RICHMOND — Virginia will not require people who live in areas where COVID-19 is surging to wear masks inside indoor public spaces, declining to make the latest guidance from federal officials a requirement.
Gov. Ralph Northam — facing a rise in new COVID-19 cases and stalled vaccinations — urged Virginians to get vaccinated to bring the pandemic to an end, but conceded masks also could help prevent further spread amid the circumstances.
“All Virginians should consider wearing a mask in public indoor settings where there is increased risk of COVID-19 transmission, as the new [Centers for Disease Control] guidance recommends,” Northam tweeted.
“This is not a requirement, but a recommendation.”
Virginia on Thursday reported 1,100 new cases of COVID-19, compared with just 165 cases per month prior. The state’s positivity rate, the share of people testing positive among everyone tested, is 4.8% — a significant surge compared with the 1.7% rate one month ago.
Health experts have chalked up the sudden surge in cases nationwide to the delta variant, a highly infectious form of the COVID-19 virus. Federal officials said Tuesday new evidence suggested vaccinated people infected with the delta variant — a tiny fraction of cases — still could infect others.
The CDC on Tuesday walked back earlier guidance that said vaccinated Americans could opt out of wearing masks in most settings. Now, the CDC says even those who are vaccinated should resume wearing masks inside indoor public spaces if their localities are reporting more than 50 new infections per 100,000 residents during the past seven days, or if the seven-day positivity rate is higher than 8%.
That includes most localities in the state, according to the CDC’s COVID-19 data tracker.
The CDC urged local and state health officials to examine its figures weekly and adjust local restrictions accordingly.
The Northam administration, which controls public restrictions in the state, has declined to impose new requirements on Virginians, and will instead encourage people broadly to wear masks indoors.
A Northam administration official said the CDC’s new guidance would be confusing and practically impossible to enforce. The fast-changing local COVID-19 data could leave local health officials and businesses operating under new rules from one week to the next, and under different rules from one local county line to another.
The official said the governor aimed to keep public guidance as simple as possible, with heavy emphasis on the need for people to get vaccinated.
About 54% of all Virginians are fully vaccinated, while about 60% have received at least one dose. Those figures have held steady for weeks, as the state struggles to vaccinate more Virginians — a mix of access issues and hesitancy.
Federal officials have begun a more forceful push for vaccinations. President Joe Biden on Thursday said he would require federal workers, including contractors, to get the COVID-19 vaccine or face strict workplace restrictions — such as weekly testing, a mask requirement and a ban on work-related travel.
California implemented a similar requirement for state workers that also included health care personnel.
In Virginia, state officials so far have declined such a requirement, although the state’s most populous locality, Fairfax County, issued a vaccination requirement for its county workers.
LeadingAge Virginia, which represents nonprofit nursing homes, on Thursday urged Northam to require vaccines for workers in long-term care facilities and other health care settings.
“The COVID-19 vaccine is the most effective tool to protect individuals from the virus, and it must be a condition of employment for all health care workers, including employees, contract staff, and others,” said Melissa Andrews, the president and CEO of LeadingAge Virginia.
Northam spokesperson Alena Yarmosky said the state is not moving toward such a requirement.
“We have no plans at this time, though we continue to evaluate a variety of options to increase vaccination rates among Virginians,” Yarmosky said.
“We have no plans at this time, though we continue to evaluate a variety of options to increase vaccination rates among Virginians.”
— Alena Yarmosky, Gov. Ralph Northam spokesperson