At least one U.S. Virgin Islands government agency says it will follow a sweeping new federal plan to fight COVID-19 that requires teachers and healthcare workers to be vaccinated, among other measures announced Thursday by President Joe Biden.
“We will implement the president’s mandates in line with directives provided by our federal funders. Our team members have been provided with sufficient information about COVID-19 to make informed choices about whether to vaccinate and to accept the potential consequences of their choices,” V.I. Human Services Commissioner Kimberley Causey-Gomez said on Friday.
Among a sprawling list of services, Causey-Gomez’s department is responsible for the territory’s nursing homes and Head Start early education facilities, whose staff will now be required to be vaccinated or face the loss of funding.
Neither Government House nor the V.I. Education Department responded Friday to requests for comment about Biden’s plan and how or if they will implement the measures. The territory’s hospitals already have a vaccine mandate in place, though it is being challenged in V.I. Superior Court.
“We, at the Department of Human Services, are one of the primary safety net agencies of the V.I. government,” Causey-Gomez said. “We provide a wide array of services to our most vulnerable populations from birth to burial and on a daily basis we strive to protect those that may not be in a position to protect themselves.”
Causey-Gomez was in multiple meetings Friday and responded to a request for comment via text message.
“Throughout this COVID pandemic, we have done our best to navigate the challenges presented by personal choice versus communal responsibilities as it relates to the safety of our staff and our clients, especially our clients in our residential facilities and our littlest people,” Causey-Gomez said.
Under Biden’s mandate, vaccines will be required for workers in most healthcare settings that receive Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement, including hospitals, nursing homes, dialysis facilities, ambulatory surgical settings and home health agencies, including volunteers and staff not involved in direct patient or client care, according to the White House.
The plan also calls on governors to mandate vaccinations for all teachers and school staff. According to the White House, nine states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have such requirements in place for K-12 school staff, including California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, and Washington.
The Biden administration also is calling on all schools to set up regular testing for students, teachers and staff, and has said it will dedicate nearly $2 billion to spend on rapid tests for community health centers and schools.
V.I. Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett said “the wartime spirit and science-based plan reflects the Biden administration’s whole-of-government approach and unwavering commitment to defeat the deadly virus at home and abroad” as cases continue to surge across the nation, thanks to the highly contagious Delta variant and low vaccination rates – particularly in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“I am thankful that we have a president that is keeping his commitment to the American people that he’d do everything in his power to defeat the virus. I am very concerned about my fellow Virgin Islanders however, as recent reports show that the U.S. Virgin Islands has the lowest vaccination rate in the United States and therefore, we now have the highest rate of infection per day, per capita in the United States,” Plaskett said in a statement.
“Why my people cannot see the correlation between the two statistics and how these unfortunate realities are not just hindering our children’s ability to learn and our long-term health outcomes, but also causing actual death is beyond me,” said Plaskett.
“Vaccination is not about your personal right to choose. When we make the choice to live with others in a community, in a society with rules and norms, we must make decisions that support the entire community – vaccination is such a choice,” said Plaskett.
The delegate’s comments came as the V.I. Health Department reported two more COVID-19 deaths on Friday, bringing the total to 65 since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, with half of those occurring since mid-June and the rise of the Delta variant. As of Friday, there were 215 active cases, the vast majority caused by close contact or community transmission. Meanwhile, about 52 percent of the territory’s population is fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is up slightly from recent weeks.
Additionally, the Education Department closed two schools on Wednesday – Ulla F. Muller Elementary on St. Thomas and Pearl B. Larsen Pre-K to 8 School on St. Croix – just one day after they opened to in-person learning, due to COVID-19 infections and exposures.
Republican governors of several states have vowed to fight Biden’s plan in court – to which the president replied on Friday, “Have at it” – and how it will be received or implemented in the U.S. Virgin Islands remains to be seen.
“I do not know of any scientist out there in this field that does not think it makes considerable sense to do the six things I have suggested,” Biden told reporters as he toured a Washington, D.C., school on Friday. The president’s COVID-19 medical advisors include Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith of St. Thomas, who is a professor of medicine and epidemiology at Yale University and leads his health equity task force.
Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. has resisted implementing a vaccine mandate for V.I. government workers, saying he prefers to “incentivize” people to get their shots, including lotteries with prizes up to $100,000 and now $250 payments for latecomers who complete their vaccinations.
Additionally, the territory’s nurses have held protests and taken hospital officials to court in a bid to block a vaccine mandate the V.I. Hospitals and Health Facilities Corporation announced for all hospital workers on Aug. 4. As of Friday, the judge had not issued an order or otherwise ruled in that case, filed Aug. 13 in V.I. Superior Court.
Frederiksted Health Care and the University of the Virgin Islands are the only other institutions in the territory to implement vaccine mandates.
Other aspects of Biden’s plan include:
– Expanding easy-to-use testing production through the Defense Production Act to make tests more affordable, expand free pharmacy testing, and send free rapid tests to food banks and community health centers.
– Expansion of the COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan program so small businesses can borrow as much as $2 million to keep their businesses strong.
– Strengthening the government’s surge response with almost 1,000 personnel already deployed across 18 states and the Department of Defense doubling the number of its teams deployed to support hospitals.
– Increasing the weekly pace of monoclonal antibody shipments.
– Requiring that all federal executive branch workers be vaccinated, including employees of contractors that do business with the federal government. Likewise, employers with 100 or more employees must ensure their workers are vaccinated or tested weekly.
COVID-19 vaccines are free and readily available in the U.S. Virgin Islands. To schedule an appointment, call 340-777-8227 or go online to covid19usvi.com/vaccines. Walk-ins are also accepted at the Health Department’s Community Vaccination Centers.
– St. Croix’s Community Vaccination Center is at the Nissan Center in La Grande Princesse, adjacent to the Honda Dealership and The Paint Shop, on the same side of the street as Food Town.
– On St. Thomas, the Community Vaccination Center is at the Community Health Clinic on the second floor at the Schneider Regional Medical Center.