Pandemic responses have made great strides, but Northern Virginia needs to get more people vaccinated and help the region’s economy recover, officials from five area jurisdictions said Aug. 24 at the sixth annual Northern Virginia Elected Leaders Summit.
Leaders from the city of Alexandria and Fairfax, Arlington, Loudoun and Prince William counties – all Democrats – said keeping people in their homes was a priority during the crisis. Arlington provided information to both tenants and landlords to smooth the process, said Arlington County Board Vice Chairman Katie Cristol.
“We invested $6.5 million of local money, then, when the state money began flowing, worked directly with our residents to connect to over $13 million more in assistance to pay both rent and arrears,” she said.
Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said the county had posted a daily dashboard to inform residents about the number of vaccinations and tests performed.
Loudoun County Board of Supervisors Chairman Phyllis Randall said she early on called all of the county’s utility companies to ask them to keep residents’ power and gas on, regardless of ability to pay. The companies agreed and did not charge customers late fees.
Loudoun County also provided a dashboard with information on where to obtain vaccinations and tests, she said.
Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Ann Wheeler said her county benefited from the regional effort. The county’s food-distribution initiative “went gangbusters,” used a hub-and-spoke operation and to date has delivered about 14 million pounds’ worth of food, she said.
Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson also credited “exceptional regional cooperation” in responding to the pandemic and said he was proud of the city’s efforts to facilitate outdoor dining. City officials also examined disparities in healthcare delivery during the pandemic and targeted COVID testing and vaccines where they were most needed, he said.
“We knew going into COVID already that some of the very same co-morbidities that are challenges for COVID are areas where we have significant disparities in our community around and socio-economic lines,” Wilson said.
The event, held at Van Metre Hall on George Mason University’s Arlington campus, moderated by NBC4 Northern Virginia reporter Drew Wilder. The summit was hosted by the Arlington, Northern Virginia, Alexandria, Loudoun and Prince William chambers of commerce, as well as the Northern Virginia Regional Commission.
Prompted by Wilder, the elected leaders found things to compliment about each other’s pandemic responses.
Cristol credited Fairfax County’s Office for Children with establishing in-person childcare for school-aged children during the pandemic. Arlington struggled to find staffing to do the same, but county and school staff were able to provide a safe place during the day for families and children with the most needs, she said.
Fairfax County worked with the city of Alexandria and Inova to set up a mass-vaccination clinic in Alexandria that primarily served Fairfax County residents, McKay said.
“Working together as a region through tough times, you begin realize that jurisdictional boundaries don’t matter, especially when you’re dealing with a health pandemic of this size,” McKay said.
Randall thanked the assembled leaders for serving as sympathetic ears after she received menacing e-mails and threats during the pandemic.
“I was just taken aback,” Randall said. “All of us are used to being called names and having something said here and there, but literally I wasn’t going a week without getting a real, live, no-kidding threat . . . I did not expect the level of vitriol and threats that came in the pandemic.”
Prince William County’s public-health department had been underfunded systematically before its new board came in and had a 60-percent vacancy rate when the pandemic started, Wheeler said. Loudoun brought its health department under the county’s control and Prince William leaders are trying to do their own regional health department for the city of Manassas, Manassas Park, she said.
Alexandria copied Fairfax County’s business-grant program and Arlington’s approach to masks, Wilson said.
The panelists continued to press forward with vaccination efforts.
“We are encouraged by the levels of vaccination we’ve reached in our community,” Cristol said. “Getting that last quarter of Arlingtonians and Northern Virginians vaccinated is our ticket to end this thing.”
While worrying about younger children who can’t be vaccinated yet, McKay said vaccination rates are high.
“We are so far ahead of the rest of the commonwealth of Virginia in Northern Virginia because people instinctively trust what they’re hearing, they trust the science, they understand the metrics and they understand our real freedom to get back to normalcy is resting in the hands of vaccination,” he said.
Loudoun is getting vaccines to community-living homes for seniors and putting out accurate data to sway vaccine skeptics, Randall said.
“I am tired of begging people to save their own lives, to be quite honest,” she said. “At this point, the information is out there if you want it.”
“I think the answer for the remaining [unvaccinated] community is, quite honestly, mandates,” added Wilson.