NORFOLK — On Thursday, Oct. 14, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Congressman Bobby Scott (D-Va. 3rd District) met with local military and civilian leaders to discuss the vaccination status of service members, as well as federal employees and contractors.
The conference comes on the heels of a recently published report stating that, despite federal and Department of Defense mandates, hundreds of thousands of troops (including active duty, reserve units and National Guard) have yet to receive one of three available COVID-19 vaccinations.
In a roundtable discussion, Sen. Warner and Rep. Scott engaged with leaders from the military, federal, local government and civilian sector to discuss any possible challenges they are facing with enforcing vaccine mandates as well as the current status of each individual’s sector.
As the conference began, Sen. Warner expressed concern over the current overall status of vaccinations in the United States. He referenced his own daughter’s recent wedding, in which guests were required to be vaccinated, and how a handful of family members would not attend as a result of not wanting to get a COVID-19 vaccine. He expressed concern as to how far personal liberties (as in whether or not to get vaccinated) should stretch when it is in contrary to scientific evidence as to the efficacy of the vaccine, and, thus, putting others in harm’s way.
Representatives from Newport News Shipbuilding, the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, and Air Force, the VA Hospital in Hampton, and other entities each took turns briefing the senator and congressman on the status of their individual sectors.
Capt. John Hewitt of the U.S. Navy Mid-Atlantic Region relayed that the guidance is clear: service members who do not have a medical or religious exemption and are not vaccinated will have to contend with the military justice system.
Col. Ann Marie McCain of the 633d Medical Group, based out of Joint Base Langley-Eustis, said that when service members seek a medical exemption, they are given the ability to receive council from a medical provider at the hospital. She also noted, though Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended the vaccine for pregnant women, the Department of Defense (DOD) still allows pregnancy to be considered as a medical exemption to the COVID-19 vaccine.
However, the overall consensus from the representatives of the U.S. military was that the service members they have engaged with were receptive to receiving the vaccine.
Dr. Johnny Garcia represented as both a defense contractor and business owner for SimlS, Inc. He explained that he is requiring unvaccinated employees to get tested every three days at their own expense. He stated that this decision was based on that if the employee chooses not to get a vaccine, they should cover the cost of testing.
Unvaccinated employees would not be allowed to reenter the facility until they receive test results. He explained that while the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) made it easy for Virginians to receive vaccinations, the like did not apply to COVID-19 testing.
Speaking further, Dr. Garcia discussed the difficulties of obtaining vaccines for underserved communities and immigrant populations (including undocumented workers). He expressed how initially there was not clear guidance relayed in native languages, including Spanish, and that the underwhelming education regarding COVID-19 and the efficacy of vaccinations has possibly contributed to the disparage in vaccination rates in these populations versus other communities.
Additionally, Dr. Garcia noted that he has seen the most resistance for getting the vaccine from the younger population.
Stuart Henderson of Jefferson Lab in Newport News stated that, as of the Oct. 14 meeting, 85 percent of its workforce is considered fully vaccinated. He said that remote work has been difficult on the mission of the Lab and that its employees were, “ready to get back to the business of scientific discovery [in person].”
When asked about what employers (such as Newport News Shipbuilding) should do with so many workers not allowed to come back to work or quitting their jobs, causing an undue burden upon these businesses, Sen. Warner referenced the inability for other workers to return to their positions or feel safe in their work environment due to the lack of vaccinations among their coworkers.
The “takeaways” from the conference include that there needs to be a greater emphasis on educating the population as a whole as to the benefits of vaccines, that not enough attention has been paid to disseminating vaccines to underserved populations, that the military representatives present noted how the local contingencies of their respective branch have been mostly receptive to getting the COVID-19 vaccine, and that there are avenues in which to enforce government employees and service members to be compelled to become fully vaccinated.
When WYDaily pivoted the conversation and asked Sen. Warner his thoughts regarding the low number of eligible public school students considered “fully vaccinated” (with Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools reporting that, on Oct. 14, it was just over 36 percent), he stated that the disparage could be attributed to the only recent ability to receive the vaccine for children ages 12-17 and that he hoped parents would “do the right thing.”
Click through the gallery below to see more images from the conference.