The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Virginia was winning the fight against the pandemic. Youngkin’s rhetoric threatens that progress.

Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin (R). (Steve Helber/AP)

The governor-elect of Virginia, Republican Glenn Youngkin, has been vaccinated and boosted, and he urges others to do the same. He undercuts that message with his actions.

Last week, Mr. Youngkin and the state’s attorney general-elect, Republican Jason Miyares, who take office Saturday, announced Virginia will join the legal challenges to the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates “to protect Virginians’ freedoms.” They did so even as the coronavirus pandemic drove hospital admissions so high that the current governor, Democrat Ralph Northam, declared a 30-day state of emergency on Monday.

The Supreme Court may soon rule on the very mandates Mr. Youngkin opposes. But the issue raised by the governor-elect is about messaging. By attacking vaccine mandates at this critical time, Mr. Youngkin threatens to reverse the gains against the pandemic in Virginia, which has one of the nation’s highest vaccination rates, and, consequently, one of the lowest per capita death rates from covid-19.

It’s no coincidence that counties that voted heavily for Donald Trump, who has also opposed vaccine mandates, suffer far worse covid-19 death rates than counties that supported Joe Biden. An analysis by NPR showed that covid-19 deaths per capita since May 2021, when vaccines became widely available, are nearly three times higher in counties where Mr. Trump won 60 percent or more of the vote than in counties won by Mr. Biden.

Mr. Youngkin has supported vaccinations as key to combating the coronavirus. But his framing has rendered his own vaccine advocacy toothless. The vaccine is a “critical tool,” the two Republicans said in a statement, but they believe “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.”

That rhetoric will only encourage anti-vaxxers to continue resisting the best anti-covid weapon science has devised.

Here’s a question for the governor-elect: Since when have “Virginians’ freedoms,” which he said should trump vaccine mandates, given license to endanger the lives of others in a pandemic that will likely have taken the lives of some 1 million Americans by the time Mr. Youngkin’s first year in office is finished?

Here’s another: Will Mr. Youngkin, once in office, also oppose the state’s own vaccine mandates for children and teenagers attending schools in Virginia? Included here: shots for diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis; the meningococcal conjugate vaccine; the human papillomavirus vaccine; the hepatitis B vaccine; the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine; the haemophilus influenzae type B vaccine; the pneumococcal vaccine; the rotavirus vaccine; the polio vaccine; the varicella vaccine; and the hepatitis A vaccine. By Mr. Youngkin’s reasoning, shouldn’t those public health interventions also be left up to individual Virginians?

Perhaps the greater peril posed by his messaging is that it will subvert Virginia’s fight against the pandemic, led by Mr. Northam, who favors vaccine mandates. Just nine states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia have lower covid-19 per capita death rates than the commonwealth, and in only eight states is a greater percentage of the population fully vaccinated.

Mr. Northam’s policy has saved lives. Mr. Youngkin’s is likely to do the opposite.

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Editorials represent the views of The Washington Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Editorial Page Editor David Shipley, Deputy Editorial Page Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (elections, the White House, Congress, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Jonathan Capehart (national politics); Lee Hockstader (immigration; issues affecting Virginia and Maryland); David E. Hoffman (global public health); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).