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System-wide efforts needed in fight against human trafficking



Chirping ducklings at the Restoring Ivy Collective center, a refuge for human trafficking victims, aren’t just cute — they’re calming.

Sex trafficking survivors can drop in at the Washington, D.C.-area center to hang out with animals, bake bread and create art.

“Therapy animals can be helpful; finding volunteering passions that aren’t triggering and spending time in nature are different things that can be healing outside of therapy,” according to Elizabeth Bowman, executive director and founder of the Restoring Ivy Collective.

Bowman said she was recruited into sex trafficking work when she was 17. She’s part of a group of advocates and lawmakers working to help human trafficking victims in the region. Bowman uses her doctorate in social service throughout her work.

Though local, state, and regional efforts have ramped up in recent years, data from the National Human Trafficking Hotline in Virginia show human trafficking is a consistent issue in the state. The hotline helps human trafficking victims and fields tips about potential sex trafficking situations.

More than 800 human trafficking cases were reported in the commonwealth from 2016 to 2020, although the number of cases decreased by 37% from 2019 to 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Numbers are not available for 2021. Statistics on human trafficking are underreported because it is considered a hidden crime, according to advocates fighting to end human trafficking.

Human trafficking takes place when someone forces, frauds, or coerces another person into labor or commercial sex activity, the Department of Homeland Security states. The crime primarily impacts women, according to the United Nations, although men are also victims.

There have been at least 1,546 human trafficking cases in the state since 2007, data show. The hotline receives hundreds of calls and messages from Virginia each year and has fielded more than 6,000 contacts from people located in the commonwealth since 2007, according to its website.

Mixed legislative results this session

Lawmakers introduced at least 19 bills to combat human trafficking in this year’s Virginia General Assembly session. Legislators introduced bills to help survivors erase past convictions relating to forced criminality, train employees to spot human trafficking, and allow some victims to get in-state college tuition rates.

There were some wins this session, according to Patrick McKenna, co-founder of Virginia Coalition Against Human Trafficking, but he stated there is still work that needs to be done.

Del. Shelly A. Simonds, D-Newport News, introduced HB 258. The bill will create an online training course for hotel staff to recognize human trafficking and report it. The legislation was set to become law in July, but the governor recommended delaying the bill’s effective date until 2023. Lawmakers will decide later this month whether to accept the governor’s recommendation.

Del. Emily Brewer, R-Suffolk, introduced House Bill 283. The legislation, which goes into effect in July, allows the Department of Criminal Justice Services to create training standards for law-enforcement personnel to help prevent and recognize human trafficking.

However, McKenna was disappointed that lawmakers did not pass criminal record relief for victims and continued “to resist efforts to remove criminal sanctions against minors who are forced to commit crimes as part of their trafficking.”

Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler, D-Virginia Beach, introduced HB 579, which would allow additional court records to be expunged for sex trafficking victims. The bill was left in a House committee. Current law only allows the expungement of these records for prostitution convictions and keeping, residing in, or frequenting a bawdy place.

“Sixty percent of survivors have felony records that are associated with theft or forced criminality,” McKenna said. “In order to be able to break the cycle for many of them, in and out of the jail system and such, we’ve got to deal with those criminal records.”

Other bills also didn’t get a green light from lawmakers. Del. Paul Krizek, D-Alexandria, introduced HB 755, to create the Anti-Human Trafficking and Survivor Trust Fund to support victims and fund services that prevent human trafficking. The bill was left in a House committee.

Education is part of the fight against trafficking

While lawmakers can change laws to combat human trafficking, doctors can help spot it. Dr. Fidelma Rigby leads a human trafficking elective for medical students at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine in Richmond.

The class helps students understand the scope of human trafficking and how to recognize the signs and report suspicions to authorities. Doctors must learn to identify victims of human trafficking, Rigby said. She added that 80% of victims in a trafficked situation come into contact with a medical professional.

Lawmakers also need to ensure human trafficking victims can better access health care, Rigby said. There should be specialized clinics for human trafficking victims, Rigby said.

“They don’t want to be in a waiting room where other people would have free access to them,” Rigby said.

Even things like the common clinical practice of putting the patient’s chart on the door before the doctor enters, that anyone can see, can be frightening for a victim, she said. Medical practices might also consider implementing longer clinic visits for human trafficking victims and having social workers meet on-site with victims.

“Don’t just hand them the number of the social worker, have the social worker walk in,” Rigby said.

Rigby hopes VCU Health System employees will be required to undergo in-person training in the near future, as opposed to just an online course to help medical professionals better recognize human trafficking signs and learn how to approach victims.

The VCU School of Medicine and nonprofit ImPACT Virginia host an annual Medical Symposium on Human Trafficking, but attendance is not mandatory, according to Rigby.


In addition to educating medical professionals and the public on human trafficking, advocacy groups at the local, state, and regional levels are creating new partnerships to help end the problem.

The Regional Interdisciplinary Collaborative, with advocates from Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia, had its first regional summit in 2021. Advocates and professionals discussed their work around human trafficking, according to Trish Danner, regional outreach specialist at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and partner of the regional group.

“I found two things that were happening in our region around human trafficking, is that there were a lot of initiatives in our region that needed to be duplicated and improved upon, and there was a lot of reinventing of the wheel,” Danner said.

For example, states creating medical guidelines around human trafficking could reach out for advice to other states which already have guidelines in place, Danner said.

The next summit will take place on Feb. 8 and 9, 2023. The group plans to host workshops year-round in addition to presenting annually, according to Danner.

Additionally, Virginia State Police recently collaborated with the U.S. Homeland Security Investigations and the Virginia Trucking Association for an “Operation Safe Passage” initiative to detect, deter and raise awareness of human trafficking. State troopers were at truck stops, motor carrier service centers, and rest areas from April 18 to 20 to distribute informational materials and educate drivers about human trafficking.

Ongoing efforts and needed resources

Attorneys who are willing to do pro bono services and have experience in family and criminal law are also needed to defend human trafficking victims, according to McKenna.

McKenna has worked with four other attorneys on human trafficking cases. He is on a listserv used by attorneys to share ideas, ask questions and help with legal issues on their human trafficking cases.

The Statewide Sex Trafficking Response coordinator released a report in December 2021 regarding the state’s strategy to combat human trafficking.

The General Assembly created in 2019 the coordinator position within the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, to file annual reports and make legislative recommendations. Additional staff positions are needed to increase communication and assist local and regional efforts across the state, as well as funding for training programs, according to the report.

Other recommendations included creating a comprehensive state human trafficking data collection system to inform decisions and funding for training practitioners on the state’s human trafficking screening advisory tool. The coordinator also reported that arrests appear to focus more on individual buyers and sellers, and not target commercial sex trafficking.

Moving forward

Organized efforts, education, and resources can help prevent the number of future victims. But what survivors said they need is to be seen as more than the abuse they experienced.

It took Bowman a long time to share her story, she said. To combat human trafficking, people need a seat at the table, including survivors.

But survivors often get pigeonholed as “experience experts,” Bowman said, and they need to also be seen beyond that role.

“It’s not OK to say, ‘OK, you’re part of the team but only tell us your trauma and shut up the rest of the time,’” Bowman said.

By Monica Alarcon-Najarro
Capital News Service

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

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Parental notification in Loudoun schools and more Va. headlines



The State Capitol. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)


• Fresh off a hard-fought election win, Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger wants to fill a new “battleground” leadership position for the U.S. House Democrats. “We have a front-row seat to the concerns of swing voters and voters from various backgrounds and political viewpoints.”—Richmond Times-Dispatch

• The Loudoun County School Board approved a policy requiring parental notification for sexually explicit reading assignments.—Washington Post

• Warrenton’s interim town manager says the town Planning Commission violated state law when it chose to indefinitely delay a vote on a plan for an Amazon data center instead of voting it up or down.—Prince William Times

• Officials say they have no leads in the theft of a lynching memorial that was recently put up in Wise County.—Bristol Now

• “The race is on to save a popular gamebird in Virginia.”—WFXR


by Staff Report, Virginia Mercury

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Virginia regulators to consider changes to menhaden fishing regulations



Virginia regulators will consider changes to commercial menhaden fishing in the Chesapeake Bay following recreational anglers’ requests to end the fishery.

Among the changes, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission will take up are new regulations creating a no-fishing buffer one nautical mile wide around Virginia shorelines and Virginia Beach and a half-nautical mile wide around the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. Another proposal would expand the days around holidays when fishing is prohibited.

The proposals follow repeated requests from the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association to stop menhaden fishing in the Bay, including a petition of 11,000 signatures that was presented to the office of Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin earlier this year.

“The proposed regulations are a good start, but much more is needed,” said VSSA President Steve Atkinson. However, he said, “The Youngkin administration, for whatever reason, was not willing to do what our petition asked them to do, which was to move the fishery out of the bay until science can show that it is not causing harm.”

Reedville-based Omega Protein, the lone player in the Bay’s menhaden reduction fishery, which processes catches into fishmeal or fish oil, says the new regulations take away available fishing grounds that include uninhabited areas. Taking operations completely out of the Bay into less safe conditions in the ocean would ultimately force the company to stop operating.

“It’s death by 1,000 cuts,” said Omega Protein spokesperson Ben Landry.

Legislators are also getting involved in the issue. Earlier this month, Republican Del. Tim Anderson, R-Virginia Beach, pre-filed legislation for the 2023 General Assembly session seeking a two-year moratorium on menhaden reduction fishing “in any territorial sea or inland waters of the Commonwealth” while the state studies the impacts of the fishery. A separate bill would also allow the VMRC to make changes to fishery regulations outside the October to December window that state law currently allows; a protection Omega sought when the commission took over management of the fishery from the General Assembly in 2020.

Regulatory proposals

The regulatory proposals come after two net spills by the company over the summer, one of which washed thousands of menhaden ashore in Northampton County. 

With the new one-mile buffers, Omega Protein will have to deploy its nets in deeper waters, which will decrease the likelihood that they will get snagged on the Bay or ocean floor, explained Pat Geer, chief of the fisheries management division at VMRC. Fewer days for fishing around holidays are also intended to prevent fish spills from reaching the coastline during high-tourism days.

The regulations are a happy balance between what the recreational anglers want and the fishing operations want, Geer said.

“That’s what our job is,” Geer said. “To do this as the best benefit to everybody.”

A complete removal of menhaden fishing operations from the Bay isn’t being proposed because there is no evidence that menhaden are being overfished, Geer said.

Anglers have argued overfishing of menhaden in the Bay has led to the depletion of the striped bass population there.

Geer noted that recent coastwide stock assessments of striped bass by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission show that the population is on track to recover following quota reductions and time for spawning stock to replenish. The same commission, which oversees fisheries on the East Coast, also increased the coastwide quota limits for menhaden this month because of data showing the population is healthy.

But those assessments don’t provide specific numbers for striped bass and menhaden populations within the Chesapeake Bay. The ASMFC has imposed a 51,000-ton limit on menhaden catches within the Bay, but a larger study of the population there would likely take years to conduct, said Geer.

Not enough, but also too much

Atkinson of the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association said while he is pleased the VMRC is taking some action, the one-mile buffer is not enough to conserve menhaden. A two-mile buffer would be more protective, he said.

While striped bass populations are recovering, Atkinson said Virginia should be “extra careful in the Bay” to make sure there is enough forage fish.

Landry said that Omega already follows a one-mile buffer around the Eastern Shore and a three-mile buffer around Virginia Beach. A reduction in days to fish around holidays also “takes food out of the mouth of our fishermen,” he said.

Landry added that the Youngkin administration granted a meeting with Omega Protein to discuss the proposed regulations after decisions on them had already been made, and not in “real-time.” He said the Youngkin administration had relied on data that said Omega Protein caught 6% of its hauls within one mile of shoreline despite National Marine Fisheries Service data showing 15% of the catch was within that buffer.

Data used to determine the percentage of fishing nets that would be displaced by the one-mile buffer are from Captain’s Daily Fishing Reports, documentation from the VMRC shows.

“It just seems that this is a concerted effort by wealthy recreational fishermen, and it’s harming blue-collar commercial watermen in Virginia,” Landry said. “It’s really sad.”

Youngkin Press Secretary Macaulay Porter said the governor has made the Bay one of his top priorities.

“Since day one, the Administration and VMRC have been engaged with all stakeholders from Virginia’s commercial and recreational fishing sectors about these issues and the importance of ensuring commonsense solutions for protecting and cleaning up the Bay,” Porter said. “We will continue to look for solutions that protect the health of the Bay and all of Virginia’s economic activities that rely on the Bay.”

Legislative proposals

Anderson said his bill to halt reduction fishing in the Bay for two years while the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality studies its environmental impacts is intended to address a lack of scientific information.

“We have to have metrics to see what’s going on,” Anderson said. “If I’m wrong, then Omega will never have to hear from me again.”

The delegate also wants to expand VMRC’s ability to change regulations outside the end of the year to allow the oversight body to take action following emergencies such as net spills.

“No other wildlife management (plan) says you can create regulations only three months out of the year,” Anderson said.

While supporting the legislation’s goals, Atkinson noted that bills have a difficult journey to pass and argued the VMRC has the authority to issue a moratorium on the fishery.

Landry noted that the three-month window for changing regulations was part of a deal negotiated under the administration of former Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam to allow the business to make any adjustments in advance of its fishing season.

The VMRC will meet Tuesday in Fort Monroe.


by Charlie Paullin, Virginia Mercury

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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U.S. House votes to avert calamitous rail strike, but Senate prospects murky



The U.S. House moved Wednesday to avoid an economically disastrous nationwide rail strike, voting to codify an agreement that members of some unions had already rejected and separately add paid sick leave that workers had demanded.

The two-track approach allows Democrats to avert a strike that could cost the U.S. economy up to $2 billion per day while also acknowledging they sympathized with union members’ request for more sick leave.

Prospects in the Senate, where progressive stalwart Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, and other members of the Democratic caucus have asked that sick leave be added to any deal imposed by Congress, remained murky Wednesday.

As the House votes closed Wednesday, Sanders was on the Senate floor urging support for the sick leave proposal.

“I hope very much that in a bipartisan way, we can do the right thing and tell the rail workers and tell every worker in America that the United States Congress is prepared to stand with them and not just the people on top who are doing extraordinarily well,” he said.

Several Republicans have also signaled their support for adding sick leave, but it’s unclear if there are the 10 Republicans needed to approve that measure.

The congressional action comes after President Joe Biden convened a panel of arbitrators to secure a deal between railroads and union leaders in September. That deal provided a 24% increase in total compensation to rail workers but did not affect sick leave policies that unions said were unworkable.

Four of the 12 rail unions declined to endorse the deal. They are legally able to strike on Dec. 9, though rail service is likely to be affected if a work stoppage is not avoided by the week’s end. Thousands of businesses would feel the impact in the weeks before the holidays.

Democrats say they must act

Biden, who fashioned himself “a proud pro-labor president,” said this week he would have preferred not to wade into the dispute but that the economic consequences necessitated federal action.

“I am reluctant to override the ratification procedures and the views of those who voted against the agreement,” he said. “But in this case — where the economic impact of a shutdown would hurt millions of other working people and families — I believe Congress must use its powers to adopt this deal.”

House Democrats took similar positions this week, appearing reluctant to approve a deal that unions had rejected but doing so anyway to avoid economic catastrophe.

“Congress has the authority to act,” U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, a Washington Democrat who is a senior member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said Wednesday. “Not because we want to, but we have to avoid a work stoppage. And we have to recognize that the tentative agreement falls well short of what is necessary for paid leave for rail workers.”

Republicans took the opportunity to blast Biden for failing to avert the rail shutdown with the September negotiation. Congress shouldn’t have to be involved, they said.

“Congress should be a last resort,” U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican of Iowa, said. “Biden and this administration need to be more engaged in this. This is not our business. We shouldn’t be negotiating union contracts.”

U.S. Rep. Bob Good, a Republican from Virginia, tweeted early Wednesday afternoon before the House vote: “Republicans should not provide any votes for the Biden railroad bill. Doing so gives Democrats the chance to amend the deal and make it worse.”

Bipartisan vote

Wednesday’s 290-137 House vote to approve the tentative agreement — without added sick time — was bipartisan, with only eight Democrats voting against it and more than one-third of Republicans voting to approve it.

All of Virginia’s House delegation and Republican Rep. Morgan Griffith voted for the bill. Good, as well as Republican Reps. Ben Cline and Rob Wittman voted against it.

The vote to add the sick leave provision passed 221-207, mostly along party lines, with three Republicans — Don Bacon of Nebraska, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, and John Katko of New York — joining all House Democrats in voting to approve.

Avoiding a rail shutdown should be the priority, House Transportation and Infrastructure ranking Republican Sam Graves of Missouri said, not mollifying union members.

He said that Congress stepping in to override private negotiations and the recommendation of a neutral mediation board undermined future collective bargaining.

“It’s nothing more than a political stunt,” Graves said. “It’s pandering … Today, my colleagues are acting very recklessly and are setting a terrible precedent.”

U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, the New Jersey Democrat who chairs the panel’s rail subcommittee, responded that the proposal would only right the wrong of rail workers’  insufficient paid sick leave.

“This is not pandering,” Payne responded. “This is seeing a situation and addressing it.”

Uncertainty in Senate

After House passage, the measure will move to the Senate, where it’s unclear if the tentative agreement, the resolution with added sick time, or neither would pass.

The chamber will likely vote either Thursday or Friday.

Colorado’s John Hickenlooper was among the Senate Democrats joining Sanders in calling for seven days of added sick leave — the same amount required of federal contractors —to be included in a congressional resolution.

“Railroad companies are holding the American economy hostage over 56 annual hours of sick leave,” Hickenlooper said in a statement. “Just seven days. We can keep our economy humming, our supply chains open, AND treat workers with dignity. Any bill should include the SEVEN days of sick leave rail workers have asked for.”

Several Republicans gave varying levels of support to the prospect of adding sick leave to a bill. Ten would be needed to pass such a bill if every Democrat voted in favor. West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III, considered the caucus’ most conservative member, has not said how he would vote on the sick leave proposal.

Ernst said her party was “debating this heavily.”

But since Congress is involved, she said she would base her vote on the views of union members — not necessarily their leaders. Union leaders negotiated the September agreement that lacked all the sick time members sought.

Florida Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott said they wouldn’t vote for the tentative agreement that was opposed by workers.

Leaders of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, a major transportation union, on Wednesday morning prior to the vote endorsed the bill to add seven days of sick leave.

“Right now, every Member of Congress has an opportunity to be a champion of the working class,” TTD President Greg Regan and Secretary-Treasurer Shari Semelsberger said in a statement. “We implore these elected leaders to stand with essential workers who are the backbone of our nation’s supply chain. We urge the House and the Senate to vote in favor of guaranteeing seven days of paid sick leave to rail workers.”

In a statement, Biden thanked the House for passing its bill and called on the Senate to follow suit “immediately.”

“Without action this week, disruptions to our auto supply chains, our ability to move food to tables, and our ability to remove hazardous waste from gasoline refineries will begin,” he said. “The Senate must move quickly and send a bill to my desk for my signature immediately.”

$2 billion per day

The Association of American Railroads, the leading rail service providers trade group, estimated that a nationwide shutdown would mean daily losses of $2 billion for the U.S. economy.

According to a September AAR report, tens of thousands of businesses depend on rail to deliver goods, with 75,000 carloads beginning shipping every day.

The report said that other industries would not be able to replace rail transport. It would take 467,000 additional long-haul trucks to replace rail carriers.

There was unanimity among elected officials in Washington that a shutdown would be calamitous.

In a statement Monday, Biden called on Congress to approve the tentative agreement “to avert a potentially crippling national rail shutdown.”

“A shutdown is unacceptable,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at Monday’s press briefing. “It will hurt families, communities across the country. It will hurt jobs. It will hurt farms. It will hurt businesses.”

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg also called Monday evening for Congress to adopt the agreement to prevent “a rail shutdown that would have devastating impacts on our economy.”

Democrats and Republicans in the House noted that a shutdown would worsen inflation, driving up energy and other costs.

And because of the complexity of the supply chain, any stoppage in service could take much longer to unfurl, Ed Mortimer, a former vice president for transportation and infrastructure at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in an interview.

“Any type of disruption — it could only last a week, but it could take a month or two to get back to whatever normal was,” he said.

Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.


by Jacob Fischler, Virginia Mercury

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Lawsuit against Chesapeake Walmart over warning signs and more Va. headlines



The State Capitol. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)


• A worker at the Chesapeake Walmart filed a $50 million lawsuit claiming the company failed to act on her prior complaints about the coworker who killed six store employees and took his own life in last week’s mass shooting. The suit, which says “employers have a responsibility to understand the warning signs and take threats seriously,” alleges the gunman repeatedly asked colleagues if they had received active shooter training.—Virginian-Pilot

• As many in the Virginia politics world mourned the death of Democratic Rep. Donald McEachin, Gov. Glenn Youngkin said he had not yet made a decision on when to schedule a special election to fill the vacant Richmond-area congressional seat. —Washington Post

• State Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, is a possible candidate for the seat, but he said it’s too early to talk politics.—Richmond Times-Dispatch

• As bipartisan tributes to McEachin rolled in, Del. Marie March, R-Floyd, took a different tack by attacking the late congressman for supporting abortion rights.—Cardinal News

• An assault charge against a former D.C. deputy mayor was dropped at the request of Virginia prosecutors after a witness said the gym parking lot altercation that sparked it was “definitely a mutual thing.”—Washington Post


by Staff Report, Virginia Mercury

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Virginia reports first pediatric flu death of season as cases remain high



VCU Emergency hospital entrance in Richmond, Va. Parker Michels-Boyce for The Virginia Mercury


Virginia recorded its first influenza-related pediatric death on Wednesday of the 2022-23 flu season.

According to a release from the Virginia Department of Health, a child between the ages of 5 and 12 in the state’s southwestern region died “from complications associated with influenza.”

“Flu can be a very dangerous illness,” said State Health Commissioner Colin Greene. “With Virginia and many other states experiencing high or very high levels of flu activity, I urge everyone who is eligible to receive the flu vaccine to do so as soon as possible, consulting your physician as needed.”

Flu and other respiratory illnesses have been hitting children across the nation hard this year, with sharp upticks in cases weeks ahead of the typical flu season.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that as of Nov. 19, the U.S. had recorded 12 pediatric flu deaths. Five occurred during the week ending November 19, the most recent period for which national data are available.



In Virginia, hospitals have reported full or nearly full pediatric units for weeks due to the surge in respiratory illnesses among children.

The Virginia Department of Health’s most recent Weekly Influenza Activity Report, which also covers the week ending Nov. 19, rated Virginia’s influenza activity level “very high.”

During that week, the agency reported that 8% of all emergency department and urgent care visits were for flu or flu-like illness. One-fifth of all those visits were for children in the 0- to 4-year age group.

While VDH data show a downtick in medical visits for flu over the past few weeks, a spokesperson for the Division of Surveillance and Investigation said, “it is still too early to say if we have reached the peak yet.”

Virginia had one pediatric flu death during the 2021-22 season and none during the 2020-21 season, when the COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing and large portions of the population were working from home and socially distancing.

The most severe years for pediatric flu deaths in Virginia over the past two decades were the 2009-10, 2017-18, and 2019-20 flu seasons. Six children aged zero to 17 years died from influenza in each of those seasons.


by Staff Report, Virginia Mercury

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Same-sex marriage protected under bill passed by U.S. Senate with GOP support



WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate approved legislation Tuesday that would enshrine protections for same-sex and interracial marriages, codifying many of the rights that would disappear if the U.S. Supreme Court were to overturn those landmark decisions the way it overturned the nationwide right to an abortion this summer.

The 61-36 bipartisan vote sends the bill back to the U.S. House, where lawmakers expect to give it their final stamp of approval soon before sending it to President Joe Biden. The House voted 267-157 in July to approve the original bill but must vote again after a bipartisan group of senators added in religious liberty protections.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, wore the same tie Tuesday he wore to his daughter’s wedding and recounted a conversation he had with his daughter and her wife following the death of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“I remember that awful feeling around the dinner table, and I distinctly remember the question my daughter and her wife asked, ‘Could our right to marry be undone?’” Schumer said.

“It’s a scary but necessary acknowledgment that despite all the progress we’ve made, the constitutional right to same-sex marriage is not even a decade old and exists only by the virtue of a very narrow 5-4 Supreme Court decision,” Schumer continued. “And we all know the court has changed since that decision.”

Retiring Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, retiring North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, West Virginia’s Shelley Moore Capito, Maine’s Susan Collins, Iowa’s Joni Ernst, Wyoming’s Cynthia Lummis, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, retiring Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, Utah’s Mitt Romney, Alaska’s Dan Sullivan, North Carolina’s Thom Tillis, and Indiana’s Todd Young voted for the bill.

Both of Virginia’s Democratic senators, Mark Warner, and Tim Kaine, voted in favor of the bill.

“Marriage is not only a spiritual bond between two individuals, but it’s also a binding contract that cements essential benefits, rights, and privileges,” Warner wrote in a statement following the vote. “This bill will ensure that gay marriages are recognized across the country, thereby protecting same-sex couples from discrimination that would otherwise block their access to health care, paid family medical leave, hospital visitation, and parental rights — among many others.”

Repeal of Defense of Marriage Act

The legislation would repeal the 1996 law known as the Defense of Marriage Act that defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman. The federal law also allowed states to ignore same-sex unions legally performed in other states.

The new law would ensure that if the U.S. Supreme Court were to overturn the cases that have legalized same-sex and interracial marriages, the federal government would continue to recognize those unions, a step necessary for hundreds of federal benefits, including Social Security and veterans benefits.

The bill, known as the Respect for Marriage Act, would require states to recognize same-sex and interracial marriages performed in states that keep the unions legal, though it wouldn’t require states to keep same-sex or interracial marriages legal if the U.S. Supreme Court were to overturn those cases.

Cathryn Oakley, Human Rights Campaign state legislative director and senior counsel said during a briefing in mid-November the bill is a “very important” part of the legislation LGBTQ rights advocates have been pressing Congress to pass for years.

She also sought to clarify misconceptions about whether the legislation will allow any two people to enter a same-sex or interracial marriage anywhere in the country should the U.S. Supreme Court overturn the cases protecting those rights.

“Congress has done everything in this bill that it can responsibly do,” Oakley said. “What they do not have the ability to responsibly do, is to tell states that they must marry two people of the same sex.”

Oakley said U.S. lawmakers “are taking the maximum responsible action that they can take at this point” under the powers they have within the U.S. Constitution.

State bans

More than 30 states have constitutional amendments, state laws, or both that ban same-sex marriages, according to the Congressional Research Service. “Many states still have unenforceable constitutional amendments or state statutes that ban marriage for same-sex couples,” the report said.

Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin are among the states with state constitutional amendments that would prohibit same-sex marriages.

Under Democratic control, Virginia in 2021 began the multiyear process of removing its defunct ban from the state constitution, but Republicans blocked the change earlier this year after retaking control of the House of Delegates.

Va. Republicans block effort to scrap 2006 gay marriage ban

Indiana and Pennsylvania are among the states with laws that would prohibit same-sex marriages. The Iowa Supreme Court overturned Iowa’s ban in April 2009, effectively legalizing same-sex marriage.

Those laws and state constitutional provisions are currently unenforceable under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling, establishing same-sex marriages as protected under the Constitution. But they could go into effect again were the justices to overturn that case. States that still have laws banning interracial marriages on the books cannot enforce those laws under the 1967 Loving v. Virginia ruling.

Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft criticized his state’s senior senator, Blunt, for voting for the legislation, saying he was “flabbergasted” by the move and noting that the state’s constitutional amendment bars the unions.

Ashcroft said during an interview with The Missouri Independent that he tried to call Blunt to lobby him in opposition to the bill but had been unable to reach him, so he sent a letter instead.

The legislation the U.S. Senate approved Tuesday was spurred by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision this summer to overturn the two cases that kept abortion legal nationwide, protected as a constitutional right, for nearly half a century.

Justice Clarence Thomas sparked concern when he wrote in his concurring opinion in the abortion case that the justices “should reconsider all of this Court’s substantive due process precedents” that included similar legal reasoning as the abortion cases.

Thomas listed Griswold v. Connecticut, the case that established married couples have a constitutional right to decide if and how to use birth control; Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 case that legalized same-sex marriage; and Lawrence v. Texas, which overturned state anti-sodomy laws, as three cases he specifically thought the court should revisit.

LGBTQ rights advocates immediately called on Congress to ensure that any future Supreme Court rulings wouldn’t completely erode marriage rights.

Republicans on board

The U.S. House approved the legislation in July, and the U.S. Senate was on track to vote on the marriage equality bill before the November midterm elections, but Schumer held off at the request of a bipartisan group of senators who added religious liberty language and were working to get at least 10 Republicans on board to pass the chamber’s legislative filibuster.

Sens. Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat; Collins; Portman; Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona Democrat; and Tillis wrote at the time they were “confident that when our legislation comes to the Senate floor for a vote, we will have the bipartisan support to pass the bill.”

The religious liberty protections now in the bill would protect “all religious liberty and conscience protections available under the Constitution or Federal law,” according to a summary of the changes.

The legislation would insulate religious organizations, certain religious nonprofits, and their employees from being required “to provide services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges for the solemnization or celebration of a marriage.”

It would prevent changes to tax-exempt status since “a church, university, or other nonprofit’s eligibility for tax-exempt status is unrelated to marriage, so its status would not be affected by this legislation,” according to the summary.

The bill passed its first procedural vote in the Senate in mid-November when 12 GOP senators joined Democrats to move past the legislative filibuster.

GOP amendments

Before the Senate approved the bill Tuesday, lawmakers voted down three Republican amendments.

Senators voted 48-49 to reject a proposal from Utah Sen. Mike Lee that would have barred the federal government from taking “any discriminatory action,” like eliminating a tax benefit, for any person who “speaks or acts, in accordance with a sincerely held religious belief, or moral conviction, that marriage is” between one man and one woman or two individuals as recognized under federal law.

Lee argued ahead of the vote that lawmakers “would do a disservice to all Americans if we elevate the rights of one group at the expense of another.”

Liberty University, a private evangelical university in Lynchburg, Virginia, that is one of the nation’s largest nonprofit universities, ahead of the vote, sent an email to students urging them to call their representatives and tell them to vote in favor of the Lee amendment.

Calling the Respect for Marriage Act “a smoke-screen” and “very deceptive,” the email from Interim President Jerry Prevo told recipients that the law “fails to protect those of us who believe marriage is between a man and a woman.”

Liberty did not respond to questions from the Mercury about the email.

The Senate voted 45-52 to reject a proposal from Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford that would have changed who was required to comply with the law from any person acting under “color of state law” to a state, territory, or tribe.

Lankford said Tuesday that the “color of state law” language could refer to any organization that a state contracts with to perform a government function, such as private prisons, adoption agencies, foster care agencies, or homeless shelters.

Lankford’s amendment would have also removed a section of the bill that would allow people “harmed” by a violation of the law to sue. Lankford said the legislation didn’t define what “harmed” would mean.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s amendment to eliminate the section of the bill that would allow anyone “harmed by a violation” of the law to sue in a U.S. district court was rejected following a 45-52 vote.

Rubio argued in a written statement that while the legislation included language that “would protect nonprofits whose ‘principal purpose’ is the ‘study, practice, or advancement of religion,’ it would not protect other faith-based organizations.”

Baldwin urged senators to reject the three amendments ahead of the vote, saying they would “upend the months of good-faith negotiations and they would disrupt our carefully crafted bipartisan compromise.”

The religious liberty language added to the bill, Baldwin said, ensures protection for “religious liberties afforded under our Constitution and federal law.”

“We are not pushing this legislation to make history,” she said. “We are doing this to make a difference for millions upon millions of Americans.”


by Jennifer Shutt, Virginia Mercury

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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