UPDATE 2:23 P.M.: Gov. Ralph Northam will require all state employees in Virginia to get the COVID-19 vaccine and prove it starting Sept. 1. Those who refuse will have to get tested weekly and show negative test results.

Meanwhile, the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) is shifting its mask guidance for PreK-12 schools to align with a recent reversal by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Now, all students and staff are being told to mask up, regardless of vaccination status, though a possible legal gray area is already emerging.

Northam made both announcements at a press conference on Thursday, Aug. 5. It comes as COVID-19 cases are continuing to climb — especially among unvaccinated people — and the delta variant is causing uncertainty in the state’s pandemic response. 

According to the governor’s office, 73 percent of Virginia adults have had their first shot while 54 percent of all Virginians are fully vaccinated against the virus, which is higher than most states.

Officials say the vaccine mandate for Virginia state staff will impact approximately 122,000 employees. The Northam administration estimates just over 70 percent of those employees are already fully vaccinated.

“I am directing this measure to keep state employees safe and to keep the people we serve safe ,” Northam said. “There is no reason we need to see more suffering and sickness.”

Specifically, the requirement will apply to all salaried employees in the executive branch, including state agencies like the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Virginia Employment Commission, the Virginia Department of Transportation, and several others. It also covers certain staff at state universities and colleges, as well as some contractors.

Northam says there will be no medical or religious exemptions since state employees can opt for weekly testing as an alternative to vaccination.

When asked what would happen if a staff member refused both options, Northam said, “I expect our employees of the Commonwealth of Virginia to follow the law…If they choose not to and choose not to get tested, then we will take the next measure but that is something I will discuss with the employee.”

Alena Yarmosky, Northam’s spokesperson, says the requirement will not apply to public school employees — a decision that will be in the hands of localities — nor will it apply to legislative or judicial staff.

While the Northam administration still “has no plans” to mandate the vaccine for the general public, Yarmosky says this decision is meant to set the tone for others.

“I really encourage local governments and private companies to do the same thing,” Northam said.

The move signals a growing shift. Recently, similar vaccine requirements have emerged in other states. In Virginia, some localities have already announced similar measures with exceptions, including Richmond and Fairfax. 

“The only way to end this pandemic is to for everyone to get vaccinated against COVID-19,” said Northam. “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.”

Furthermore, President Joe Biden recently announced a vaccine mandate for all federal employees, though they too will have the option to opt for weekly testing and mandatory masking instead.

On the issue of face coverings in schools, while Northam is not reinstating a mandate through an executive order as he has in the past, he says a new law passed by the General Assembly effectively makes universal mask-wearing in schools a requirement.

The bill, which took effect on July 1, mandates school boards to offer full-time, in-person instruction with certain exceptions. It also requires divisions to provide instruction in a manner that “adheres, to the maximum extent practicable, to any currently applicable mitigation strategies… to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 that have been provided by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” 

“I don’t know that it can be any simpler than that. It is the law of the Commonwealth of Virginia and I expect school districts to follow the law,” Northam said. “If they choose not to follow it, they should have a frank discussion with their legal counsel.” 

Several school districts in Virginia have already announced plans to make mask-wearing optional for everyone.

Republican Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, who sponsored the bill to which Northam is referring, says the governor is misjudging the intent of the law and localities should still have the final say.

“That is an absolutely pivotal difference between the way I lead and the way he leads. I believe in trusting individuals and educating them and mandates me are condescending,” Dunnavant said.

State Superintendent Dr. James Lane said in an interview after the news conference that school districts who don’t comply with the CDC are opening themselves up to lawsuits.

“I think they would face significant legal pressure should there be a situation in a school,” Lane said.

You can watch Northam’s full news conference from Thursday below.

RICHMOND, Va. (WFXR/WRIC/WAVY) — Gov. Ralph Northam is planning to hold a news conference Thursday afternoon to discuss the Commonwealth’s rising coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.

On Thursday, Aug. 5, the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) reported 1,760 new COVID-19 cases — the largest single-day case spike since April 13 — along with 49 new virus-related hospitalizations, five new virus-related deaths, and a positivity rate of 6.8 percent.

However, this data is expected to rise as the delta variant continues to infect communities across the Commonwealth.

Earlier this week, national infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci joined Northam and other Virginia health leaders to discuss the importance of the COVID-19 vaccine and what challenges may lie ahead in the fight against the virus.

Virginia health leaders say one of the biggest hurdles is combating vaccine misinformation.

Since July 5, the VDH says 97.9 percent of new cases, 96.6 percent of new hospitalizations, and 94.7 percent of new deaths are among people who were not fully vaccinated.

Both Northam and Dr. Fauci want people to take this disease seriously and get the vaccine.

“If we get the majority of the people who are unvaccinated, vaccinated we are going to do [really] well,” said Dr. Fauci. “If we don’t succeed in getting the overwhelming majority of the population, we will have [a] smoldering infection that will prevent us from getting back to normal.”

The Commonwealth’s Vaccine Coordinator Dr. Danny Avula said earlier this week that Virginia could see a September or October peak.

In addition, during a briefing on Wednesday, Aug. 4, Dr. Avula hinted that Northam was considering a state vaccine mandate for all state employees. The governor will likely address that in his briefing on Thursday.

You can watch Northam’s news conference live at 2 p.m. on Thursday on-air at WFXR-TV, online here at WFXRtv.com, on the WFXR News Facebook page, or on the WFXR News app.

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