Lawmakers say this bill will speed up COVID-19 vaccinations as Virginia lags behind other states

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)-A bipartisan group of lawmakers is trying to remove barriers that are burdening Virginia’s mass vaccination effort.

A bill that won unanimous support in the Senate Education and Health Committee on Thursday morning seeks to make it easier to volunteer for the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps. Legislators say scaling up this workforce is critical to administer shots quickly as supplies increase.

In a press conference after the vote, groups representing various sectors of the state’s healthcare industry said certain obstacles are currently preventing providers from fully engaging.

“We have been very frustrated by the fact that we have been hampered. It’s difficult for us to help,” said Virginia Dental Association President Dr. Frank Luorno. “That’s all anyone wants to do is help.”

While Gov. Ralph Northam’s Administration has been at the helm of vaccine planning, physician and state Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico) said the General Assembly has an important role to play by ‘liberating’ all qualified providers to administer immunizations.

“We need to unleash our healthcare workforce and that’s what you’re seeing today,” Dunnavant said. “We want to make it easier to volunteer, to train, to get access to the modules.”

The bill trims what many at the press conference described as a tedious and time-consuming process for becoming a volunteer. Providers said the criteria that would remain is narrowly tailored to balance preparation and efficiency.

The legislation also expands who can give out the shots, including medical students and EMS providers.

VCU School of Medicine Dean Peter Buckley endorsed the idea.

“Our students, hundreds of them…have waited on the sidelines and they are absolutely eager to get going and literally roll up their sleeves to help,” Buckley said.

Dunnavant said the bill also allows any space to be offered up as a mobile vaccination clinic.

In addition, she said it lets private pharmacies play a role. Sen. George Barker (D-Fairfax) said this strategy is a big reason why West Virginia’s vaccine distribution has been so fast.

Asked why these steps weren’t taken sooner, Barker said, “Part of what we’ve been struggling with is trying to deal with today’s problems rather than having a comprehensive plan.”

“We have the vaccines but we aren’t getting them into people’s arms fast enough,” he added.

According to Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax), this bill protects healthcare providers from civil lawsuits related to the vaccine roll out, though they could still be held liable for willful misconduct or gross negligence.

“We’re asking healthcare providers to step outside of their comfort zone and service people in extraordinary circumstances,” Petersen said. “To waive civil immunity, I almost never would vote for it but this time I think it is critical in order to make sure there are professionals available.”

This bill will take effect immediately if it passes in the General Assembly and Gov. Ralph Northam signs it.

“We’ve already lost one senator to COVID and we can’t wait any longer. We have to get these vaccines in the arms of our Commonwealth,” said Sen. Todd Pillion (R-Washington).

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