In a bid to counter what some officials have described as a “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” the most populous US state, the country's largest city, and the first federal agency all announced on Monday new vaccine mandates for public employees.
The decisions by officials in California, New York City, and the Department of Veterans Affairs to require vaccines or proof of a negative test come as COVID-19 cases spike again across the nation, fueled by the highly contagious Delta variant, reopened businesses, and continued vaccine hesitancy among a minority of Americans. More than 97% of Americans currently being hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, the CDC recently reported.
In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that starting next month, all state workers, healthcare workers, and those who work in “high-risk congregate settings” will need to show proof of full vaccination or get tested once a week.
“We are now dealing with a pandemic of the unvaccinated, and it’s going to take renewed efforts to protect Californians from the dangerous Delta variant,” Newsom said in a statement.
The move comes after the percentage of people testing positive for COVID-19 in California rose from 0.7% in June to 5.2% as of this week. The positivity rate among unvaccinated people is 600% higher than those who are vaccinated, according to state health officials.
The state is also encouraging local governments and other employers to adopt a similar standard.
One such group, the SF Bar Owner Alliance, announced Monday that as of July 29, it would require proof of vaccination or a negative test in order to enter one of the over 500 establishments it represents in San Francisco.
“This is a responsible decision by the SF Bar Owner Alliance that will help protect employees and customers,” San Francisco Mayor London Breed said in a tweet. “We need everyone to get vaccinated, especially as the Delta variant continues to spread. It's how we can keep our city and our residents safe.”
New York City announced guidelines similar to California's on Monday, requiring about 340,000 city workers to be vaccinated by mid-September or else go through weekly testing.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a virtual press conference that “September is the pivot point of recovery,” when nearly one million students will return to schools.
Unvaccinated city employees will be required to wear a mask indoors and can be removed from their places of work if they refuse to do so.
“This is about our recovery, this is what we need to do to bring back New York,” the mayor told reporters.
The decision affects public employees including teachers, police officers, and other city workers, de Blasio said.
DC 37, New York City’s largest municipal public employee union representing 150,000 members, said some measures would need to be addressed before mandatory testing is instated.
“If City Hall intends to test our members weekly, they must first meet us at the table to bargain,” DC 37 Executive Director Henry Garrido said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “While we encourage everyone to get vaccinated and support measures to ensure our members’ health and wellbeing, weekly testing is clearly subject to mandatory bargaining. New York City is a union town and that cannot be ignored.”
Labor Relations Commissioner Renee Campion said Monday the city has the right as an employer to require employees to comply.
“If they can't be at work because they refuse to comply, they will be on leave without pay,” Campion said. “We are giving people, obviously, the two options, which are the vaccination and also the weekly testing. So, they do have a choice. The employees do have a choice.”
About 4.5 million New York City residents, or roughly 54% of the city's population, have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough also announced Monday that COVID-19 vaccines will be mandatory for all his agency's healthcare personnel, including physicians and nurses.
“We’re mandating vaccines for Title 38 employees because it’s the best way to keep Veterans safe, especially as the Delta variant spreads across the country,” McDonough said. “Whenever a Veteran or VA employee sets foot in a VA facility, they deserve to know that we have done everything in our power to protect them from COVID-19. With this mandate, we can once again make — and keep — that fundamental promise.”
Four VA employees have died of COVID-19 within the past few weeks, all of whom were unvaccinated. Three were confirmed to have been infected with the Delta variant, which is now accounting for more than 83% of sequenced cases in the US.
Major industry groups expressed support of the VA's decision. The agency pointed to a Monday joint statement from more than 50 healthcare professional groups calling on medical employers to require vaccines for staff.
“Universal vaccination of health care workers is the single most important step healthcare institutions can do to stop the spread of COVID-19," said Georges C. Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association. "It is essential for protecting the health of their workers, the safety of their patients, and ultimately the health of their communities.”
The Biden administration has previously said that vaccine mandates should be the decision of private businesses and local communities.
“That’s not the role of the federal government,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said to reporters on Friday.