RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- The COVID-19 vaccine will not be added to Virginia’s list of required school immunizations in the immediate future but it could happen down the road depending on the actions of lawmakers and state regulators, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
Earlier this week, an advisory committee to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention voted unanimously to add the COVID-19 vaccine to the 2023 childhood and adult immunization schedules.
A press release emphasized that the CDC only makes recommendations whereas school-entry vaccination requirements are determined by state or local jurisdictions.
Governor Glenn Youngkin has been a vocal opponent of COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
In a Tweet on Thursday night, Youngkin said, “COVID-19 mandates should be in our rear view mirror. The decision to vaccinate a child against COVID-19 is for Virginia parents to make about what’s best for them and their family. We will not adhere to these @CDCgov mandates. In Virginia, parents matter.”
Democrats like House Minority Leader Don Scott accused Youngkin of contributing to misinformation to “animate vaccine skeptics” and perpetuate”dangerous falsehoods for political expediency.”
House Speaker Todd Gilbert, a Republican, seemed to contradict Youngkin’s characterization in a statement on Friday morning.
“Parents are rightly concerned about this week’s decision by the CDC, but I can assure Virginians that this action does not make the COVID vaccine mandatory for Virginia’s students,” Gilbert said.
The Virginia Department of Health also clarified in a statement.
“There is no direct, immediate impact on COVID-19 vaccine being added to the Immunization Schedule on school required vaccines in Virginia,” VDH said.
Youngkin declined an interview request on Friday.
VDH said, for a requirement to happen, the General Assembly would need to pass legislation or the state Board of Health would need update the rules, which would require a Notice of Intended Regulatory Action and a 60-day public comment period.
Gilbert said a mandate through the General Assembly “will not happen while I am Speaker.” Republicans currently control the House of Delegates and Democrats have a majority in the state Senate.
Under former Governor Ralph Northam, the General Assembly passed a law changing the process for adding school vaccine requirements.
“The General Assembly members are not in any position to make these recommendations,” Delegate Patrick Hope, who sponsored the 2020 bill, said in a previous interview. “Even though we’ve changed the process, we’ve taken it out of politics and put it into the practitioners’ hands.”
Now, the law says the State Board of Health “shall” make changes “from time to time to maintain conformity with evidence-based, routinely recommended vaccinations for children.” Since it took effect, the state has added several more school vaccine requirements while maintaining religious and medical exemptions.
VDH Spokesperson Logan Anderson said this language “does not obligate the Board of Health to require every vaccine the CDC recommends for school entry in Virginia.”
“This language gives the Board the ability to take actions that make sense for Virginia,” Anderson said in an email.
A spokesperson for Youngkin didn’t directly respond when asked if the governor will try to influence the Board of Health’s decision.
Dr. Sean McKenna, a pediatrician with Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, compared the coronavirus recommendation to the flu vaccine.
“Looking back at the flu vaccine, that has been on there for years and we don’t require that for school attendance although we do highly recommend that everyone get their flu vaccine and everyone get their COVID vaccine,” McKenna said. “Most of us in the clinical space haven’t been thinking of this as some sort of emergency-only vaccine. This is just part of what we do now.”
Late Friday, Attorney General Jason Miyares issued a legal opinion at the request of Governor Youngkin.
“The recent action by the CDC does not change Virginia law on required immunizations for schools and childcare facilities. The CDC cannot force vaccine requirements on Virginia families as a condition of school attendance,” Miyares said in a statement.
VDH said the COVID-19 vaccine will likely not be added to the Vaccines for Children program until it is commercialized. The agency said they have been told that will likely happen in the summer of 2023.
“This is a federal program run by each state, and the direct impact on Virginians is that it will enable children in Virginia, who might not otherwise be vaccinated because of inability to pay, to gain access to COVID-19 vaccinations,” VDH furthered.