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Virginia localities take precautions to protect voters, workers

Virginia localities are taking a number of precautions to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 at polling places even though masks will not be required.

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By Sam Fowler

Virginia localities are taking a number of precautions to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 at polling places even though masks will not be required.

 Saturday marked the last day to cast early, in-person ballots before Election Day, but voters can still cast in-person ballots on Nov. 3. They also can mail or return absentee ballots by that day. Election officials have been working to keep voters and workers safe during an election that has yielded a record number of early votes.

More than 5.9 million Virginians were registered to vote as of Oct. 1, with the cut off date in late October. Early voting commenced 45 days before Election Day, due to a new law. Legislators also recently changed laws to allow no-excuse absentee voting and made Election Day a state holiday. More than 2.7 million Virginians had voted as of Nov. 1, with around 1.8 million individuals voting or casting an absentee ballot in-person, according to the Virginia Department of Elections website. More than 886,000 voters have cast absentee ballots by mail and nearly 1.1 million mail-in ballots have been requested.

Voters are encouraged to wear a mask, and will be offered one, Andrea Gaines, director of community relations at the Virginia Department of Elections, said in an email. They will also be offered the opportunity to vote without leaving their vehicles.

“Ultimately, a voter will not be turned away if they are not wearing a mask but the Department strongly encourages them to do so to keep themselves and others around them safe,” Gaines said.

Even though there is a state mandate requiring individuals to wear masks when in close proximity with others, it’s against state law to “to hinder or delay a qualified voter in entering or leaving a polling place,” regardless of whether they have on a mask, Gaines said.

Poll workers and voters will be buffered with a number of measures. Such precautions include enforcing social distancing as well as placing plexiglass between voters and poll workers, according to Gary Scott, general registrar and director of the Fairfax County Office of Elections. Virginia Medical Reserve Corps volunteers will assist at polling places to ensure social distancing and sanitization measures are followed, according to Gov. Ralph Northam’s office.

Fairfax County workers will also have shields, gloves and masks, which will be replaced throughout the day, Scott said. To avoid the chance of voters sharing pens, Fairfax County will provide voters with “I voted” pens that they can use to fill out their ballots and keep instead of offering stickers.

The Virginia Department of Elections distributed $9 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding that could be used to help secure personal protective equipment needed by local election offices, Gaines said.

In Charlottesville, poll workers will have sanitizing wipes and ponchos to help provide an extra layer of protection, said Taylor Yowell, the city’s deputy general registrar.

“We have plenty of sanitizing wipes and the sterilizing spray and paper towels in order to wipe down each polling booth after every voter throughout the day,” Yowell said.

Danville poll workers checking identification will be buffered by the use of a shower curtain placed on PVC pipe, said David Torborg, a chief poll worker at one of the city’s 16 precincts.

Torborg, who has been an election worker for about 20 years, decided to serve as an election worker again this year because he believes the precautions in place are good and will be enough to protect workers and voters from the coronavirus.

“I’m aware of COVID, I’m cautious as I can be,” Torborg said. “I’m not freaking out over it.”

Others, like former Danville poll worker JoAnn Howard, have decided against working at the polls this election to mitigate the chance of contracting the coronavirus.

“I was given the option and I did feel guilty because I’ve been working the polls for 10 years, and I really enjoy it,” Howard said. “Something could go wrong, I just didn’t want to take a risk.”

Election workers in Fairfax County are trained every three years or when laws impacting election workers or voters change, Scott said. The county has been training election workers since July on how to follow and implement social distancing measures. In Charlottesville, training sessions for new election officers were kept small to stay within Centers for Disease Control guidelines.

“All election officers do get trained on protection and making sure they’re wiping down, sanitizing,” Yowell said. “Our chiefs get trained more thoroughly with helping with de-escalation and sanitizing throughout the day.”

Virginia Department of Elections also provides training along with each locality’s specific training, Gaines said over email.

Around half of registered voters had voted in Fairfax and Charlottesville, according to Scott and Yowell.

Around 9,000 people have voted in Charlottesville as of Oct. 28. Around 5,000 to 6,000 mail-in ballots were sent out, Yowell said. The number of in-person and absentee requests accounts for nearly half of the city’s 33,000 active registered voters.

“We’ve already gone over 50% of our anticipated turnout in five days of in-person voting,” Scott said. “We anticipate close to 60% of our voters will have voted prior to elections.”

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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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Government

VDH announces new QR codes to verify COVID-19 vaccination status

A person vaccinated in Virginia can visit vaccinate.virginia.gov to obtain their free vaccination record with QR code, which can then be saved to a phone gallery, printed on paper, or stored in a compatible account.

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The Virginia Department of Health today announced the addition of QR codes – a type of barcode that can be scanned with smartphones – to Virginia COVID-19 vaccination records.

QR codes – short for “quick response” – are commonly used in retail, logistics, and other sectors. The technology allows anyone to show proof of vaccination with a digital or printed QR code instead of a paper card, and without the need for an app. As more and more employers and businesses respond to calls by President Biden and Governor Northam to require that employees and customers be vaccinated, QR codes will help improve the consistency and security of vaccination information while protecting individual privacy.

A person vaccinated in Virginia can visit vaccinate.virginia.gov to obtain their free vaccination record with QR code, which can then be saved to a phone gallery, printed on paper, or stored in a compatible account.

QR codes contain the same information as paper records, but in a format that offers greater security and efficiency. Because the QR code is digitally signed by the Virginia Department of Health, it cannot be altered or forged. Information from QR codes is only available if and when the individual chooses to share it. Businesses and employers that choose to verify an individual’s vaccination status can scan QR codes with the free SMART Health Verifier App. Individuals do not need to download an app to use QR codes.

Virginia is now the fifth U.S. state to adopt the SMART Health format for QR codes, empowering individuals with trustworthy and verifiable copies of their vaccination records in digital or paper form using open, interoperable standards. The framework and standards were developed by VCI, a coalition of more than 800 public and private organizations – including The Mayo Clinic, Boston Children’s Hospital, Microsoft, MITRE, and The Commons Project Foundation.

QR codes are available to anyone whose vaccination record includes a working phone number and is in the Virginia Immunization Information System (VIIS). Nearly all doses administered in Virginia are reported to VIIS, including pharmacies, physician offices, health department clinics, federally qualified health centers, and community vaccination centers. Some doses administered outside Virginia to Virginia residents may be in VIIS. Doses administered directly by federal agencies such as the Department of Defense or Department of Veterans Affairs are not reported to VIIS. A person whose record cannot be retrieved automatically may call 877-VAX-IN-VA (877-829-4682, TTY users call 7-1-1) for assistance.

With more than 10.2 million doses of vaccine administered so far in Virginia, more than 58% of the population is fully vaccinated. Everyone 12 or older is eligible to be vaccinated now. To find free vaccines nearby, visit vaccinate.virginia.gov or call 877-VAX-IN-VA (877-829-4682, TTY users call 7-1-1). Assistance is available in English, Spanish, and more than 100 other languages.

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Government

Va. Supreme Court clears way for removal of Lee monument in Richmond

In two opinions issued Thursday, the Court denied challenges by a small group of neighbors and an heir to the family that initially granted the land for the monument.

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By Ned Oliver

The Supreme Court of Virginia cleared the way Thursday for Gov. Ralph Northam to remove the Lee Monument in Richmond, one of the largest Confederate memorials in the state.

In two opinions issued Thursday, the Court denied challenges by a small group of neighbors and an heir to the family that initially granted the land for the monument.

Northam announced he planned to take down the state-owned memorial in June 2020.

This is a breaking news update and will be updated as the situation develops.

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Community

Community Vaccination Hubs to Open in September

“These small hubs allow for folks to learn about events through word of mouth…communities know where we will be.” – Joanna Cirillo, Public Health Nurse Supervisor at RHHD

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From the Richmond Health District:

Starting in September, Richmond and Henrico Health Districts (RHHD) will open four COVID-19 vaccination hubs that will each operate weekly in the coming months. These four small hubs will supplement RHHD’s ongoing pop up events in partnership with large employers, faith communities, community organizations, and more.

The opening of the four hubs follows the closing of RHHD’s last mass vaccination site at George Wythe High School earlier this month. Hubs are located in Richmond’s downtown and southside and in eastern and western Henrico to provide access to multiple communities.

“What we learned throughout our vaccination efforts so far is that a combination of clinics at stable locations and pop up events with community outreach is helpful in creating vaccine access,” explains Joanna Cirillo, Public Health Nurse Supervisor at RHHD. “These small hubs allow for folks to learn about events through word of mouth…communities know where we will be.”

The clinic locations and times are as follows:

  • Tuesdays, 3:00 pm-6:00 pm (first clinic on September 7th): Second Baptist Church (3300 Broad Rock Blvd)
  • Wednesdays, 1:00 pm-4:00 pm: Henrico Recreation Center (1440 N Laburnum Ave)
  • Thursdays, 1:00 pm-4:00 pm: RHHD Downtown Location (400 E Cary St)
  • Fridays, 9:00 am-12:00 pm: RHHD Henrico West Location (8600 Dixon Powers Dr)

To learn more about all available COVID-19 vaccination opportunities, visit vax.rchd.com.

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