Northam not planning on COVID-19 vaccine mandate despite support from top official

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- A spokesperson for Gov. Ralph Northam said Monday he’s not planning on mandating a COVID-19 vaccine in Virginia, even though his Administration’s top health official supports the idea.

In an interview with 8News on Friday, State Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said he planned on mandating a coronavirus immunization once it’s safely released to the public. In Virginia, state law gives him the authority to order immediate vaccination ‘of all persons in case of an epidemic of any disease of public health importance for which a vaccine exists.’ The law only includes an exemption for medical reasons.

Dr. Oliver was not available for a follow-up interview on Monday but a spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Health sent 8News the following statement:

“When Dr. Oliver spoke of his support of a mandatory COVID-19 vaccine for adults, he was sharing his personal opinion as a physician.  Currently, the Northam administration has taken no official policy position on whether or not a COVID-19 vaccine for adults should be mandatory. VDH regrets this error.”

VDH Spokesperson Maria Reppas

Virginia Health Commissioner says he’ll mandate a COVID-19 vaccine

When asked why the Administration isn’t embracing the stance of its top health official, Gov. Northam’s spokesperson Alena Yarmosky said in a statement, “We are focused on accessibility, affordability, and fair distribution of a vaccine—not on a mandate.”

“When a vaccine becomes available, we’re confident that Virginians will seek it out. That’s why we don’t have plans for a mandate,” Yarmosky continued in a separate email.

Yarmosky didn’t immediately respond to a follow-up question clarifying if the Administration is ruling out the possibility of a vaccine requirement entirely, even in the case that herd immunity cannot be achieved through voluntary compliance.

It also remains unclear if Dr. Oliver would need the approval of Gov. Northam to act under state law, though he is a political appointee of the Governor.

Yarmosky said discussions surrounding the roll out of a vaccine in Virginia are still in the early phases. She said the Administration is engaging a large group of health professionals at all levels of government to decide where initial doses should go.

“The whole world wants a vaccine to help put this virus behind us, as we’ve done for everything from measles to polio,” Yarmosky said.

University of Virginia Professor of Law and Biomedical Ethics Lois Shepherd said, if the state of Virginia were to mandate an FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccine, it would likely be upheld.

Shepherd cited a U.S. Supreme Court decision from 1905.  The court ruled Massachusetts had the authority to fine people who refused vaccinations for smallpox.

“The government has broad powers in a public health emergency so that is the key here… would a mandatory vaccine be a reasonable measure to protect the public’s health?” Shepherd said.

Shepherd said that a medical exemption would have to be included for a requirement to be constitutional. She said the courts would also evaluate if the government is using the ‘least restrictive means’ to enforce a mandate, meaning jail time would be a unlikely punishment.

“If there were a mandatory vaccine, that doesn’t mean people would be held down kicking and screaming,” Shepherd said. “It means that there would be some kind of penalty for not getting a vaccine.”

Shepherd said that penalty is more likely to be a monetary fine or restrictions on access to places like schools.

Republican Del. Dave LaRock is introducing one of at least two bills being considered in the ongoing special session that would allow people with a religious opposition to opt-out of an otherwise required mandate. If the bill becomes law, it would strike several sections of Virginia Code that remove religious exemptions in an ’emergency or epidemic of disease’ that has been declared by the Board of Health.

This language appears in sections referring to attendance at:

  • Public institutions of higher education
  • Public or private elementary schools
  • Middle or secondary schools
  • Child care centers
  • Nursery schools
  • Family day care homes
  • Developmental centers

Shepherd said a mandate that didn’t include a religious exemption would not be unconstitutional .

“There is religious freedom in the United States but the law would be applied equally to everyone regardless of their religion. So it [a mandate] wouldn’t be singling out a religion to discriminate against people’s exercise of that religion,” she said.

Del. LaRock’s bill and another being proposed by Republican Del. Mark Cole are being considered by the House Committee on Health, Welfare and Institutions on Tuesday morning. The public cannot participate in-person but people can sign up to speak virtually.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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