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UPDATE: House GOP encourages vaccines and boosters ahead of legislative session; outgoing Democratic speaker calls for mandate

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In January 2020, House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, conferred with House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah

Incoming House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said Friday that he will encourage COVID-19 vaccines and boosters for legislators and others ahead of the 2022 legislative session, declining calls from the outgoing Democratic speaker to levy a mandate.

Outgoing House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, is instead calling to require COVID vaccines, including boosters, from legislators and staff when the legislature convenes Wednesday. Those who chose or cannot get vaccinated would be subject to a mask mandate in the chamber and inside all House facilities, along with weekly testing, according to the speaker’s proposal.

The safety of the convening for the 100-member chamber has taken on new significance amid a surge of COVID cases and hospitalizations in Virginia and the nation, fueled by the highly contagious omicron variant.

The GOP next week takes majority control of the chamber, and will have the power to impose its own rules once the session starts.

In a statement on Friday, Gilbert said that despite COVID, the House will meet in person, with the option for virtual public testimony. He said anyone showing symptoms of COVID will be asked to participate in the legislative session remotely.

He also urged “every Virginian to be vaccinated, and when appropriate, get a booster.”

“Vaccines may not prevent every case of COVID, but they are extremely effective in turning what could be a life-threatening illness into something much less severe,” said Gilbert, adding that KN95 masks, gloves, thermometers and hand sanitizer would be widely available during the legislative session.

Filler-Corn, in a last move as speaker, proposed mandatory reporting of COVID symptoms, followed by testing. She also proposed a virtual option for votes for members who become exposed or test positive for the virus and, as a last resort, an option for the speaker to convene the chamber virtually.

“As COVID-19 infections rise across Virginia, it is vital the House put in place measures to ensure that it can complete the critical work deserved by Virginians in the upcoming session,” Filler-Corn said in a statement.

Republicans have long opposed convening virtually, even before vaccines had become available, arguing that it hampered the power of the minority and decreased public transparency.

“While we have made a great deal of progress in mitigating the pandemic, it is clear that COVID will be with us as we begin the 2022 Session,” Gilbert said.

“Nonetheless, it is crucial that we not only get the people’s business done in a timely manner, but we do so in an open and transparent fashion, while operating in as regular of order as possible.”

mleonor@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6254

Twitter: @MelLeonor_

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