RICHMOND, Va. -- Most state employees in Virginia will be required to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo weekly testing for the virus, Gov. Ralph Northam announced during a news conference Thursday afternoon.
Those employees will be required to show proof of vaccination by Sept. 1. Those who don't will be required to get weekly testing for COVID-19 and show proof of a negative result, according to Executive Directive Number 18.
"Unfortunately, we are now on a different trajectory," Northam said about the pandemic. "The arrival of the delta variant, combined with the number of people who are not vaccinated, is driving our case count back up."
In fact, Virginia reported more than 1,700 new virus cases Thursday. That is after seeing less than 100 confirmed cases some days in June.
As a result, Northam said that was why he issued a mandate to state employees to either get the COVID-19 vaccine or provide weekly negative test results.
"I am directing this measure to keep state employees safe, and to keep the people that we serve safe," Northam said.
The governor said the mandate, which takes effect Sept. 1, will cover roughly 120,000 state employees in agencies like the DMV, VDOT and state universities.
However, the governor's office said the mandate does not apply to employees in the legislative or judicial branches of government like the General Assembly or in the courts.
Officials in high levels in both the legislative or judicial branches did not have any information about a similar mandate being issued at last check Thursday evening.
Attorney General considering 'similar plan' for staffers
However, a spokesperson for Attorney General Mark Herring said his office was considering something similar.
"Attorney General Herring’s top priority is to make sure that his employees are safe and healthy, and to that end, the OAG intends to implement a similar plan that fits best for its employees," Charlotte P.L. Gomer, Director of Communications for the Office of the Attorney General, said.
When asked about future restrictions if COVID cases continue to increase, Northam said, as he has throughout the pandemic, that all options remain on the table.
Northam on masks in schools: 'I expect our school districts to follow the law'
Northam said that he is leaving the issue of school districts requiring masks to the local divisions to decide.
But the governor said a new law now in effect that requires in-person learning states that schools will follow CDC guidelines to prevent COVID-19, which currently recommends masks for all.
"I don't know that it couldn't be any simpler than that," Northam said. "It's the law of the Commonwealth of Virginia and I expect our school districts to follow the law."
Northam said those who do not should talk with their legal counsel.
However, the bill's author, Republican State Senator Siobhan Dunnavant said that should be left to the local divisions to determine what is practical. She said the law was written to allow permissibility.
"Any mandate that tries to force everybody to comply with one particular issue is very difficult to implement when you're dealing with the diversity we have in our children," Dunnavant said.
The state's vaccination coordinator, Dr. Danny Avula, said prior to the news conference that the governor was actively considering implementing a vaccine mandate for state workers.
This comes as President Joe Biden just announced last week he’ll require federal workers to get the vaccine or submit to regular testing and social distancing measures.
“The state has been considering very similar moves," Avula noted. "I think the context is a little different because the guidance around at least mask wearing that was updated last week has to do with how much disease is happening in your community, and so thinking towards mask guidance and vaccination take on a little greater context."
During a news conference with Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney Wednesday, Avula also touched on the Delta variant’s impact on Virginia’s rising COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations.
He said about 70% to 75% of the sequenced infections in the state are the Delta, and he thinks that’s actually underestimating the true amount of the disease in the community.
"What we’ve seen is even if you are fully vaccinated you could potentially be carrying this," said Avula. "That's the reason for the importance of wearing masks in indoor settings. We've also seen that masks are incredibly effective at stopping the transmission of disease, so I think there is a context of return to in-person settings, but I think it really has to be predicated on vaccination and then on behavior change."