Two separate misjudgments from two separate agencies are undermining public confidence about state government’s handling of the corona crisis.
In one, the Virginia Employment Commission accidentally overpaid some aid recipients and recouped the money from subsequent benefit payments.
In the other, the Virginia Department of Health was found to be combining the results of two types of tests in its reporting of COVID-19 cases. One of those types has not been approved by federal regulators; additionally, because such tests measure past infections only, they are not useful in tracking the current spread of the virus, critics say.
The VEC overpaid some 35,000 Virginians somewhere between $600 and $1,200 in the first round of unemployment checks sent to self-employed people under the federal CARES Act.
The VEC sent checks for weeks of unemployment certain workers experienced before April 4; the federal law does not authorize payments prior to that date.
“The VEC wants to acknowledge this agency mistake…,” it told the benefit recipients. It announced it would withhold overpayment amounts from checks due to the recipients for the weeks of May 9 and May 16.
If we are to look for a silver lining, it would have to be that the agency admitted its error in straightforward language — an acceptance of responsibility not always forthcoming from government (especially at the federal level).
Plus, the VEC could not let the mistake stand, particularly if it would result in underpayments to other deserving out-of-work Virginians from the available pool of funds.
But it was undoubtedly tough for recipients to receive notice that — surprise! — their next checks would be reduced to compensate for the state’s mistake. Many probably already had budgeted for use of those funds.
The VDH caught flak for combining the results of COVID tests in its earlier reporting — both diagnostic tests from health-care providers and antibody tests from private companies. Antibody tests measure changes in the bloodstream that show infection in the past, but are not helpful in determining current cases — and, therefore, the current spread of cases. In addition, diagnostic tests are considered more reliable.
At a reporters’ briefing, Health Secretary Dan Carey said, “Without [federal] guidance, we went for as much testing as represented in the community.”
Gov. Ralph Northam’s chief of staff, Clark Mercer, said the commingling of tests was reasonable, given that other states are doing the same: “If we’re going to be compared to all 50 states, I want it to be apples to apples.”
The Atlantic followed up on the story (broken by sister newspaper the Richmond Times-Dispatch) and disputed the claim that other states were measuring their COVID cases in that way.
Gov. Northam ordered the practice halted.
A silver lining here? It’s that the antibody tests were a small proportion of the total. Removing those results made a difference of just 1 percentage point: Virginia’s rate of positive tests for COVID-19 went from 15% to 14%.
We’ve said it before: In these challenging times, all of us are, in many ways, working without a map, inventing processes and systems as we go along. Past experience will get us only so far. Amid such difficult circumstances, mistakes are bound to happen.
Still, Virginians look to their government for protection from mistakes, and for guidance in making the right choices.
We can understand the state’s errors under pressure even while demanding better performance.