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Marcus alert bill passes House and Senate, moves to Northam’s desk

Both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly have approved a proposal to establish a statewide system that pairs teams of mental health professionals and peer recovery specialists with police officers responding to mental health crises.

Capital News Service

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By Andrew Ringle

Both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly have approved a proposal to establish a statewide system that pairs teams of mental health professionals and peer recovery specialists with police officers responding to mental health crises.

The Senate approved the measure by a vote of 24-15 on Thursday. The House gave the legislation the green light in September with a vote of 57-39. The proposal now needs a signature from Gov. Ralph Northam to become law.

House Bill 5043 is sponsored by Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond. Dubbed the mental health awareness response and community understanding services, or Marcus alert system, the bill honors the life of Marcus-David Peters, who was shot and killed in 2018 during an encounter with Richmond police. Peters, a 24-year-old Virginia Commonwealth University alumnus and high school biology teacher, was naked and unarmed during the shooting. After running into traffic on the interstate, Peters charged at an officer who deployed a Taser and then fired his gun. Peters’ family said he was experiencing a mental health crisis.

Bourne’s bill requires law enforcement to consider mitigating “impact to care” by having officers not wearing their uniforms and using unmarked vehicles, when possible.

Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, did not directly comment on Bourne’s bill, but she said mental health calls are “volatile and dangerous” and that co-response teams require extensive training for officers and mental health workers.

“Additionally, there needs to be sufficient funding to make both trained officers and mental health workers who serve on co-response teams available at any time of day,” Schrad said in a message.

Schrad said the organization supports efforts to create co-responder teams for mental health calls. She said the commonwealth must address the “overwhelming need” to improve mental health and preventative services locally.

“However, we cannot support efforts that would disarm law enforcement officers and take them out of uniform on mental health calls,” Schrad said.

Bourne’s bill would require Virginia Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, in collaboration with Criminal Justice Services, to create two plans by July 1, 2021. One creates a written plan for the development of a Marcus alert system, and another sets guidelines for law enforcement. By the same date, localities must also create a database identifying individuals with mental or behavioral health illness, developmental or intellectual disability or brain injury. Such individuals or a legal guardian may voluntarily provide the individual’s address and relevant health information to the database, which would be accessible to 911 and the Marcus alert system.

The bill would require Virginia Behavioral Health and Developmental Services and Criminal Justice Services to establish guidelines and training programs for crisis teams, call center employees, clinical staff, and Marcus alert system users by Dec. 1, 2021.

Every locality must have a Marcus alert system with care teams by July 1, 2022, according to the bill.

Mental Health America of Virginia Executive Director Bruce Cruser, who called the bill “a significant step forward” during a House committee meeting on Aug. 25, said the proposal may need further review in order to promote coordinated responses across localities.

“We’re just anxious to see how we can work out language that is coordinated,” Cruser said.

Opinions vary among mental health personnel regarding potential safety risks posed by crisis situations, Cruser said.

“If a mental health professional is being put in harm’s way, I mean obviously that’s a concern,” he said. “But I think how the system is structured is really the key.”

Cruser said there’s uncertainty in the mental health field regarding how the system would work in different areas across Virginia and whether personnel would be equipped to respond to crises.

“Some are well trained in de-escalation, and some are not,” Cruser said. “That’s really one of the challenges here, is to work with local community service boards and localities to determine the best way to intervene that brings about the desired result, which is less injury to anyone and better outcomes.”

Cruser said Mental Health America of Virginia supports the goals of Bourne’s legislation, but that a larger effort is needed to prevent crisis situations from happening in the first place.

“If there’s a call for service and it’s a mental health call, well then the response should be mental health-focused,” Cruser said. “The law enforcement response should be reserved for what law enforcement is trained to deal with best. The challenge is how you determine the nature of the call in the first place.”

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The Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. In the program, journalism students cover news in Richmond and across Virginia and distribute their stories, photos, and other content to more than 100 newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.

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State of the City Address postponed after Mayor Levar Stoney tests positive for COVID-19

As a result of his diagnosis, the mayor’s annual State of the City address scheduled for this Thursday, January 28th has been postponed and will now take place virtually on Thursday, February 11th.

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Mayor Levar M. Stoney today announced that he has tested positive for the coronavirus.

The mayor was informed of the result this morning after undergoing a PCR test following the onset of mild symptoms Monday.

“Since the coronavirus first started to spread in our region roughly a year ago, over 12,000 residents in our city have been infected with COVID-19. Today, I count myself as one of them,” the mayor said. “While I do not feel 100 percent, I am thankful that my symptoms are currently manageable and will continue to work from my home to ensure the continuity of city government.”

Per CDC guidelines, the mayor will isolate at home. Those persons considered contacts have been informed and are quarantining and taking the necessary precautions to keep themselves and those around them protected and healthy.

“As my personal experience should tell you, while there is reason to be hopeful due to the distribution of the vaccine, this pandemic is still far from over and must be taken seriously,” the mayor said.

As a result of his diagnosis, the mayor’s annual State of the City address scheduled for this Thursday, January 28th has been postponed and will now take place virtually on Thursday, February 11th.

“I look forward to sharing with all of you my vision for moving the city boldly forward in the coming year, and beyond,” the mayor stated.

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Valentine and Community Foundation announce 2021 Richmond History Makers

The 16th Annual Richmond History Makers and Community Update on March 9 will celebrate these hometown heroes and provide an update on the region’s resiliency during a challenging year.

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Virginia First Lady Pamela Northam announced the six honorees in the 2021 class of Richmond History Makers yesterday morning during a Facebook Live event.

The 16th Annual Richmond History Makers and Community Update on March 9 will celebrate these hometown heroes and provide an update on the region’s resiliency during a challenging year. The event will take place virtually and will be free, with the Valentine and the Community Foundation for a greater Richmond joining forces to recognize and celebrate these trailblazers. Long-time Richmond History Makers partner Dominion Energy is returning as the title sponsor.

According to six categories, the 2021 Richmond History Makers are:

Creating Quality Educational Opportunities:

Chuck English
Virginia STEM Coordinator

Demonstrating Innovative Economic Solutions:

Floyd E. Miller II
President & CEO
Metropolitan Business League

Improving Regional Transportation:

Lloyd “Bud” Vye
Biking and pedestrian advocate

Championing Social Justice:

Chloe Edwards

Advocacy and Engagement Manager

Voices for Virginia’s Children

Promoting Community Health:

Health Brigade

Advancing our Quality of Life:

Hamilton Glass

Muralist and community advocate

“The life-changing work that we have seen take place across the Richmond Region this year is unlike any other,” said Valentine Director Bill Martin. “These individuals and organizations stepped up in the face of so many challenging circumstances, and they deserve an evening to be celebrated in front of their community!”

The Community Foundation for a greater Richmond is also returning as one of this event’s co-sponsors.

“Throughout 2020 and into 2021, we have certainly seen so many people rise to the occasion and address some of the most pressing needs of the Richmond Region,” said Community Foundation Chief Community Engagement Officer Scott Blackwell. “These honorees have really helped get Richmond through a difficult time, and their work is not always recognized or celebrated. We’re thrilled to highlight their contributions and share good news.”

Leadership Metro Richmond, a long-time partner in this program, helped to oversee the virtual Selection Committee, which narrowed down the six honorees from more than 135 nominations.

“With so many nominations, it’s clear the community was ready to recognize those going above and beyond to make a difference, especially during such difficult times,” said LMR President & CEO Myra Goodman Smith. “This year’s honorees deserve to be celebrated, and we look forward to lending our voice to the virtual crowd in March.”

You can register for a free ticket and learn more here.

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VDH acknowledges first case of new COVID-19 variant identified in Virginia

SARS-CoV-2 variant B.1.1.7 has been identified in a sample from an adult resident of Northern Virginia with no reported recent travel history. The variant, which first emerged in the United Kingdom in late 2020, is associated with increased person-to-person transmission of COVID-19.

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The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) and the Department of General Services Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services (DCLS) today announced that the first case of the SARS-CoV-2 variant B.1.1.7 has been identified in a sample from an adult resident of Northern Virginia with no reported recent travel history. The B.1.1.7 variant, which first emerged in the United Kingdom in late 2020, is associated with increased person-to-person transmission of COVID-19.

DCLS confirmed the case using next-generation sequencing that provides a genetic blueprint of the virus that causes COVID-19. DCLS has informed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of the case.

“Viruses change all the time, and we expect to see new strains as disease spreads,” said State Health Commissioner M. Norman Oliver, MD, MA. “We know this variant strain spreads more quickly between people than other strains currently circulating in our communities, but we still have more to learn about whether it causes more severe illness. As our state public health officials closely monitor the emergence of the B.1.1.7 variant in our Commonwealth, it is important that all Virginians continue following mitigation measures.”

In the United States, nearly 200 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant have been detected in 23 states as of January 22, 2021. While scientists are working to better understand its impact on vaccine efficacy, early data suggests currently authorized vaccines are effective against the new variant. VDH continues to work with communities across Virginia to slow the spread of all strains of COVID-19 through widespread adherence to preventive measures, supporting testing and vaccination efforts, and conducting investigations of cases and outbreaks.

As a virus spreads from one person to another, it makes copies of itself and sometimes makes small genetic changes called mutations. Because of these mutations, new variants of a virus are expected to occur over time. According to the CDC, multiple variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 have been documented in the United States and around the world. The B.1.1.7 variant contains an unusually large number of mutations.

DCLS began sequencing positive COVID-19 samples in March 2020, becoming one of the first public health labs in the nation to use this technology to examine the genetic makeup of the virus and track how it is changing and being transmitted in the Commonwealth. To date, DCLS has sequenced more than 10 percent of positive samples tested by the state lab, and is working with other labs in Virginia to solicit additional positive samples to sequence so public health officials can get a representation of variants circulating throughout Virginia.

“Sequencing is one of many tools we have available at the state’s public health laboratory to enable medical and public health officials to quickly identify and respond to threats such as emerging COVID-19 variants,” said Dr. Denise Toney, Director of DCLS. “We share this information not only within the Commonwealth, but with our federal and international partners to gain a better understanding of emerging genetic changes to SARS-CoV-2.”

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