Democrat Terry McAuliffe urged all Virginia employers on Monday to require the COVID-19 vaccine for their workers who are eligible, sharpening a policy debate in the closely watched governor's race over how best to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
McAuliffe's call followed a decision by federal regulators to give full approval to Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine and marked an escalation of his advocacy for obligatory vaccines as a condition of employment. The former governor now seeking a second term has previously urged Virginia health systems and school divisions to issue mandates, and required his own campaign staff to be fully vaccinated.
“I have long said that the best way to defeat this deadly virus, keep our students in school and keep Virginia’s economy strong is by getting every eligible Virginian vaccinated as quickly as possible,” McAuliffe said in a statement.
McAuliffe is facing Republican Glenn Youngkin, a former business executive and political newcomer, in the November general election. Youngkin, who is vaccinated, has consistently urged Virginians to get the shot but has said he opposes vaccine or mask mandates.
At a campaign event last week in southwest Virginia, the former co-CEO of the Carlyle Group was asked about his approach to managing the pandemic, at a time when the contagious delta variant is driving up new cases and hospitalizations.
“First of all, we pray it’s behind us every day,” Youngkin responded. “My expectation is, this virus is tough. And so first thing that I would ask everybody to do is get the vaccine."
He said in a statement Monday that McAuliffe's announcement was an attempt to “bully” Virginians and businesses into compliance and a step that will “clearly evolve into closing down businesses and locking down Virginia again.”
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Both candidates' have become increasingly focused on the pandemic this month, each launching recent ads dealing with the subject.
In one ad released last week, Youngkin spoke on camera, saying that data clearly show that COVID-19 vaccines save lives.
“It’s your right to make your own choice, and I respect that. I do hope you’ll choose to join me in getting the vaccine,” he said in the ad.
A McAuliffe ad, meanwhile, went after Youngkin for supportive comments he made about the leadership of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a state that has recently accounted for about one in five COVID patients hospitalized nationwide.
Bob Holsworth, a longtime analyst of Virginia politics, said McAuliffe’s announcement Monday draws a “bright line” between the Democrat and Youngkin that will become a distinguishing feature of the campaign moving forward.
“Virginia will become a test case of the politics of employer mandates,” he said.
Recent polling conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found majorities support certain measures intended to slow the spread of the virus, including school mask mandates and vaccine mandates for certain workers and activities.
The Food and Drug Administration's full approval of the vaccine came Monday after more than 200 million Pfizer doses already have been administered in the U.S. — and hundreds of millions more worldwide — since emergency use began in December. The FDA has never before had so much evidence to judge a shot’s safety.
The Pentagon immediately announced it would require members of the military to get vaccinated as the U.S., and the FDA's action was expected to open the door to other new mandates.
Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who is term-limited, announced earlier this month that state workers will have to be vaccinated or face regular testing for COVID-19 starting Sept. 1.
Virginia recorded about 345 new cases per 100,000 people over the past two weeks, ranking 33rd in the country for new cases per capita, according to an AP analysis of data from Johns Hopkins University. One in every 524 people in the commonwealth tested positive in the past week.
About 56.3% of the population is fully vaccinated, according to that data.