• 66°

Governor mandates vaccines for state employees, masking in schools

All state employees must be vaccinated by Sept. 1 or face weekly COVID-19 testing.

Gov. Ralph Northam announced the measure Wednesday that affects the roughly 122,000 state employees amid rising case counts as the more transmissible and potent Delta variant has spread around the state over the past two weeks.

Northam said the only way to beat the virus is through vaccination, and he strongly encouraged local governments and businesses to enact a similar vaccine mandate to the one he announced.

“There’s no reason why we need to see more suffering and sickness,” Northam said.

Isle of Wight County Administrator Randy Keaton said about 41% of the county’s 414 employees have been fully vaccinated, though he expects that number to rise since others have submitted proof of vaccination.

The county board of supervisors opted during an Aug. 5 work session to defer a decision on a vaccine mandate for employees until after Western Tidewater Health District Director Dr. Todd Wagner or another COVID-19 expert can brief the board at its next meeting.

Keaton told the board that “it is allowable” for local governments to mandate vaccines for their employees. He said vaccines are “the only way to get a hold” of the coronavirus pandemic.

“There, of course, will be religious and medical exemptions,” Keaton said, referencing the governor’s announcement. “But my understanding from some communities are even if you have one of those exemptions, you would be subject to weekly testing.”

Windsor District Supervisor Joel Acree suggested the county offer some form of incentive rather than imposing a mandate.

“I’m just trying to be positive as opposed to mandating,” Acree said. “I hate the government mandating anything for American citizens, even, unfortunately, something like this. “We talk about people’s rights to do what they want to with their body during an election every four years, and then here you go, and then all of a sudden it’s different.”

Keaton said county employees currently need to either provide proof of receiving the COVID-19 vaccine or wear a mask when at work. That requirement, he said, was put in place two weeks ago.

Smithfield’s Town Council voted at its Aug. 3 meeting to mandate masks for town employees regardless of vaccination status, Keaton told supervisors, and it will offer a $100 incentive for any employee who gets vaccinated. Town employees who have already been vaccinated can also claim the incentive.

Franklin City Manager Amanda Jarratt, in an email, said “we are taking the governor’s recommendations under consideration and will make a decision in (the) coming days.”

Southampton County administrator Mike Johnson said “revisions to personnel policies are subject to review and approval by the Board of Supervisors,” which isn’t scheduled to meet until Aug. 24.

In Suffolk, city spokesman Tim Kelley said “the city continues to evaluate all our options in responding to the increase in COVID-19 cases.”

Northam also announced that students and staff at K-12 schools would have to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status, aligning the state department of health with recently-announced Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

Northam said a new law passed by the General Assembly requires schools to be open five days per week and follow CDC virus mitigation guidelines, which now includes universal mask-wearing in schools.

“I expect school divisions to follow it,” Northam said. “If they choose not to follow it, they should have a frank discussion with their legal counsel.”

Northam’s announcements also come as the Virginia Department of Health announced earlier in the day the death of a child 10 to 19 years old in the Eastern Region, which includes all of the Western Tidewater Health District as well as Hampton Roads, the Peninsula, and Virginia’s Eastern Shore. No additional details on where the child lived, his or her illness or whether he or she had any underlying conditions were revealed, in order to protect the privacy of the family.

It was the sixth death of a child 10-19 from COVID-19 in the state, while two children from age 0-9 have died of COVID-19 in Virginia.

“The end of the virus seemed in reach … but now we’re on a different trajectory,” Northam said.

President Joe Biden last week announced that all federal workers will have to be vaccinated.

Northam said the state is in a better place than at the winter peak of the coronavirus pandemic due to the number of people getting vaccinated, as 73% of adults have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 54% fully vaccinated.

However, case counts and the 7-day COVID-19 positivity rate have been on the rise in recent weeks.

The 7-day COVID-19 positivity rate is 14.18% in Franklin, 13.36% in Isle of Wight, 12.99% in Suffolk, but just 1.37% in Southampton County. Suffolk has seen two of its highest one-day case count totals in the past week, with 44 cases Aug. 4 and 33 Aug. 5, both representing the city’s highest one-day total since Feb. 25, when there were 39 cases. In Isle of Wight, there were 17 cases Aug. 3, 15 more Aug. 4 and another 13 Aug. 5. The county has not had as many cases in one day since April 16, when it had 18.

“The only way to end this pandemic is for everyone to get vaccinated against COVID-19,” Northam said. “As head of state government, we have a responsibility to lead by example and ensure the safety of our employees and the people they serve.

“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.”