State mandates COVID-19 vaccinations for state workers; Richmond School Board to follow suit

George Copeland Jr., Ronald E. Carrington and Jeremy M. Lazarus | 8/12/2021, 6 p.m.
First came the universities. Then came the City of Richmond. Then Gov. Ralph S. Northam followed their lead in imposing …
Tracey Avery-Geter, a nurse practitioner supervisor with the Richmond and Henrico health districts, receiving one of the first two vaccinations given in Richmond of the Moderna vaccine on Dec. 23. Administering the shot is Sara Noble, a clinical nurse manager. Health care workers were among the first group of people eligible for the vaccine under state rules. Photo by Regina H. Boone

First came the universities. Then came the City of Richmond. Then Gov. Ralph S. Northam followed their lead in imposing a mandate on most state employees to get vaccinated against coronavirus.

And next Monday, Aug. 16, the Richmond School Board is anticipated to be the first school system in the state to mandate vaccinations for faculty and staff. The new mandate would be on top of a requirement that anyone entering a school building in the city be masked.

Ignoring critics, Mayor Levar M. Stoney called it “the right and proper step at a critical moment” on Aug. 4 when he made Richmond the first jurisdiction in the state to require city employees to be vaccinated.

While most government entities have yet to follow, these initial mandates reflect growing frustration among officials that millions in Virginia and across the country are refusing to join the fight by getting vaccinated as the new delta variant of the virus spreads like chicken pox.

Worries are growing over the increase in new cases and the renewed threat of overcrowding hospitals with unvaccinated people needing ventilators and specialized care.

With colleges and universities set to open in-person classes for the first time in more than a year and public schools to follow, the risk of disease spread are projected to increase.

That risk was highlighted this week at Richmond’s charter elementary school. On Monday, the entire fourth grade at the Patrick Henry School of Science & Arts — 53 students — was sent home to quarantine for 14 days after two classmates tested positive.

Virginia Commonwealth, Virginia State and Virginia Union universities, along with the University of Richmond and other state colleges and universities, have led the way on vaccine mandates. All are requiring faculty, staff and students who want to be in-person to be vaccinated. Most are offering vaccination clinics on their campuses.

VSU also has added a financial incentive. Students with proof of vaccination are to get $500 each, while faculty and staff with proof of inoculation would get $1,000 each.

“Our mandate to require the vaccine is guided by our commitment to the health and wellness of our VSU community,” VSU President Makola M. Abdullah stated in a letter to the campus community explaining the mandate and spelling out the incentive to be awarded to those who have proof of vaccination by Sept. 20.

On the government front, Mayor Stoney, who fully recovered from his own bout with COVID-19, acted after learning that only about 1,800 of the city’s 3,600 full-time employees have been vaccinated.

Under the rules he imposed, employees must have a first shot by Wednesday, Aug. 18, and cannot simply wear masks and get regular tests for the coronavirus to avoid vaccination. Firefighters, police officers, social workers and others are among those under the mandate.

One day later, on Aug. 5, Gov. Northam announced that state employees and state contractors also would need to be vaccinated under a mandate that would become effective Wednesday, Sept 1.

Unlike Richmond, though, the governor would allow employees entering state offices to wear masks and get weekly tests for the virus to avoid the shot.

“The arrival of the delta variant, combined with the number of people who are not vaccinated, is driving our case count back up,” Gov. Northam noted to reporters in announcing the mandate.

“I am directing this measure to keep state employees safe and to keep the people that we serve safe,” he continued. “And I really encourage local governments and private companies to do the same thing.”

The action is directed toward the nearly 30 percent of state employees who have not gotten shots, officials said later. At this point about 73 percent of state employees have been vaccinated, they said, a far higher percentage than is the case in Richmond and other localities.

More than 50 percent of Richmond’s population has had at least one shot, but as of last week, only about 45 percent were fully vaccinated as of Tuesday, the mayor reported this week in pleading again for people to get vaccinated.

Richmond schools Superintendent Jason Kamras also announced on Aug. 5 his decision to seek board approval of a vaccine mandate. In his view, RPS needs “to do everything humanly possible to protect the health and safety of our students and staff” with the start of in-person classes nearing.

State law and state Board of Education regulations require RPS and every public school district to impose vaccine mandates on students for diseases ranging from mumps and measles to meningitis and human papilloma virus.

Still, at least one Richmond School Board member, Jonathan Young, 4th District, is differentiating the coronavirus.

“Vaccinated since I was first afforded the opportunity this spring, I encourage everyone to get the shot, but to adopt a big brother government mandate constitutes a gross abuse of persons’ civil liberties,” Mr. Young stated in spelling out his position

Asked directly, he could not explain why the existing “big brother” approach to other diseases for which students must get vaccines to attend public schools should not apply to the coronavirus.

Board Chair Cheryl L. Burke, 7th District, appears confident that RPS will go beyond a mask mandate to require faculty and staff to be vaccinated. “I am in agreement with keeping our children safe and keeping our faculty and staff safe.”