The Virginia General Assembly narrowly approved an amendment Wednesday to allow Prince William County, Manassas and Manassas Park to create their own public health department over objections from Republican state Senators and Democratic state Sen. Scott Surovell.
Gov. Ralph Northam amended legislation last week allowing Loudoun County to form its own health department to also include Prince William County. The General Assembly approved the amendment during Wednesday’s veto session.
Surovell, D-36th, who represents parts of Fairfax, Prince William and Stafford counties, joined 19 Republicans in the state Senate in trying to kill the amendment. Senate Chair Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) voted in favor of the amendment, breaking a 20-20 tie vote.
The House of Delegates passed the amendment unanimously.
Following the vote, Surovell said allowing more localities to create their own health departments could lead to a disorganized statewide response to a future health crisis, such as a pandemic.
“When we do the autopsy on the pandemic response over the next couple of years, I think this ought to be part of the discussion, but willy-nilly releasing control of random health districts is not carefully thought through policy,” Surovell said in an interview after the vote.
Only two jurisdictions in Northern Virginia – Arlington and Fairfax counties – currently have their own health departments. The rest rely on state-run health districts for their public health needs.
Prince William Health District has faced criticism throughout the pandemic from local elected officials frustrated by the slow pace of COVID-19 testing and vaccinations. It was also recently revealed that the Prince William Health District had the most vacant positions amid the pandemic of any in the region.
Those issues prompted Democrats on the Prince William Board of County Supervisors to request that the commonwealth allow the county to create its own health department.
Surovell acknowledged the Prince William Health District had faced challenges to its pandemic response. But he said creating a new, locally run health department may not be the answer.
“There's no question there have been issues with the lack of responsiveness from the Prince William County Health Department director and high vacancy rates with employees,” Surovell said.
Republicans in the state Senate also took issue with the amendment.
Surovell said Republican lawmakers, including state Sen. Richard Stuart, R-28th, who represents part of Prince William, raised concerns about whether elected officials from Northern Virginia's major counties would lose interest in funding health districts in the rest of the state.
Stuart did not respond to requests for comment.
Now that the amendment has cleared the General Assembly, Prince William County can begin moving forward with creating a county-run health department. Prince William County Executive Chris Martino will likely provide the Prince William Board of County Supervisors with a timeframe and estimated costs in the coming months.
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