Virginia is not among the states worst-hit by the pandemic’s delta variant-fueled resurgence, but it’s bad enough. The commonwealth’s average daily new covid-19 case count, about 2,200 and rising fast, is higher than it’s been since February; hospitalizations, as well as the number of patients so sick they are admitted to intensive care units, are roughly six times higher than they were at the start of July.

But the spikes in infections and serious illness aren’t what seem to be bothering Glenn Youngkin, Virginia’s Republican candidate for governor. Rather, he says he’s “frustrated” that many of the state’s colleges and universities are requiring that students be vaccinated before returning to campus. He’s perfected the art of vaccine doublespeak, at once urging “everyone to get the vaccine” and, practically in the same breath, encouraging students to fill out an exemption form if they prefer to dodge it “for any reason.”

By contrast, Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate who is running to reclaim his old job, has unambiguously favored vaccines and, for that matter, masks. “You’ve got to make life more difficult for the unvaccinated,” he told us. He supports Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D) requirement that the state’s roughly 122,000 employees get vaccinated or, if they refuse, submit to weekly testing. And when the FDA on Monday granted full approval for the Pfizer shot, Mr. McAuliffe called on all employers in the state to mandate the vaccine. He favors the same for state workers — with no testing opt-out, except for genuine health or religious reasons.

Mr. McAuliffe’s position conforms to the advice of public health experts; Mr. Youngkin’s offers a justification to avoid it. On the subject of those who would refuse the vaccine, on any grounds, Mr. Youngkin said in June, “We should allow them to express their own liberty in doing that.”

The problem with Mr. Youngkin’s vaccine peregrinations is that the “liberty” to which he refers is often justified by false rumors, disinformation and lies, much of it rampant on the Internet. A third of Virginia adults have not been fully vaccinated — some owing to inertia or procrastination, but many others on the basis of false information. Mr. Youngkin’s mealy-mouthed pronouncements lend those citizens convenient cover.

Both candidates are fully vaccinated. They surely know that the vaccines are safe, effective and critical to the state’s, and the nation’s, economic recovery. Mr. McAuliffe has said that, clearly. That’s leadership. Mr. Youngkin’s rhetoric is the opposite. Mr. Youngkin’s stance suggests that if he wins in November and exercises his bully pulpit powers on the subject, Virginians’ uptake of the vaccine might eventually drop in the national rankings — with the predictable fallout in avoidable illness, misery and death.