In a statement to WRIC last week, the Virginia Health Commissioner said that as soon as a healthy and safe vaccine for COVID-19 is available, he would make it mandatory for all Virginians to get the vaccine.
“It is killing people now, we don’t have a treatment for it and if we develop a vaccine that can prevent it from spreading in the community we will save hundreds and hundreds of lives,” said the Commissioner, Dr. Norman Oliver.
Current Virginia state law gives the Commissioner the power to mandate “immediate immunization of all persons in case of an epidemic of any disease of public health importance…”. The only exemption allowed is for physician-verified medical reasons.
House Bill 5016 was recently introduced to the Virginia legislature, seeking to add a religious exemption to the law, a measure which Commissioner Oliver opposes.
The bill was co-sponsored by Republican Delegate Wendell Walker, who represents parts of Lynchburg, Amherst County, and Bedford County.
“While everyone is concerned about COVID-19, we’re also concerned about the impact it can have on people’s lives out here who feel they may not want to take a vaccine,” Walker said. “And there are many of us.”
Virginia Freedom Keepers, a chapter of the 501(c)3 Freedom Keepers United organization, has been heavily advocating for the bill. According to their website, they exist “to raise awareness of current and upcoming legislation regarding medical freedom all across the country…”.
Director of Communications for Virginia Freedom Keepers, Kathleen Medaries, said that beyond being a partisan issue, this mandate is an issue of individual freedom: “This is not a Republican or Democrat issue. It’s not a pro-vaccine or anti-vaccine issue. For me, it’s an issue of being able to assess each vaccine for myself and my family one at a time.”
“He shouldn’t be the one person to make a decision for all of Virginians,” Medaries said of Oliver.
Despite their efforts, HB 5016 was shut down during a special session this past Tuesday. Legislators hope to re-visit the bill in January.
Shortly following Oliver’s comments, Governor Northam distanced himself from the mandate, announcing that his administration has not made an official policy as of yet.
“We are focused on accessibility, affordability, and fair distribution of a vaccine – not on a mandate,” said Northam’s spokesperson Alena Yarmosky.
Rather, Northam’s administration is confident in the citizens of Virginia to voluntarily get vaccinated without a mandate once a vaccine is made available.