In a decision published Monday, the agency said it lacked “clear legal authority” to mandate the shots for employees. According to state law, the department does have the option to add new vaccine requirements for students, but pointed out that federal health authorities have yet to add the COVID-19 vaccine to the childhood immunization schedule.
“While it is recommended, it has not yet been formally added,” said Dr. Laurie Forlano, VDH’s deputy health commissioner, in a phone call on Monday. “And that’s the big reason for our decision.”
but in the midst of ongoing national debates despite vaccine mandates, the public petition was a largely unprecedented way for concerned parents to make their case. Historically, the General Assembly has updated the vaccination requirements for schools in Virginia through legislation. A bill from 2020, however, added new immunizations to the program and included language that allows the state board of health to expedite changes or additions.
State law also requires agencies to consider any public petition for regulatory action, said Joseph Hilbert, VDH’s Deputy Commissioner for Government and Regulatory Affairs. Coupled with the agency’s recently expanded powers, the process opens up the possibility of changing school vaccine requirements through regulatory action rather than legislation.
The petition, filed in September, specifically called on the Department of Health to make vaccines mandatory for school staff and eligible students, now including all children. 5 years and older. The petitioner, listed online as Kristen Calleja, also requested that the state allow only medical exceptions to the regulation.
“My daughter and all other students should have the right to go to school without being unnecessarily endangered by other students and teachers who refuse to be vaccinated,” Calleja wrote, adding that “the irrational minority is the public should not dictate health policies to Virginia or its schools.”
The petition broke records for VDH’s typically sleepy regulatory process, garnering 11,718 unique responses online. The vast majority — nearly 95 percent, according to the agency — opposed a possible mandate, with more than 6,000 Virginians urging the department to voluntarily keep school vaccines. But more than 600 residents supported demanding the shots for both students and school staff.
The ministry does not have the power to lift religious exceptions to compulsory school vaccinations, it stressed in its decision. While pediatric cases of COVID-19 have been a growing concern since the fall, when the emergence of the delta variant led to a sharp spike in cases, the success of school-based mandates has been mixed. The City of Richmond recently back on a decision to take disciplinary action against school workers who refused the vaccine, fearing it would increase job opportunities across the division.
Currently, COVID-19 and the flu are the only illnesses for which vaccinations are recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but are not required for school attendance in Virginia. Forlano said the flu vaccine is largely unnecessary for logistical reasons, including the fact that the formulation changes every year and is often not released until after the start of the school year.
“For something like measles, you get the series when you’re a little kid and that’s that,” she said. “It’s not an ongoing thing, which can get quite administratively and financially complicated for school districts.”
While the same isn’t currently true for the COVID-19 vaccine, it’s possible that the same logistical hurdles may crop up. Several vaccine manufacturers have introduced plans for annual boosters, even if it’s not clear whether they will be needed (even with some degree of waning immunity against individual infections, data suggests the shots remain highly effective against hospitalization and death).
“That’s hard to say,” Forlano said. “There could probably be similarities between the two vaccines, but nobody knows for sure.”