The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republican candidate’s vaccination status becomes a target in Virginia lieutenant governor’s race

Virginia lieutenant governor candidates Democrat Hala S. Ayala, left, and Republican Winsome E. Sears. (Eric Lee for The Washington Post and Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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Virginia Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Hala S. Ayala attacked her Republican opponent Winsome E. Sears Thursday over Sears’s refusal to say whether she has received a coronavirus vaccine — pushing an issue that has resonated with voters as the coronavirus pandemic enters its 20th month.

Ayala, a state delegate representing Prince William County, questioned Sears’s ability to serve in the state’s second-highest office, saying Virginians have a right to know that elected leaders consider their health a high priority during a pandemic that, as of Thursday, has led to more than 13,000 covid-19 deaths in the state.

“Real leadership is about leading by example,” Ayala, who has been vaccinated, said in a statement. “Real leadership is not being evasive and hiding from Virginians at a time when they need to hear from you most.”

Sears, a former state delegate in Norfolk, has repeatedly refused to say publicly whether she has gotten a coronavirus vaccination. She did not respond to requests for comment from The Washington Post, but she told CNN that she considers that information to be private.

In a social media post Thursday, Sears repeated that stance, saying that while she encourages everyone to get vaccinated, “no one should be forced to disclose their vaccination status.”

Like Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin, Sears has said she is against imposing vaccine mandates such as the policy Gov. Ralph Northam (D) implemented requiring state employees to show proof they’re fully vaccinated or submit to coronavirus testing every week.

But Youngkin has been public about receiving a coronavirus vaccine while also encouraging others to get immunized. Sears — who has also opposed mask mandates — has been less open about the issue, at times appearing at crowded indoor campaign events without a face covering, despite a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation for masks to continue be worn inside in areas of substantial or high disease transmission.

A Post-Schar School poll last month found that vaccine mandates are popular with Virginia voters — although that support is sharply divided by party. Democrats heavily favor mandates for schools and businesses, as does a small majority of independents. A majority of Republican oppose them.

Ayala and former governor Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic nominee for governor, have seized on the vaccine issue as they seek to counter what political analysts say has been waning Democratic enthusiasm compared with recent elections.

McAuliffe recently launched a campaign, “Virginia is for Vaccine Lovers,” which outlines his plan to get every eligible Virginian vaccinated against the coronavirus. During their debate last month, McAuliffe linked Youngkin’s position on mandates to “anti-vaccine rhetoric” in states such as Florida.

Youngkin maintained that getting vaccinated is a matter of personal choice.

On Thursday, Ayala called the statewide elections “a life or death matter.”

“It’s the deciding factor between whether we move forward and build back better form this pandemic, or if we backslide and the lives and rights of Virginians suffer as a result,” she said at the news conference.

Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, said the Democrats are smart to focus on vaccinations in a state where nearly 61 percent of the population has been fully immunized as of Thursday.

“There are many, many Virginians who have tried to keep themselves, their communities and their families safe by getting vaccinated and following safety protocols,” Farnsworth said. “Those voters are a much bigger bloc than the vaccine resisters or the vaccine deniers.”

Moreover, he said, any candidate bears the responsibility of ensuring that the people they interact with are safe.

“If you want to campaign on Zoom, it doesn't matter,” Farnsworth said. “But if you’re asking people to show up at a rally, those people should know the level of risk they might be taking, or not.”