Efforts to get Americans vaccinated for COVID-19 took a forceful turn Monday, with the Department of Veterans Affairs telling its doctors and nurses to get immunized within eight weeks.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio also upped the ante by ordering teachers, police officers and firefighters to get their shots by Sept. 13 or face regular testing.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, cut a similar path. He announced a plan that will require state workers and all health care workers to get vaccinated or submit to weekly testing.
The plan, which should apply to about 238,000 state employees and more than 2 million health care workers in the public and private sectors, will be phased in within the next few weeks.
Major medical groups, meanwhile, said the time has come to mandate the vaccine for every health care worker in the country, declaring that “the nation depends on it.”
The moves reflect a get-tough pivot as voluntary systems and cash incentives fail to lift lagging vaccination rates. Less than half — 49% — of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated despite free and plentiful shots. Scientists fear that the unvaccinated number gives the virus room to continue to inflict pain or evolve into an even more dangerous strain.
The Biden administration has given tacit approval to schools and employers that are mandating the shots but has not forced the military or other federal workers to get vaccinated, making the VA’s decision notable.
The decision may set the table for similar mandates elsewhere in the federal bureaucracy or give private employers the confidence to follow suit.
VA Secretary Denis McDonough said the requirement, which applies to Title 38 personnel such as nurses, physician assistants and podiatrists, is needed to keep veterans safe.
“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,” he said.
He said four unvaccinated VA employees recently died from COVID-19, including three infected with the delta variant.
In New York, Mr. de Blasio tightened the rules on roughly 340,000 city workers because he fears a relapse when schools open and workers return to the office at the end of summer.
“September is the pivot point of the recovery,” said Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat. “September is when many employers are bringing back a lot of their employees. September is when school starts full strength. September is when people come back from the summer. September is when it will all happen.”
The mayor mandated vaccination or weekly testing for public hospital workers last week.
“We’re going to keep climbing this ladder and adding additional measures as needed,” he said.
The American Medical Association and other groups said health care workers across the country should be required to roll up their sleeves. They said it is unacceptable for unprotected workers to interact with patients who might have compromised immune systems or be too young to qualify for the vaccines.
“This is the logical fulfillment of the ethical commitment of all health care workers to put patients as well as residents of long-term care facilities first and take all steps necessary to ensure their health and well-being,” said the letter, signed by the American Nursing Association, the American Psychiatric Association and others.
Health care workers were among the first Americans to become eligible for the COVID-19 vaccines, yet many continue to refuse the shots. Roughly 1 in 4 hospital workers in New York state are not vaccinated, and federal data says only 58.7% of nursing home staff in the U.S. are fully vaccinated.
The medical groups said many health care facilities require immunization for influenza, hepatitis B and pertussis to protect the vulnerable, so it makes sense to add COVID-19 as the delta variant quickly spreads in poorly vaccinated areas.
“Vaccination is the primary way to put the pandemic behind us and avoid the return of stringent public health measures,” the letter says. “Unfortunately, many health care and long-term care personnel remain unvaccinated. As we move towards full [Food and Drug Administration] approval of the currently available vaccines, all health care workers should get vaccinated for their own health, and to protect their colleagues, families, residents of long-term care facilities and patients.”
Some municipalities and organizations may be waiting for the FDA to grant full licenses to the vaccine makers, which would put them on firm legal ground if workers challenge mandates.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki refused to guess when the FDA would grant full approval.
“They look at a range of data, and they make sure that when they make conclusions, and when they give full approval, they have confidence in the science and the data that backs that up,” she said Monday. “It wouldn’t be responsible to expedite that process at a faster speed than the science and data allow.”
Houston Methodist, a major hospital in Houston, won a court battle over its vaccine mandate. It persuaded some experts to give employers the go-ahead to require the shots under their current status, known as emergency-use authorization.
Mr. de Blasio cited the city’s rights as an employer in requiring the shots to maintain a healthy labor force and work environment.
The city’s largest public employee union, the District Council 37, said Mr. de Blasio‘s testing requirement will be subject to bargaining under labor rules.
“If city hall intends to test our members weekly, they must first meet us at the table to bargain. 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,” the union said.
The mayor has said widespread vaccination is the best way forward for the city. He has refused to revert to a mask mandate, saying it would penalize those who came forward for the shots and send a muddled message.
Officials in the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County had no such qualms. As of Monday, they are requiring people to wear masks within indoor public spaces.
“The delta variant, the most infectious and dangerous strain of COVID-19, took hold in Springfield, Missouri, before spreading like wildfire around our state and now is on our doorstep,” St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones said. “The reality of this virus has changed from a year ago.”
County Executive Sam Page said the percentage of tests coming back positive had risen to 9.9% in St. Louis County as of Saturday from 2.9% on June 1.
“The delta variant has thrown us a curveball. It’s highly transmissible, and it’s now jeopardizing our progress,” he said.
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, a Republican running to fill an open U.S. Senate seat next year, filed a lawsuit that deems the mandate “unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious, unconstitutional and unlawful.”
“This continued government overreach is unacceptable and unconstitutional, especially in the face of a widely available vaccine. There is absolutely no scientific reason to continue to force children to wear a mask in school,” Mr. Schmitt said. “Back in May, I filed suit against St. Louis County for continuing to impose such unlawful restrictions, and just three days later, those restrictions were lifted. I will continue to fight this seemingly unending control and intrusion on peoples’ lives — we will not back down.”
Missouri has a relatively poor vaccination rate at 41%, though it is better than about a dozen other states across the South and Midwest.
Roughly 54% of New York City residents are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
“We’re above the national average in vaccination, but we need to do more,” Mr. de Blasio said.
At the state level, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said he planned to start an outreach campaign that targets ZIP codes with poor vaccination rates so New York does not succumb to another nightmarish year
More than 53,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the Empire State — the most of any state in the country except for California, where over 64,000 have died.
“We can’t go through it again,” Mr. Cuomo said.