Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney announces an employee vaccine mandate at news briefing on Aug. 4, 2021. (Kate Masters/ Virginia Mercury)
The City of Richmond will mandate COVID-19 vaccines for its employees, Mayor Levar Stoney announced Wednesday, becoming the first locality in Virginia to implement the requirement.
The mandate applies to about 3,600 public employees, including police, fire, public works, social services and parks and recreation workers. It won’t, however, extend to roughly 500 constitutional officers — including the Richmond City Sheriff’s Office and Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office — or Richmond Public School employees, which are governed by the city’s school board.
There is currently no mandate for state employees to be immunized, making Richmond’s the first requirement of its kind in Virginia. Gov. Ralph Northam is “actively considering” a similar policy, according to Dr. Danny Avula, the state’s vaccine czar. In late July, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors also passed a motion asking the county executive to “explore” a vaccine requirement for public employees. Currently, though, the county has not implemented its own mandate.
“I think this is the right and proper step at a critical moment here in the summer,” Stoney said at a news briefing on Wednesday. “And I have great confidence that city employees will respond.”
The mayor estimated that roughly 40 to 50 percent of public workers are already vaccinated, similar to the overall immunization rate across the city. Employees are able to apply for medical or religious exemptions, but the city did not clarify the criteria they must meet to qualify for the waivers.
“Should a medical or religious exemption NOT be granted, such employees will be required to be vaccinated or will be subject to discipline in accordance with City of Richmond HR guidelines,” press secretary Jim Nolan wrote in a follow-up email on Wednesday. Workers who are granted an exemption will be required to wear a mask and submit to “regular testing.”
“Employees cannot voluntarily opt out of vaccination and just submit to mask wearing and regular testing as an alternative,” Nolan added. Already vaccinated workers will need to submit documentation to the city by August 18, according to Stoney. Unvaccinated employees are required to receive their first dose by the same date, and be fully vaccinated by October 1.
Richmond, like many Virginia localities, has struggled to boost lagging vaccination rates amid growing concern over the delta variant. Genetic sequencing from the state’s public health laboratory indicates that roughly 70 to 75 percent of new infections are linked to delta, said Avula, who is also director of the Richmond-Henrico Health District. That’s likely an undercount, since many samples are tested outside the public laboratory system.
Federal data suggests that the more transmissible variant now accounts for virtually all new coronavirus cases across the United States. But even as infections and hospitalizations climb, a significant proportion of the population remains unvaccinated. In Richmond, just over 50 percent of adults have been fully immunized. Statewide, it’s 65.3 percent.
“An important thing to note is that the vast majority of these cases, these hospitalizations and these deaths are happening among unvaccinated individuals,” Avula said. “And because of that, we are more and more convinced that our only path out of this is through vaccination.”
Boosting uptake, though, has been a continuing challenge for state and local officials. Virginia has invested more than $20 million in vaccine outreach, but demand has plummeted since the shots became widely available in April.
Throughout much of the last month, the average number of doses plateaued at less than 12,000 administered per day. Three months ago, the daily average was just over 86,000. There has been a slight increase over the last two weeks — fueling hope that the delta variant will drive up demand — but officials have struggled to dispel hesitancy among a significant portion of the population.
As some states continue to experience a surge in cases, vaccine mandates have become increasingly common. Some Richmond businesses, including the restaurants Godfrey’s and Longoven, have implemented their own requirements for staff and customers. New York City recently introduced a mandate for indoor dining and gyms, while California became the first state in the country to require vaccines for its own public employees and health care workers.
At the national level, President Joe Biden also implemented a similar policy for federal workers and contractors. While vaccinated people are capable of catching and transmitting the virus — a growing concern that led the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to reimplement universal masking recommendations — immunizations are highly effective at preventing severe symptoms.
The growing number of serious infections among non-immunized individuals has led the CDC to describe the ongoing crisis as a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
“What we can all take away is that people who are fully vaccinated don’t need to be concerned about severe outcomes,” Avula said. “It’s very rare for that to happen. But people who are unvaccinated are going to be at much higher risk.”
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