Virginians debate whether COVID-19 vaccine should be mandatory

By Will Gonzalez, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Though the federal government is asking states to prepare for the possibility of a COVID-19 vaccine within months, some Virginians differ on whether the vaccine should be mandatory when it becomes available.

Virginia Freedom Keepers, a nonprofit that advocates for medical freedom, gathered in Richmond this week for a “March Against Mandates,” in protest of the statewide mask mandate, as well as a potential vaccine mandate, in response to COVID-19. The Virginia General Assembly is currently holding a special session to discuss the budget, along with COVID-19 and criminal justice reform measures.

Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said in a recent interview with ABC-8 (WRIC-TV), that if he is still Virginia’s acting Health Commissioner when a COVID-19 vaccine is made available, he will make immunization mandatory.

“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,” Oliver said.

Gov. Ralph Northam’s office did not back up the health commissioner’s statement. Northam’s administration told WRIC it had “taken no official policy position on whether or not a COVID-19 vaccine for adults should be mandatory.” Northam’s office did not respond to a request for comment from Capital News Service. According to the Virginia Department of Health press office, when Dr. Oliver spoke in support of a mandate for a future COVID-19 vaccine, he was “sharing his personal opinion as a physician.”

Virginia law currently gives the health commissioner the authority to issue a mandate for a vaccine in the case of an epidemic. The law allows doctors to exempt people from vaccination if their health would be negatively affected. A. E. Dick Howard, a professor of international law at the University of Virginia, says this statute must be read in light of the state constitution, which states the commonwealth’s executive power is vested in the governor, meaning it’s unlikely that Oliver would have the final word.

“This provision is meant to focus both authority and responsibility of the governor. It therefore argues against the splintering of authority in the executive branch,” Howard said in an email.

 The current language exempts those with a note written by a doctor, but two Virginia delegates wanted to exempt people who object to vaccination on religious grounds.

HB 5070, introduced by Del. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun, and HB 5016, introduced by Del. Mark Cole, R-Fredericksburg, have similar wording. The two bills, which were tabled during the special session, would have eliminated the health commissioner’s authority to enforce a vaccination mandate for people who object due to religious beliefs. 

“I am concerned that there is such a rush to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, that normal safety and effectiveness testing may be bypassed, leading to the distribution of a vaccine that has not been fully tested,” Cole said in an email. “Who knows what the health consequences of short-circuiting the process may be?”

LaRock did not respond to a request for comment about his bill. Cole said constituents concerned about a mandatory vaccine asked him to introduce HB 5016, and that “religious beliefs” in the bill incorporates any belief system, including secularism. 

“I am old enough to remember the Swine Flu scare more than 40 years ago. President Ford started a program of public vaccinations to protect people from it,” Cole said. “I received the vaccine when I was in college.” 

In 1976, a swine flu outbreak in New Jersey led President Gerald Ford to issue a nationwide immunization program, according to the Los Angeles Times. Of the 40 million Americans who received the vaccine around 500 are suspected to have contracted Guillain-Barré syndrome, a disorder that damages nerve cells and causes paralysis in some cases.

“No one should be forced to take a vaccine. Every vaccine has some health risks associated with it; they may be relatively minor, but they are there,” Cole said. “Vaccines that have been tested and found to be effective and safe should be offered to the public, and I am confident that most people will take advantage of it, including myself.” 

In 1905, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled states have the authority to regulate for the protection of the public and a community has the right to protect itself against an “epidemic of disease,” regardless of one’s political or religious objections, according to the National Constitution Center. The ruling allowed the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts to fine residents who refused to receive smallpox injections. According to Howard, in the case of a mandatory vaccine, the court ruled that states may create an exemption based on religion but are not obliged to do so.

“Thus, the question of what qualifies as a religious exemption depends on how a statute is drafted and interpreted,” Howard said.