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IW to hold off vaccine mandate

Isle of Wight County will hold off enacting a COVID-19 vaccine-or-test requirement for its employees until legal challenges to the Biden administration’s federal mandate are resolved.

President Joe Biden announced in September that private businesses with 100 or more employees would be required, effective Jan. 4, to make their workers show proof of vaccination or be tested weekly for the presence of the coronavirus. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which Biden had tasked with enforcing the mandate, suspended its efforts to do so on Nov. 12 after the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the mandate be halted.

The case that resulted in the pause order originated in October when Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued the Biden administration in federal court, arguing in his complaint that “even one American being forced by their government to receive a vaccine that they do not want out of fear of losing their job is an irreparable injury.”

In August, Gov. Ralph Northam had announced his own vaccine-or-test mandate for all state employees and encouraged Virginia localities to enact similar mandates for their own employees. Isle of Wight’s Board of Supervisors discussed enacting its own mandate in August, and again in September, but tabled the matter both times after a majority of the supervisors expressed resistance.

The issue was back on the board’s agenda on Nov. 18, but was postponed for a third time.

“We had a presentation prepared, but then recent changes this week have altered that,” said County Administrator Randy Keaton.

According to the county’s human resources director, Michelle Clarke, Isle of Wight will “monitor the legal proceedings as they work their way through the court.”

“If by chance we have to draft policies and procedures, we’ll do that and bring it to you at a later date,” she said.

Clarke had reported in September that as of that month, 42%-43% of Isle of Wight’s employees had been vaccinated. According to Assistant County Administrator Don Robertson, by November that figure had increased to roughly 54%.

Board Chairman Dick Grice then asked Keaton to “keep tabs on” the mask mandate for employees and visitors Isle of Wight had reimposed in August in light of a nationwide coronavirus resurgence fueled by the more contagious delta variant.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status, for Americans living in areas of “substantial” or “high” coronavirus transmission. As of the effective date of its August mask mandate, Isle of Wight was in the “high” category, reserved for localities reporting 100 or more cases per 100,000 residents or a positivity rate of 10% or higher. But the county has since dropped to “substantial” transmission, reporting 94 cases per 100,000 and an 8.6% positivity as of Nov. 19, according to CDC data.