Virginia to join vax mandate challenges under new GOP governor, AG

Free Press staff, wire reports | 1/13/2022, 6 p.m.
Virginia will join other Republican-led states and business groups in challenging Biden administration mandates intended to increase the nation’s COVID-19 …

Virginia will join other Republican-led states and business groups in challenging Biden administration mandates intended to increase the nation’s COVID-19 vaccination rate once GOP Gov.-elect Glenn A. Youngkin and Attorney General-elect Jason Miyares take office, the two said in a statement last week.

“While we believe that the vaccine is a critical tool in the fight against COVID-19, we strongly believe that the federal government cannot impose its will and restrict the freedoms of Americans and that Virginia is at its best when her people are allowed to make the best decisions for their families or businesses,” they said in the joint statement.

They said that after their Jan. 15 inauguration, the Commonwealth will “quickly move to protect Virginians’ freedoms” and join challenges to components of President Biden’s vaccine mandate.

The announcement came days after two key Virginia health officials announced they were stepping down with the new GOP administration entering office on Saturday, Jan. 15. And it came on the same day the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments about whether to allow the Biden administration to enforce a vaccine-or-testing requirement that applies to large employers and a separate vaccine mandate for most health care workers.

Mr. Miyares said earlier last week that he planned to sign onto the lawsuits, also acknowledging that it was unclear how soon a ruling from the nation’s highest court might affect those components.

A separate legal challenge also is pending to a requirement that teachers in the Head Start early education program be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Gov.-elect Youngkin and Mr. Miyares said in their statement that the pandemic had caused “heartbreaking health, societal, and economic loss and suffering throughout the Commonwealth and the United States.”

But they said the vaccine mandates would “force hardworking Virginians to walk away from their paychecks.”

Supporters of the measures say the mandates will save lives.

The debate comes as the United States deals with record-setting COVID-19 case counts due to the highly contagious omicron variant.

The variant spreads even more easily than other coronavirus strains and already has become dominant in many countries. It also more easily infects those who have been vaccinated or had previously been infected by prior versions of the virus. However, early studies show omicron is less likely to cause severe illness than the pre- vious delta variant, and that vaccination and a booster still offer strong protection from serious illness, hospitalization and death.

Last week’s announcement from Mr. Miyares and Gov.-elect Youngkin was not surprising. Both made their opposition to vaccine mandates clear during last year’s campaign. But it marked one early example of how pandemic-related policy is likely to shift once Virginia’s new wave of GOP leadership is ushered into office.

Dr. M. Norman Oliver announced on Jan. 5 his exit as commissioner of the Virginia Department of Health, followed by Dr. Danny T.K. Avula, the head of the Richmond and Henrico health districts, who had been tapped last year during the pandemic by Democratic Gov. Ralph S. Northam to serve as the state vaccination coordinator.

Dr. Oliver said he was stepping down Friday, Jan. 14, at the urging of Gov.-elect Youngkin, who has said he opposes mask mandates and has promised to do away with a requirement that most state workers get the vaccine or undergo frequent testing.

Dr. Avula began transitioning out of his state-wide role last fall and recently assumed the title of state vaccination liaison, focusing on partner development and media relations.

Christy Gray, director of the Division of Immunization with the state Health Department, now will oversee vaccinations in Virginia.