RICHMOND, Va. — On the same day that Virginia hit a one-day record of COVID-19 hospitalizations since the pandemic began, Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin and Attorney General-elect Jason Miyares announced they'll challenge what they call an "unconstitutional vaccine mandate" imposed by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for most healthcare workers.
In statements to the media just hours apart on Friday afternoon, the Virginia Department of Health released topline statistics outlining the Commonwealth's record case positivity rates and urging unvaccinated Virginians to obtain vaccines, while a release from the Youngkin camp urged an end to the federal vaccine mandate that it claims is contributing to stressed-out hospital systems.
Friday's statewide COVID-19 hospitalization count reached 3,329 - surpassing the previous one-day high of 3,201 hospitalizations, which was reach on Jan. 13, 2021. VDH notes that this is now the fifth surge of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the previous surges occurring in spring 2020, summer 2020, fall and winter 2020-21, and summer 2021.
Hospitals across Virginia are making adjustments such as limiting visitation, postponing non-emergency procedures and adjusting staffing levels.
The health department continues to ask unvaccinated Virginians to get vaccinated and boosted "as a way to reduce their risk of infection and/or serious illness that leads to hospitalization, both for individual, family, and community health and so as not to further strain hospitals and their team members on the frontlines of the pandemic."
"Data continues to show that a majority of patients currently hospitalized for COVID-19 are not fully vaccinated," VDH said on Friday.
While Virginia's hospital issues played out on the state level, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on both the Biden administration's authority to impose a vaccine-or-testing requirement on the nation's large employers and a separate vaccine mandate for most healthcare workers.
The court’s six conservative justices appeared skeptical of the Biden administration's authority to impose a vaccine or test requirement on large employers, seeming to indicate that the administration overstepped its authority.
“This is something the federal government has never done before,” Chief Justice John Roberts said, casting doubt on the administration's argument that a half-century established law, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, confers such broad authority.
Beginning Monday, unvaccinated employees in big companies are supposed to wear masks at work, unless the court blocks enforcement. Testing requirements and potential fines for employers don't kick in until February.
The second regulation at issue is a vaccine mandate that would apply to virtually all healthcare staff in the country. It covers health care providers that receive federal Medicare or Medicaid funding, potentially affecting 76,000 health care facilities as well as home health care providers. The rule has medical and religious exemptions.
The justices signaled a willingness to keep the mandate for health care workers in place, potentially leading to an uphill battle for the incoming administration in Richmond.
"I think certainly, if you can read the room from this morning's arguments, it seems that the justices are inclined to look favorably on the vaccine mandate for health workers," said Sara Rosenbaum, a health care policy and legal expert with the George Washington University.
"There was also an interesting question raised by Justice Kavanaugh during the argument, about whether state governments even have a basis for challenging this rule, because they are not the health care providers."
Youngkin and Miyares on Friday pledged to act quickly to challenge this mandate, saying while the incoming administration believes the vaccine is a crucial tool to fight the pandemic, "we strongly believe that the Federal government cannot impose its will and restrict the freedoms of Americans and that Virginia is at its best when her people are allowed to make the best decisions for their families or businesses."
Youngkin's inauguration is Jan. 15, after which the governor-elect says his administration will move quickly to challenge the mandate, the end of which he believes will remove "some of the staffing barriers to our hospitals" and "provide much needed relief for our overworked medical professionals.”
If the mandate remains in place, the Youngkin administration predicts further employment issues and supply chain bottlenecks as the vaccine mandates "force hardworking Virginians to walk away from their paychecks."
The Virginia Department of Health, meanwhile, cautioned that hospital resources are being stretched to a breaking point.
"As adaptable as hospitals have been, it is important to remember that the health care delivery system does not have unlimited resources; for instance, staffing challenges which pre-dated the pandemic have been magnified due to various factors including staff who are sidelined while isolated/quarantining due to illness or exposure," VDH said.
"The current situation is serious and if things remain on the current trajectory for an extended period ... we could face the possibility of straining the limits of the system’s capacity."