By Gabriella Borter and Maria Caspani
NEW YORK (Reuters) – California and New York City will require government workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or be regularly tested for the virus, officials said on Monday, signaling a new level of urgency in their effort to stem a wave of infections caused by the Delta variant.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Monday that the city would require its more than 300,000 employees to get vaccinated by Sept. 13 or else get tested weekly. His announcement came a week after the city passed a vaccine mandate for all healthcare workers at city-run hospitals and clinics.
A few hours later, California Governor Gavin Newsom said that all state employees, some 246,000 people, would be required to get vaccinated starting in August or else be subjected to COVID-19 testing on a minimum weekly basis.
“We’re at a point now in this pandemic where an individual’s choice to not get vaccinated is impacting the rest of us,” Newsom told a press conference on Monday.
Federal and local officials have been warning about a rise in COVID-19 cases with increasing urgency in recent weeks. Across the country, many have aggressively emphasized the importance of getting vaccinated – including some Republican leaders who previously refrained from openly endorsing the vaccines.
On Monday, the Department of Veterans Affairs became the first federal agency to require its employees to get vaccinated.
The mandates this week mark the boldest efforts yet by government agencies to curb the country’s outbreak caused by the highly transmissible Delta variant of COVID-19, which was first found in India earlier this year.
The Delta variant has quickly caused case numbers to spike after the United States enjoyed a drop-off in cases and hospitalizations when vaccines became widely available in the spring.
The Delta variant has also delayed any consideration by the United States to lift existing travel restrictions in the near future, a White House official told Reuters.
At this point, the sharpest increases in COVID-19 cases are in places with lower vaccination rates. Florida, Texas and Missouri account for 40% of all new cases nationwide, with around one in five of all new U.S. cases occurring in Florida, White House adviser Jeffrey Zients said last week.
Just under 50% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The number of vaccine doses administered daily peaked at 4.63 million on April 10, according to CDC data, and it has stagnated and declined since.
On Sunday, the CDC reported an uptick in the number of vaccine doses administered in a day – 778,996, the most given in a 24-hour period since the United States reported giving 1.16 million doses on July 3.
COVID-19 vaccine and testing mandates remain a point of contention and have already sparked legal opposition in the case of public universities. Opponents see them as a violation of individual rights.
But officials have justified them because the vaccines have proven to be safe and dramatically reduce people’s risk of hospitalization and death from the virus.
Some 57 medical associations on Monday published a statement calling for all healthcare and long-term care employers in the United States to require their employees to get vaccinated, calling it “the logical fulfillment of the ethical commitment of all healthcare workers to put patients as well as residents of long-term care facilities first.”
New York City’s largest public employee union, DC 37, took legal issue with the city’s mandate on Monday.
“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,” Executive Director Henry Garrido said in a statement.
De Blasio cited the Delta variant as the city’s reason for moving beyond promoting voluntary vaccination.
“It was one thing to start with a heavy voluntary focus in the beginning and then incentive focus, but it’s quite clear the Delta variant has changed the game,” he said.
(Reporting by Gabriella Borter, Maria Caspani, Jan Wolfe and David Shepardson; Editing by Andrea Ricci)