Starting Sept. 1, Virginia will require most state employees to show proof of vaccination or subscribe to weekly COVID-19 testing if they refuse.
Gov. Ralph Northam made the announcement in a media briefing Thursday, prompted by the dramatic rise in cases this past month that saw Virginia’s daily average of new infections jump from 182 to almost 1,400.
“The only way we can beat this virus is vaccination, and it breaks my heart as your governor, and as a doctor, to see people getting sick, getting hospitalized and unfortunately dying of a disease that is now preventable,” Northam said.
Since the end of June, almost every case, hospitalization and death in Virginia has been among residents who aren’t fully vaccinated. While infections post-vaccination are possible — no vaccine is 100% effective — the chances of that occurring are less than 1%.
Northam’s policy applies to all at-will, classified, waged and other salaried workers in the executive branch, which is estimated to be roughly 122,000 people as of the end of May.
This includes Virginia State Police; the departments of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, Motor Vehicles, Health and Transportation; and faculty at state colleges and universities not funded by federal grants.
The legislative and judicial branches are excluded from the order, as are teachers and staff in K-12 schools who are employed by localities.
Alena Yarmosky, a spokesperson for the governor, said that in the coming days, the administration will determine specific consequences for not adhering to vaccination or testing, but expects noncompliance would count as a safety violation with workplace disciplinary proceedings.
The vaccination rates among state employees — about 70% to 73% have received at least one dose — roughly align with overall Virginia numbers, said Grindly Johnson, Northam’s secretary of administration.
Dr. Norm Oliver, the state health commissioner, said there’s no breakdown by agency yet to determine variation among employers, or if there are similar disparities in vaccinations as have been reported across Virginia, but he estimates the numbers would match statewide figures.
As of Thursday, Black residents were the least vaccinated group — though the gap between Black and white Virginians has narrowed — and the highest rates of vaccination were in wealthier localities across Northern and central Virginia.
Data from the Department of Human Resource Management showed that classified employees with the state workforce don’t exactly match population demographics.
Statewide, 64% are white, almost 30% are Black and fewer than 3% are Latino. The average age of a classified state worker is 48, but the youngest is 18 and the oldest is 92.
Northam called on localities and businesses to follow similar policies in order to prevent another surge like the one last winter, which resulted in thousands of deaths.
The city of Richmond was among the first to do so on Wednesday, though Mayor Levar Stoney emphasized stricter repercussions for employees who don’t comply, such as possible termination.
In his Thursday night newsletter, Richmond schools Superintendent Jason Kamras said he plans to recommend a vaccine mandate for all of the school system’s employees at the Aug. 16 School Board meeting.
The governor’s order mirrors the one President Joe Biden issued last week that requires federal workers and contractors to sign forms proving vaccination status or wear face coverings — a drastic shift made in hopes of bolstering the sluggish vaccination rates causing the country to regress in its progress.
But as Northam mandates vaccinations among government workers, masks are a different story. Yarmosky said guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — which recommends masks in areas with “substantial” to “high” transmission — would be impossible to enforce as levels vary throughout the state.
On Thursday, however, nearly every city and county in Virginia fell under this category.
Localities such as Fairfax County, Richmond and Henrico County have asked residents to wear masks regardless of the transmission levels to make the guidance easy to follow. But local health districts are unable to mandate masks without a change in law or requirement from the governor.
Yarmosky said another reason Northam has stopped short of requiring masks is that while “masking, social distancing and economic restrictions are effective and they do work to slow the spread, the most important thing that we can do is get people vaccinated.”
“So if the governor is going to have a conversation about mandates, he wants to make sure that we’re talking about the thing that is going to work to put this pandemic behind us once and for all,” Yarmosky continued. “And that’s vaccines.”
On Thursday, VDH data showed that after weeks of plateauing at fewer than 12,000 shots administered per day, vaccinations have risen to more than 13,000. But figures remain far lower than the state’s all-time high of 86,000.
With 54% of the population fully vaccinated, there’s also a long way to go before reaching the point where community spread is nearly nonexistent.
“I would just hope that Virginians and Americans look at this as a war, and want to win,” Northam said before ending Thursday’s briefing. “The way that we’re going to win this war is to roll up our sleeves and get vaccinated. That’s the way we put this pandemic behind us.”