The flu clobbered the commonwealth this year, and glad-handing, germ-swapping politicians have turned Mr. Jefferson’s Capitol into a stately petri dish, where midwinter contagion has sickened scores of legislators. Yet even the most peaked lawmakers say they can’t afford to miss a single vote in the frenzied homestretch.
“Almost no matter what, you’ve got to try to be here every day,” said Stanley’s seat mate, Sen. Jeffrey L. McWaters (R-Virginia Beach), who tries to ward off disease with hand sanitizer. “This time of year, we’ve got all these bills coming across, and some of them are 20-20 votes.”
That’s particularly true in a year when Republicans used the Inauguration Day absence of one Democrat to slip a surprise redistricting plan through the Senate. Neither chamber permits voting by proxy. So as they push to complete work by Saturday on a hotly contested transportation funding overhaul, state budget amendments and public school reform, sniffling, sneezing and even feverish legislators will be on the job — some limping along with help from the four doctors who happen to be members of the General Assembly.
“Even if I have to have somebody on a gurney, okay, and me pushing the button for them, we’ll have 20 votes,” Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said.
The 2012-13 flu season has been one of the worst in years, and rates in Virginia were among the highest in the nation when the session convened last month, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Doctors in the General Assembly have been called on to help more than the usual number of ailing colleagues.
“It was pretty bad the first few weeks,” said Sen. Ralph S. Northam (D-Norfolk), one of the doctors. “I helped a few people, and then the word got around that they got better, and then more people came. It’s probably about one person a day.”
It doesn’t help that Virginia’s legislative session is among the nation’s shortest and most intense. Lawmaking for 8 million people gets crammed into 60 or 45 days, depending on the year, making for lots of early-morning committee meetings and late-night deliberations to wear down immune systems.
“Just like in the Civil War, they would take farm boys off the farm, where they were in their own protected sort of realm, and then would put them in these large congregate areas with, you know, hundreds to thousands of men, and horses, and all of the contamination issues thereinto associated,” said Del. T. Scott Garrett (R-Lynchburg). “You still see a lot of the same issues when folks are congregating here. When they leave their home settings, all of a sudden they’re exposed to a lot of people’s germs. You’re constantly shaking hands with folks.”