RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Virginians can expect a shift in vaccine and mask mandates once Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin is sworn in.
After his inaugural ceremony on Jan. 15, Youngkin said he will not mandate masks and vaccines but–unlike some Republican governors–he will not attempt to block localities from implementing their own requirements.
“Localities are going to have to make decisions the way the law works and that is going to be up to individual decisions but, again, from the governor’s office, you won’t see mandates from me,” Youngkin clarified in a one-on-one interview over the weekend.
Those comments come a few days after a federal judge ruled that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order prohibiting localities from requiring masks in schools violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by putting students with underlying conditions at risk and hindering their access to in-person instruction. The judge is now barring that order from being enforced.
Despite being described as an “anti-vaxxer” by critics on the campaign trail, Youngkin called himself a “staunch supporter” of the vaccine.
“My family has gotten it. I’ve gotten it. I think it’s the best way for people to protect themselves,” Youngkin said.
To date, Gov. Ralph Northam has mandated vaccinations or weekly testing for state employees. Although he supports requirements from the private sector and local governments, Northam has stopped short of ordering vaccine mandates for teachers and healthcare workers at the state level as some other Democratic governors have.
Instead, Northam has been waiting on federal guidance before implementing a vaccine mandate for educators and large businesses.
Alena Yarmosky, Northam’s spokesperson, has previously noted that Virginia is one of 26 states in which K-12 personnel will likely fall under President Joe Biden’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rule mandating vaccines or testing for all employers with 100 or more employees.
The future of that plan is currently in flux after a three-judge panel in a federal appeals court halted implementation of the policy scheduled to take effect Jan. 4. On Friday, the court said the mandate “grossly exceeds OSHA’s statutory authority.”
Many Republican governors have joined calls to challenge Biden’s plan. When asked if he would do the same during a gubernatorial debate, Youngkin said, “I don’t believe that President Biden has the authority to dictate to everyone that we have to take the vaccine.”
Northam’s office declined to comment on whether the election results and court challenges have changed their plans for implementing additional vaccine mandates during the remainder of his term.
Virginia’s Vaccine Coordinator Dr. Danny Avula said, although Youngkin is planning to reverse course, he thinks the limited requirements that are already in place have been effective at increasing immunity.
“I’m not concerned that this will be a step back if we choose to not go the mandated route. I think by and large the requirements have gotten a significant amount of Virginians vaccinated,” Avula said in an interview on Monday.
Avula said he has yet to have a conversation with Youngkin about whether he will continue his role in the new administration.
As for whether Northam may lift school mask mandates before Inauguration Day, Avula said it hasn’t been a conversation at the state level yet as far as he knows. Northam’s office declined to say if they’re considering it now that children ages 5 to 11 are eligible for the shots but Avula expects they’ll continue to follow the CDC’s lead.
“These decisions on whether to require or not or whether to encourage or not are so contextual based on how much disease is currently circulating, what the vaccine coverage is in the community and really, the most important outcome we have to look at, is this causing severe disease,” Avula added.
Despite Youngkin’s general opposition to mandating coronavirus vaccines, he may not have a direct say in that decision when it comes to K-12 students.
That policy would be recommended by the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices and then adopted by the State Board of Health following a 60 day public comment period, according to Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington).
Before COVID-19 was first detected in Virginia, Hope sponsored a bill to remove the General Assembly from the process of adding school vaccine requirements. Hope said his goal was to take politics out of these decisions.