessary to ascertain the capabilities of the Commonwealth and to plan for the most efficient emergency use thereof;

(5) On behalf of the Commonwealth enter into mutual aid arrangements with other states and to coordinate mutual aid plans between political subdivisions of the Commonwealth. After a state of emergency is declared in another state and the Governor receives a written request for assistance from the executive authority of that state, the Governor may authorize the use in the other state of personnel, equipment, supplies, and materials of the Commonwealth, or of a political subdivision, with the consent of the chief executive officer or governing body of the political subdivision;

(6) To delegate any administrative authority vested in him under this chapter, and to provide for the further delegation of any such authority, as needed;

(7) Whenever, in the opinion of the Governor, the safety and welfare of the people of the Commonwealth require the exercise of emergency measures due to a threatened or actual disaster, he may declare a state of emergency to exist;

(8) To request a major disaster declaration from the President, thereby certifying the need for federal disaster assistance and ensuring the expenditure of a reasonable amount of funds of the Commonwealth, its local governments, or other agencies for alleviating the damage, loss, hardship, or suffering resulting from the disaster;

(9) To provide incident command system guidelines for state agencies and local emergency response organizations.”

So look to the Governor, not the President, for Virginia’s reaction to COVID-19.  Watch the Governor’s daily press conferences as well as the President’s. Look to the governor’s website for leadership actions and the Virginia Department of Health website for the rest of the disease guidance and response information.

Note that a great deal of information was posted on March 19.  The headline: “Co-pays eliminated for all Medicaid-covered services, tax relief, small businesses can begin applying for low-interest federal disaster loans.” The video of the Mar 19 media briefing is available there. The sections include:

  • Increased Access to Health Care (for the poor)
  • Guidance for Child Care Providers
  • Support for Impacted Businesses
  • Justice-Involved Population
  • Motor Vehicle Inspections

As for local health departments, what you get depends upon where you live. As expected, the Fairfax County Health Department has comprehensive local information. Most will only repeat state and federal guidelines.

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5 responses to “Virginians, Look to State/Local Government for COVID-19 Response”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    So maybe a dumb question or perhaps one already answered.

    Who should be keeping the stockpile?

    1. djrippert Avatar

      Actually a good question. My guess? The state using funds from the Federal government. We’ll see what Capt Sherlock has to say.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        I was somewhat curious whether the States themselves maintained stockpiles.

  2. sherlockj Avatar

    There are 200 federal employees in stocking stations in several locations around the country that preserve the national stockpile under the direction of CDC. On direction from the CDC with the approval of the President, they ship supplies and equipment. Governors must request it. Whomever the President has authorized to approve requests for him must provide an overlay of management at the federal level to ensure it is deployed wisely, not just to the first or loudest voices. Same with other federal capabilities like the Corps of Engineers and the hospital ships. That information is a part of the national incident management system (NIMS) that is taught to every state official who participates in the live or online training. It is also supposed to be exercised as part of the national exercise system paid for with federal funds but records show that the states haven’t exercised the pandemic virus responses nearly as much as other more high profile issues like other natural disasters and terrorism. Regrettable but understandable.

  3. sherlockj Avatar

    Note: We have gone through other dangerous viruses that arrived on our shores in the last 20 years that should have given the system an airing. I have not read the debriefs from those responses to tell you how deeply the National Response Plan was executed in those cases.

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