California and New York City announced Monday that they would require all government employees to get the coronavirus vaccine or face weekly COVID-19 testing as officials raced to beat back a summer surge driven by the delta variant.
Meanwhile, in a possible sign that increasingly dire health warnings are getting through to more Americans, vaccination rates began to creep up again, offering hope that the nation could yet break free of the coronavirus if people who have been reluctant to receive the shot are finally inoculated.
In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that all of its municipal workers — including teachers and police officers — to get coronavirus vaccines by mid-September or face weekly COVID-19 testing.
The rule is expected to affect about 340,000 city employees, making the city one of the largest employers in the U.S. to take such action. While it isn’t a vaccine mandate — no workers will be forced to take a shot — officials hope the inconvenience and discomfort of weekly tests will persuade many to overcome a reluctance to get inoculated.
“This is about our recovery. This is about what we need to do to bring back New York City,” de Blasio said. “This is about keeping people safe.”
The Sept. 13 deadline coincides with the start of public school, when the Democratic mayor has said he expects all pupils to be in classrooms full time. City health-care workers and employees in congregate settings such as group homes will face earlier deadlines.
WATCH | COVID-19 spikes continue among unvaccinated Americans:
California said it will similarly require proof of vaccination or weekly testing for all state workers and health-care employees starting next month. And President Joe Biden said all doctors working in Department of Veterans Affairs facilities will have to be inoculated.
Elsewhere, St. Louis became the second major city to mandate that face masks be worn indoors, regardless of vaccination status, joining Los Angeles in re-imposing the orders.
“For those who are vaccinated, this may feel like punishment, punishment for doing the right thing,” St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, a Democrat, said Monday. “I’ve heard that, and I feel that frustration.”
‘We need vaccine mandates’
Dr. Leana Wen, a former Baltimore health commissioner, applauded the moves but called on Biden to “lead by example” and impose similar mandates on federal employees and in public venues where the government has jurisdiction, like on planes, trains and government buildings.
She also said all hospitals and nursing homes need to require all employees get vaccinated, an idea that the American Medical Association voiced support for in a statement Monday.
“We need vaccine mandates and vaccine verification,” Wen said. “We’re well past the time for the Biden administration to get on board with this. What we’re doing is not working. Doing more of the same is not the answer here.”
The White House has so far deferred to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on masking guidance, which recommends that those who are unvaccinated wear masks indoors. But officials acknowledged over the weekend that they are considering changing that guidance and recommending that the vaccinated also wear masks indoors.
“We’re going in the wrong direction,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday.
Wen, who is also an emergency physician and public professor at George Washington University, said public health experts have been worrying for months about this very scenario.
“We were worried the honour system would not work, the unvaccinated would be behaving as if they’re vaccinated and people would think the pandemic is over,” she said. “That’s precisely what has happened, and it’s incredibly frustrating.”
Dr. Albert Ko, an infectious disease specialist Yale’s School of Public Health, said the U.S. should not have been caught off guard after watching the delta variant ravage India in May and then land in the United Kingdom, Israel and other highly vaccinated nations with force last month.
“We have learned multiple times to not take anything for granted with COVID,” he said.
Vaccinations across the country ticked up over the weekend, with about 657,000 vaccines administered Saturday and nearly 780,000 on Sunday, according to CDC data. The seven-day rolling average on Sunday was about 583,000 vaccinations a day, up from about 525,000 a week prior.
Public health experts on Monday said the uptick in vaccinations is encouraging but warned that it’s far too early to say if the numbers mean that millions of unvaccinated people are finally beginning to overcome their reticence.
“I wish I could say yes, but honestly don’t know,” said Ko. “There is a lot of ground to cover as evidenced by low vaccination rates in many parts of our country.”
The U.S. is around 67 per cent immune from COVID-19 when prior infections are factored, but it will need to get closer to 85 per cent to crush the resurgent virus, said Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health.
“So we need a lot more vaccinations. Or a lot more infections,” he tweeted Sunday.
The seven-day rolling average for daily new cases in the country shot up over the past two weeks, from more than 19,000 on July 11 to nearly 52,000 on July 25, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
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