Gov. Ralph Northam speaks at a press conference Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021, where he announced COVID-19 vaccines would be mandatory for state employees. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Roughly 122,000 state employees will be required to show proof of vaccination or undergo weekly testing, Gov. Ralph Northam announced Thursday — the latest in a line of mandates across the country aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus delta variant.
Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, said the policy will apply to employees and contractors within the executive branch, which includes the Virginia Employment Commission, State Police, and Department of Motor Vehicles. Health care workers for state-run facilities — including psychiatric hospitals operated under the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services — are also subject to the new requirements.
“The governor, as chief executive, has the ability to set policies for executive branch employees,” Yarmosky said. The rule will not apply to staff within the judicial or legislative branches of state government, and employees of the state’s K-12 public schools — which operate under local authority — are also exempt.
But the policy does apply to most workers at Virginia’s public colleges and universities, many of which, including George Mason and UVA, have already implemented their own vaccine mandates for staff and students.
“Obviously we think this is very important from a public health perspective,” Yarmosky said. “And the governor is issuing a call for other entities — including localities, other branches of government and private businesses — to follow our lead.”
The requirements will begin Sept. 1 and operate similarly to a federal policy unveiled by President Joe Biden in late July. Executive employees who don’t get vaccinated will be required to show proof of weekly COVID-19 testing. Partially immunized workers, including any who get their first shots in response to the governor’s announcement, will also need to show proof of testing until they’re fully vaccinated — two weeks after their first shot of Johnson & Johnson or their second shot of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.
“We do recognize there will be some overlap, but given that people who are not fully vaccinated are more susceptible to the virus, we think it makes sense to put these testing requirements into place,” Yarmosky said.
State, local and even business-wide mandates are becoming increasingly prevalent amid a wave of new coronavirus infections. Virginia, like many states, is struggling to curb the spread of the highly infectious delta variant, now linked to the vast majority of new cases.
Northam stressed the importance of vaccination in getting past the pandemic.
“There is no reason why we need to see more suffering and sickness, not when safe, effective and free vaccines are readily available,” he said, noting for skeptics that “millions of people around the world have been vaccinated and we are fine.”
While recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that vaccinated individuals can catch and transmit the variant — prompting the agency to bring back universal indoor masking recommendations — new infections are still largely driven by the unvaccinated. Getting immunized reduces the chance of a “breakthrough” infection by sevenfold and the risk of hospitalization and death by 20-fold, according to agency director Dr. Rochelle Walensky.
Multiple studies have indicated that all three FDA-authorized vaccines provide significant protection against coronavirus variants. But with significant gaps in vaccination coverage across the state, communities are still at high risk for continued spread.
As of Thursday, just over 54 percent of the state’s total population was fully vaccinated, according to data from the Virginia Department of Health. A little over 65 percent of adults were fully protected. (Vaccines have been approved for people 12 and older.) But those numbers vary widely by locality, with lower rates throughout much of Southwest Virginia and pockets of the Eastern Shore. Lagging immunization in Richmond led the city to introduce its own vaccine mandate for city employees on Wednesday.
Masks in schools
While Northam is following the CDC’s recommendations for universal mask-wearing indoors, the governor is not reimplementing a statewide mandate. Yarmosky said that’s partially due to differing transmission rates across the state, but also due to a growing focus on immunization as the key to preventing continued spread.
“The governor thinks if we’re going to have a hard conversation about mandates, it has to be focused on what’s really going to end this pandemic,” Yarmosky said. “And that’s the vaccine.”
The governor did, however, set new requirements for masking in schools as divisions prepare to reopen for the fall semester. Yarmosky said all local divisions are expected to implement universal mask-wearing policies consistent with CDC guidance.
According to the administration, the expectation is consistent with the in-person learning mandate that passed the General Assembly with bipartisan support in February. The law requires divisions to provide face-to-face instruction to all students, but also stipulates that they adhere — “to the maximum extent practicable” — to all safety recommendations set by the CDC.
“We’re reiterating that doing something out of compliance with that guidance would put them in legal jeopardy,” Yarmosky said. It’s still unclear how local school boards will respond to the directive. Many of Virginia’s largest districts, including Fairfax County and Richmond City, have announced plans to continue their universal masking policies. But other divisions have already decided to make masks optional for faculty and students.
The governor also acknowledged that the state currently has no policy for how to discipline state workers who refuse to comply with recommendations as well as school districts who have already made masks optional for children.
“I expect our employees in the commonwealth to follow the law. If they choose not to get tested, then obviously we’ll take the next measure, but that’s something I’ll discuss with the employees,” he said.
Secretary of Administration Grindly Johnson said that “we are still working all the bugs out, and we hope to have a policy out within the next 15 to 30 days prior to Sept. 1. But it will be a form that everyone will have to fill out and attest to whether they are tested or have an exemption.”
State Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, a physician who carried the legislation directing schools to offer in-person instruction, criticized the governor’s move.
“Just like me, Gov. Northam is a doctor and knows how to follow the science and implement guidelines such as those from the CDC and AAP,” said Dunnavant. “And as a former state senator, just like me, he knows how to read and interpret legislation passed by the General Assembly. The reality is that Gov. Northam wants to mandate our children wear masks at school this year and is using an excuse to make a decision he knows is not in the best interest of our next generation.
The bill, Dunnavant added, says schools should follow CDC guidelines “to the maximum extent practicable.”
That means “in-person education is the most important thing,” Dunnavant said, claiming her bill does not amount to a mask mandate. “Mandates aren’t adaptable. … He should take leadership and own his decisions, not make excuses for policies he wants to implement.”
Asked if Dunnavant believes children and school employees should wear masks, per the CDC’s most recent guidance, Dunnavant said in a statement that “parents and schools need to collaborate and take into consideration the latest information and guidelines as well as every child’s individual challenges to make a decision that ensures every child has in-person education.”
She said those guidelines will “evolve multiple times between now and the end of the school year” and that the “conversation needs to be ongoing and not an inflexible mandate. ”
This post has been updated to include additional comments from the governor’s news conference and reaction from a state senator.
Mercury reporter Malcolm Ferguson and Editor Robert Zullo contributed to this article.
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