RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A COVID-19 vaccine mandate is not being ruled out in Virginia but it won’t happen in the near future, if at all. That’s according to the state’s Vaccine Coordinator Dr. Danny Avula, who spoke to 8News via Zoom on Thursday.
In the meantime, Dr. Avula said the use of so-called “vaccine passports” or certifications are a more likely solution for skepticism.
“If our ability to move forward as a society, to open back up businesses, to open back up schools, is contingent on this, then I think we find every way we can to incentivize it and potentially even get to a point where we require it, but I think we’re a long way from that,” Dr. Avula said.
Dr. Avula said a mandate would “probably not” be seriously considered at the state level until the federal government fully approves one of the vaccines. Right now, they’re only authorized for emergency use.
Dr. Avula said a mandate would become more likely if new variants take hold and hesitancy persists.
“If we do have a scenario where we have disease raging, we have new variants and we still have a significant resistant portion of the population, then I think a mandate isn’t out of the question,” Dr. Avula said. “I do see a scenario where, maybe we haven’t gotten to that 75% goal of herd immunity, but case rates are so low that we can feel good and confident about opening back up.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Avula said Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration is weighing the value of “vaccine certifications” to incentive immunizations.
The idea has gotten harsh feedback, notably from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who signed an executive order banning any government entity or private business from using them.
“On one hand, we recognize it could be seen as a requirement that is not welcome by the population and that it is an infringement of individual rights,” Dr. Avula said. “On the other hand, it may allow us to move towards reopening more quickly.”
Dr. Avula said no concrete decisions have been made in Virginia but he noted certifications are already being required for entry into certain events in other states.
Earlier this week, Attorney General Mark Herring released an advisory opinion saying the state’s colleges and universities can require students to get the vaccine before being allowed to attend classes. He also noted that schools should be prepared to make accommodations for religious reasons.
Avula said it’s too soon to say whether the state will mandate the vaccine for entry into public schools, since the shots haven’t been authorized for emergency use in children under 16 yet.
When asked if a mandate is possible for K-12 schools as early as the fall, Dr. Avula said, “I wouldn’t rule it out. I would be surprised if we move in that direction…I think there will be a lot of discussion over the summer.”
Those comments come as vaccine supply is exceeding demand across the Commonwealth, making skepticism the state’s next big challenge. Dr. Avula said that challenge came sooner than he expected.
When Virginia opened up vaccine eligibility to everyone 16 and older on April 18, the expectation was that it could take a few weeks for every adult who wanted one to make an appointment.
“But now, in any part of the state, you should be able to get an appointment within a day or two or in some cases the same day,” Avula said. “We really are in a different phase of this roll out.”