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The Virginia Department of Health won’t mandate COVID-19 vaccines in schools

The agency took no action on a petition to require the shots
An employee of Neighborhood Health, which provides primary care services through multiple...
An employee of Neighborhood Health, which provides primary care services through multiple health clinics in Fairfax County, administers a COVID-19 vaccine to a pediatric patient.(Courtesy of Neighborhood Health)
Published: Dec. 7, 2021 at 9:05 AM EST
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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, filed in September, specifically called on the state Department of Health to mandate vaccines for school employees and eligible students, who now include all children aged 5 and older. The petitioner, listed online as Kristen Calleja, also asked the state to allow only medical exemptions to the regulation.

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.(Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.

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