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How Virginia will navigate Biden's new COVID plan requiring millions of workers to get vaccinated is unclear
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How Virginia will navigate Biden's new COVID plan requiring millions of workers to get vaccinated is unclear

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On Thursday, President Biden announced a major strategy to tackle the pandemic, pushing vaccine requirements that will affect millions of American workers.

President Joe Biden outlined on Thursday an extensive and aggressive set of measures pointed at sidestepping the delta variant’s rampant spread and growing COVID case counts that have forced nearly every locality in Virginia to report high levels of community transmission.

The administration’s new COVID strategy aims to target the sluggish vaccination rates by requiring businesses with 100 or more employees to have workers get vaccines or face weekly testing.

More than 2.2 million people spread across the more than 50,000 Virginia businesses — about two-thirds of the private workforce — would be subject to the new rules, according to Census estimates from 2018 released this year.

Biden’s actions, however, stop short of a mask mandate.

The full implementation of his plan is also complicated in a country of 50 states, almost 131,000 K-12 schools and roughly 3,000 public health departments.

And it’s unclear how the Biden administration plans to account for the variation in policy that’s pushed public health recommendations to the side.

Part of the president’s plan requires employers with more than 100 workers to provide paid time off for vaccinations and side effects. This would occur through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is part of the Department of Labor and oversees workplace safety.

Currently only 13 states plus Washington, D.C., have laws in place that mandate sick leave, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Virginia is not one of them.

The state Senate has repeatedly struck down legislation that would provide paid sick leave to at least essential workers, even as prominent health officials — including Dr. Danny Avula, the state’s vaccine coordinator — have hailed this measure as one that would’ve helped prevent infections in low-income areas where people feared that quarantining meant sacrificing wages.

The Senate also entirely removed private-sector employees from the original legislation sponsored by Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, back in February.

And Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, previously said he would vote “no” if Gov. Ralph Northam planned to amend the narrowly passed bill, which allowed at least 25,000 home health aides who care for disabled Virginians to acquire sick leave.

“What President Biden proposes are mandates with no legislative authority, and it is likely to face legal scrutiny,” said Karen Michael, a Richmond-based employment lawyer who writes the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s weekly “Labor Law” column. “At this point, employers only have talking points with no substance, so employers should wait to review what is actually published from the Department of Labor.”

Henrico County-based Altria Group, the parent company of tobacco giant Philip Morris USA, is reviewing the rules and is already encouraging employees to get vaccinated by including incentives such as payments to health savings accounts.

Other major employers in the region, including CarMax and Dominion Energy, told The Times-Dispatch that they’re monitoring the change. Some companies, like Capital One Financial Corp. and Genworth Financial, are already requiring employees to be vaccinated before returning to the office, while others said they’re waiting for more details before they can determine the impact.

On Thursday, the state reported nearly 4,000 new infections and more than 2,000 people were in Virginia hospitals with the virus.

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The Northam administration quickly threw its support behind Biden’s new policy on Thursday night, saying it is in line with measures the administration has been advocating for.

In early August, Northam announced all state employees will be required to show proof of vaccination or subscribe to weekly COVID-19 testing if they refuse. A week later, State Health Commissioner Norman Oliver overruled fractious debates across Virginia school boards on whether to render masks optional and mandated face coverings regardless of vaccination status in all K-12 schools.

“Gov. Northam absolutely supports the president’s approach, which incorporates a lot of what we’re already doing,” Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said. “This morning the governor spoke to dozens of business leaders at the [D.C.] Capital Region Business Forum, where he highlighted our state employee vaccination requirement and urged businesses to follow our lead. As he has said consistently, vaccines are the only way we will put this pandemic behind us.”

Yarmosky did not immediately respond to request for comment on whether that support would mean following Biden’s call for governors to issue statewide vaccine mandates for all school employees.

In the past, the administration has said such a requirement is not within Northam’s authority since Virginia’s K-12 schools aren’t directly operated by the state government.

Richmond and Fairfax County public schools are among the few divisions in Virginia that require vaccinations among teachers and staff, as children under 12 are not eligible for a vaccine.

In Virginia, this age group is over a million students. The next eligible age group of 12- to 15-year-olds are the least vaccinated at 49%, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

Biden’s shift comes less than two months before Virginians elect their next governor, an outcome that could change what the state’s COVID response looks like.

Last month, after the Food and Drug Administration approved Pfizer’s vaccine, Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe urged Virginia employers to require COVID-19 vaccines for all eligible workers.

Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin has championed getting Virginians vaccinated, but staunchly opposes mandates.

In his Thursday news conference, Biden threatened action against governors who undermine these preventative measures against the virus, saying he’d “use my power as president to get them out of the way.” The president didn’t clarify further, but some critics said his statements bordered on authoritarianism.

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Additional federal strategies announced Thursday included efforts to make at-home tests more affordable and improve the availability of rapid tests so spread can be more quickly identified.

The issue is that positive results from at-home tests are not included in state case counts unless the VDH contacts the individual through a contact tracing investigation. In the past week, the VDH interviewed about a quarter of total infections.

On Tuesday, the agency announced its push to widen access in Virginia as the jump in cases prompt more residents to seek testing — straining the existing infrastructure after months of the state reporting its lowest infection rates in over a year.

“While our local health departments, pharmacies and hospitals are working to keep up with the demand for testing, we are providing additional testing locations to accommodate our residents and to help reserve our hospital emergency rooms and rescue squads for medical emergencies,” said Dr. Laurie Forlano, deputy director of VDH’s Office of Epidemiology.

Melissa Gordon, the health agency’s spokesperson, said the VDH is aware of the president’s announcement and is “working through the details of this next step by the federal government.” Additional updates will be available in the upcoming days.

It remains unclear how the option for workers to avoid vaccination with routine testing would affect the state’s testing capacity or whether the VDH plans to publicly report vaccinations by industry — a gap that in the early months of the vaccine rollout made it impossible to know whether those first eligible were getting vaccinated.

This includes police officers and health care workers, another group Biden is requiring to get vaccinated if they work in hospitals that receive Medicaid and Medicare funding.

The Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association, which represents 110 hospitals statewide, has repeatedly endorsed vaccine requirements within health systems.

“There’s nothing, not a single thing we’re unable to do if we do it together. So let’s stay together,” Biden said in his final remarks. “Get vaccinated.”

Then he walked off without answering any questions.

smoreno@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6103

Twitter: @sabrinaamorenoo

Staff writers Andrew Cain, Gregory J. Gilligan, John Ramsey and Mel Leonor contributed to this report.

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