VDH won’t mandate COVID-19 vaccines in schools

Published 11:39 am Thursday, December 16, 2021

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By Kate Masters

Virginia Mercury

A petition to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for school employees and all eligible students failed this week when the Virginia Department of Health opted to take no action on the request.

In a decision posted Monday, the agency stated that it lacked the “clear statutory authority” to mandate the shots for employees. Under state law, the department does have the ability to add new vaccine requirements for students, but pointed out that federal health agencies have yet to add the COVID-19 vaccine to its childhood immunization schedule.

“While recommended, it’s not yet been formally added,” Dr. Laurie Forlano, VDH’s deputy commissioner for population health, said in a phone call on Monday. “And that’s the big reason for our decision.”

Barring federal action, the failed petition likely marks an end to efforts to require the vaccine in Virginia schools. Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin has publicly opposed mandating the shots, even while calling on Virginians to get vaccinated. The same views are largely held by the state’s Republican lawmakers, who now hold a majority in the House of Delegates.

But amid ongoing national debates over vaccine mandates, the public petition was a largely unprecedented way for concerned parents to make their case. Historically, the General Assembly has updated Virginia’s school vaccination requirements through legislation. A 2020 bill, though, added new immunizations to the schedule and included language allowing the state Board of Health to fast-track changes or additions.

State law also requires agencies to consider any public petition for regulatory action, according to Joseph Hilbert, VDH’s deputy commissioner for governmental and regulatory affairs. Combined with the agency’s recently expanded authority, the process opens up the possibility of amending school vaccine requirements through regulatory action rather than through legislation.

The petition broke records for VDH’s typically sleepy regulatory process, accumulating 11,718 unique comments online. The vast majority — nearly 95 percent, according to the agency — were against a potential mandate, with more than 6,000 Virginians urging the department to keep school vaccines voluntary. But more than 600 residents supported requiring the shots for both students and school employees.

The department lacks the authority to remove religious exemptions to required school immunizations, it pointed out in its decision. While pediatric cases of COVID-19 have been a growing concern since the fall, when the rise of the delta variant led to a sharp spike in cases, the success of school-based mandates have been mixed. 

Currently, COVID-19 and the flu are the only diseases with vaccinations recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention but not required for school attendance in Virginia. Forlano said the flu vaccine largely isn’t required for logistical reasons, including the fact that the formulation changes every year and often isn’t released until after the start of the school year.