Daughter of Virginia senator who died of COVID-19 urges neighbors to get vaccinated

Local Coronavirus Coverage

ABINGDON, Va (WJHL) — Sophie Chafin Vance says she couldn’t even talk about it with anyone other than family until just a few weeks ago.

“It’s something my family and I hold very close,” she said, referring to the death of her father, Virginia State Senator Ben Chafin (R-Lebanon), on January 1st in a Richmond hospital after a month-long battle with COVID-19.

“We are fatherless because of COVID,” she said. “It is a tragedy for this community when you think of what he could have continued to do. And that’s the same for every one of these lives that are being lost.”

Senator Ben Chafin, his wife, children and grandchildren gather for a family photo. “We’re a very close family,” said his daughter Sophie Chafin Vance. (photo: Sophie Chafin Vance)

Sophie Chafin Vance said her father was exposed to COVID-19 right after Thanksgiving during a meeting about an upcoming court case. The Lebanon, Virginia attorney and cattle farmer was preparing for a family vacation that had been in the works for almost a year.

“We’d all been so careful,” Chafin Vance said about their attempts to avoid getting the virus. “During Dad’s meeting, everyone had been masked except when they were eating lunch.”

WATCH: Sophie Chafin Vance on COVID-19, politics, and vaccine misinformation

On December 5th while quarantining at home as a precaution, Chafin tested positive for Covid-19. At first, his daughter said her father seemed to be on the mend. But a week later, a pulse oximeter showed dangerously low blood oxygen levels, so Chafin’s wife took him to Johnston Memorial Hospital.

“He had so much to do,” she said. “He didn’t want to go the hospital, but my mother convinced him it was the best thing.”

Soon, doctors in Abingdon recommended Chafin be transferred to a facility with an ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) device, a treatment option for severely ill COVID-19 patients. Chafin Vance says the nearest available ECMO was at VCU Medical Center in Richmond. So her father was airlifted to the facility where his condition steadily worsened.

On New Year’s Eve as doctors prepared Chafin for dialysis, the man who previously had been healthy and active took a dramatic turn for the worse.

“The doctor told us that if we wanted to talk to our father, we needed to facilitate that right away,” Chafin Vance said. In his final hours of life, family members including his wife, three children, grandchildren, mother, and sister (Virginia Supreme Court Justice Teresa Chafin) could only call into his hospital room and say goodbye on a speaker phone.

“It is the weirdest feeling to talk to someone and tell them how you feel and not have anyone talk back to you,” she said. “That is one thing that my siblings and I have had a really hard time with. He was so alone. And we weren’t able to be there.”

Virginia state Sen. Ben Chafin dies from COVID-19 complications

Senator Ben Chafin’s death at the age of 60 on New Year’s Day stunned Virginia and made headlines across the country. The news came the morning after people celebrated the end of a year that brought tremendous tragedy with hopes for a better year to come.

No other member of the Virginia General Assembly had died of the virus. And because it was Chafin, the grief was bipartisan.

After years of running his cattle farm and his Lebanon, Virginia law firm while serving on the board of First Bank and Trust which was founded by his father, Chafin entered politics in his early 50’s, winning election to the Virginia House of Delegates in 2013 and then to the Virginia Senate in 2014.

Ben Chafin was revered in Richmond as a powerful Republican Senator. But his family said he was happiest at home on his farm. (Photo: Sophie Chafin Vance)

After decades of Democratic control, Chafin helped lead a Republican takeover in Southwest Virginia politics.

But he won respect from Democrats when he broke with the GOP and voted in favor of expanding Medicaid in Virginia, a decision his daughter says was driven by his deep concern for people back home in rural Southwest Virginia. “It was his community that needed Medicaid expansion, and he realized it,” she said. “And he broke party lines to do that.”

Sophie Chafin Vance said her father was planning to get the COVID-19 vaccine. The Chafin family made a point of discussing it as a vaccine appeared to be close to emergency approval. “We knew when the opportunity came, we were going to take it, and we were going to take it as a family,” she said.

Chafin speaks to a crowd gathered at a campaign rally in 2017. (photo: Sophie Chafin Vance)

The first shipments of vaccine started to arrive in Virginia in mid-December. But by then, Chafin was in VCU Medical Center in Richmond.

For him, the vaccine came too late, something Chafin Vance said haunts her. “We’re talking two weeks. If he’d just had two more weeks he could have received his first vaccination, and maybe it wouldn’t have turned out the way it turned out.”

Chafin Vance says the grief for her and her family has been complex with sadness mixing with anger. Now, she’s determined to share his story with others when and where she can.

“He was in the prime of his life,” she said. “COVID – it takes no prisoners. I doesn’t matter how old you are. It can take you.”

Chafin Vance said she’s baffled by the low vaccination rates in Southwest Virginia.

“I’m astonished that the opportunity is there, and yet we’ve listened to everyone on Facebook and letting social media guide us,” Chafin Vance said. “And we’ve listened to political figures. Anyone who knows me knows that I am very political. I consider myself to be loyal to the Republican party. But the misinformation that is out there that people are willing to believe? We need to trust our health care professionals. We don’t need to listen to all the outside noise. They are telling us to get the vaccine, that it is safe and effective and the only way to fight COVID. We need to take the vaccine. It is our one chance.”

Chafin Vance said she’s not in favor of vaccine mandates. “I don’t want anyone to tell me what to do,” she said. “But I do believe this is the best way to survive. And this is the best way for our community.”

Chafin Vance recently appeared in a Ballad Health commercial featuring Southwest Virginia community leaders asking the public to get the vaccine.

She thinks its something her Dad would have wanted.

“I believe he would have advocated for this vaccine because he saw the horror that COVID was to himself and his family.”

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