RICHMOND, Va. -- Most of Virginia’s state workers will have to be vaccinated or agree to regular COVID-19 testing, under a new requirement Gov. Ralph Northam announced Thursday.
The order will take effect Sept. 1 and will apply to more than 120,000 executive branch employees, the governor’s office said in a news release.
“The three vaccines are safe, effective, free, and widely available, and I strongly urge every eligible Virginian to get their shot. The time for waiting is over,” Northam, the nation's only doctor-governor, said in a statement.
The Democratic governor's directive comes as the delta variant has driven a national surge in COVID-19 cases, most of which involve unvaccinated people. President Joe Biden and a growing number of state and local governments and major employers are taking an increasingly hard line against vaccine holdouts.
Northam issued his order a day after Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney announced a decision to require workers in the capital city to get the vaccine or face disciplinary action. Virginia joins other states including California, New York and North Carolina, that have already taken similar measures.
Northam's order will require unvaccinated workers to show proof of negative tests weekly. When asked at a news conference what the penalty for noncompliance would be, the governor didn't answer directly.
“That’s something I’ll discuss with the employees,” he said.
The order will cover about 122,000 workers at executive branch agencies such as the Virginia Employment Commission, Department of Motor Vehicles and Department of Transportation, and some staff at public colleges and universities. It applies to part-time and contract workers as well, said Northam's spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky.
The directive won't apply to legislative or judicial branch workers or workers in K-12 schools, though Yarmosky said the governor is encouraging local governments to follow his lead.
Secretary of Administration Grindly Johnson, who oversees the Department of Human Resource Management, said the vaccination rate for state workers is currently about the same as the rate statewide: about 73% of adults have gotten at least one dose.
During the news conference, the governor also addressed the state's expired mask mandate and the patchwork of rules local school divisions across the state have adopted in its absence.
While the governor has so far ruled out reinstating a mandate, he said Thursday that a law passed by the General Assembly earlier in the year mandating in-person instruction also requires school districts to follow mitigation strategies from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC guidelines currently recommend indoor masks for all teachers, staff, students and visitors at schools nationwide, regardless of vaccination status.
“That law was passed by strong bipartisan vote of the legislature, and I expect school divisions to follow it. If they choose not to follow it, they should have a frank discussion with their legal counsel,” he said.
When pressed on how the state might enforce his interpretation of the law, Northam again declined to elaborate.
Neither the House nor Senate GOP caucus offered comment on Northam's vaccine directive or his remarks about masking in schools. But Republican Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, the bill's chief patron, said she disagreed with the governor's interpretation.
She noted that the law says CDC guidelines must be followed “to the maximum extent practicable” and said that language was not intended to be a mandate.
It was not immediately clear how districts that had already decided not to mandate masks would respond to the new guidance.
Cases of COVID-19 in Virginia have been steadily increasing since mid-June but are still well below what they were at the height of the winter surge. According to an Associated Press analysis of data from Johns Hopkins University, the rolling average of daily new cases has gone up by 812, an increase of 173.8%, over the past two weeks.
Hospitalizations from COVID-19 have followed a similar trend, about doubling during the same time period, according to a public dashboard maintained by the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association. Health officials reported 669 hospitalizations for likely or confirmed COVID-19 cases Thursday - a serious jump but still far below many GOP-controlled states where hospitals are issuing dire warnings that they are running out of beds.
One such state is Florida, where more than 12,000 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19 on Wednesday, including nearly 2,500 who are in ICU beds. Another is Louisiana, where inundated hospitals are grappling with an influx of COVID-19 patients, surgery schedules disrupted by the patient overload and too few nurses and respiratory therapists to staff all their beds.
The vast majority of cases, hospitalizations and deaths in Virginia this year have been among the unvaccinated, according to health department data.