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No letting up / October 07, 2020
We’re now three-quarters through the worst year in living memory and the hits just keep on coming.

Let’s start with a review of the local scene — the coronavirus has reared again at two existing outbreak sites, the Baskerville prison and Chase City Health & Rehab, thus continuing this pandemic’s dismal pattern of striking at points of extreme vulnerability. The disastrous consequences of COVID-19 for the nation’s nursing homes is an oft-told story, so we won’t tell it again, other than to wish the staff of Chase City Health & Rehab well as they strive to protect the health and safety of residents there.

Populated by elderly and physically frail individuals, nursing homes are uniquely at risk from the coronavirus, but prisons may be the worst engineered places in America for getting through this catastrophic period. Inmates are packed in tight, hygienic conditions are terrible, and the carceral state as a whole is defined by callous disregard for the health and welfare of men and women in its custody (one dare not say care). Our prison system is a national scandal that has been exposed by this pandemic — like so many other scandals of 2020. In response, the State of Virginia has made a half-hearted attempt to lower prison populations by releasing offenders who are near the end of their terms or are otherwise deemed to be low-risk. Nevertheless, the rising number of deaths of inmates in the state corrections system (33 as of Tuesday) points to the need to step up the pace of releases. Yes, Republicans in Richmond will scream and shout and try to mine political capital out of a vigorous empty-the-prisons policy, but they should be ignored.

(Aside No.1: This isn’t just about inmates. Four prison employees at Baskerville have been sickened by the virus, and the warden there, longtime Department of Corrections employee Earl Barksdale, 66, died in September. Barksdale took over as warden of Baskerville Correctional Center in 2017 after a transfer from the Red Onion supermax state prison in Wise County, where he also served as warden. Barksdale’s tragic death underscores the tremendous risks that workers face in congregant settings — whether one is talking about health care facilities, nursing homes, prisons or schools.)

(Aside No. 2: As for the political blowback that might result from reducing the state’s prison numbers, it’s useful to look at how a tangentially related issue — police reform — is playing out in the public sphere. To listen to the likes of state Sen. Frank Ruff and Del. Tommy Wright, you would think Virginians are up in arms about policing reforms that are moving through the Democratically-controlled General Assembly. Not so much: A poll this week by the Watson Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University showed broad public support for police reforms — mandatory training on de-escalation tactics (96 percent), requiring officers to intervene when a colleague uses unlawful force (94 percent), public reports when force is used (76 percent), a public database for officers who commit misconduct (76 percent) and mandatory civilian oversight boards (70 percent). Smaller majorities favor laws to criminalize chokeholds (56 percent-42 percent) and allow lawsuits against officers accused of abuse (52 percent-44 percent). Whatever you may think of the merits of these policies, there’s no reason to think a backlash is brewing across the state in response to efforts to bring greater accountability to police agencies. And it should be further noted that police departments that do their jobs well are unlikely to suffer from any of these reforms. The same likely holds true of a prison system that acts humanely to protect the health of inmates and employees. Lastly, we extend our sincerest wishes to Wright for a full and swift recovery from his own brush with COVID-19.)

Speaking of which: You may have heard about the nation’s latest outbreak at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — an outbreak of arrogance, stupidity, extreme recklessness and, oh yeah, an air-borne pathogen. One certainly hopes President Trump is indeed out of danger following his case of COVID-19, but only a fool would put any stock in the truthfulness of what the administration is saying about the current health of Patient #1. This White House tells lies like the rest of us breathe air, and COVID-19 has shown itself to be a sneaky, highly dangerous disease that reveals its secrets (and often its consequences) only very slowly. It’s no surprise that Trump couldn’t sit still at Walter Reed hospital long enough to inspire confidence that he’s really out of the woods, health-wise, and it’s probably true he’ll receive fine care with his Monday transfer to the White House, but the notion that Trump has thrashed the virus through the sheer force of his manhood is a fairy tale. You’ll find more believable storylines watching pro wrestling.

One does have to marvel at the political decision to portray Trump as the virile genetic specimen who whupped up on COVID-19 — too bad for the 210,000 dead who were such wimps! It’s this level of political acumen and leadership that has put Trump down by double digit margins in the polls to Joe Biden with less than a month to go before Election Day. Given all that’s happened in the past four years — with Trump careening from one disaster to the next, only to do it all over again the next day — it’s understandable folks might start to believe that nothing can undo his maniacal rule. Well, time to believe: This race is Biden’s to lose, and he shows no signs of losing it.

Considering Trump’s perilous health and feeble polling, it’s tempting to believe no one has had a rougher go in the past week than he has. That thought dissipates when you stop to think about all the people in his orbit — Secret Service agents, White House support staff and others — who bear the risks of his irresponsible behavior toward the virus. But you know who’s really had it bad of late? Chris Christie. The former New Jersey governor and informal presidential advisor was tasked with preparing Trump for last Tuesday’s presidential debate against Biden. Trump gave a disastrous, disgraceful performance and his polling has gone in the tank since then. For his trouble, Christie — who, being asthmatic and overweight, is even a bigger health risk than Trump — caught COVID-19 and currently is hospitalized. No one forced Christie into the situation he now finds himself, so let’s keep a sense of perspective here, but still ... that’s quite a run.

Despite being up against incredible competition, the award for Worst Week in Washington goes to Chris Christie. Congratulations are not in order ...

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