Starting Aug. 2, the city will require workers at public hospitals to either get vaccinated for COVID-19 or get tested for the virus on a weekly basis, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Wednesday.
The decision comes as the delta variant continues to spread through the city, pushing up hospitalization and infection rates. The city’s key virus metrics — number of newly admitted patients with suspected COVID-19, the number of new cases and the test positivity rate — are all on the rise.
“The numbers speak for themselves,” de Blasio said at a Wednesday news conference.
About 60% of NYC Health+Hospitals workers are vaccinated, Dr. Mitchel Katz, the system’s chief executive, said at the news conference, despite being first in line for the vaccine. Just under 54% of all city residents are fully vaccinated, according to city data.
The rule will apply to all doctors, nurses, custodians, desk workers and social workers in clinical settings at hospitals and city clinics, and those who do not comply will be suspended without pay, de Blasio said.
“We are going and upping the ante here,” de Blasio said. “Up to now things have been entirely voluntary. They’re no longer voluntary.”
De Blasio suggested that the mandate was the first step towards creating similar rules for other city employees, but did not offer a timeline for when he would announce further requirements.
“To us the number one thing was to get to the health care workers first and get them going,” he said.
Tim Kelly, an emergency medicine resident at Elmhurst Hospital, told NY1 he is vaccinated and supports the mayor's mandate.
“I think it sounds good, it seems reasonable, we get mandates to get other vaccinations, the flu vaccine and that sort of thing, so seems like a reasonable choice to make," Kelly said.
But not all health care workers share the same sentiments.
An unvaccinated emergency department clerk who did not want to disclose her name said she opposes the mandate.
"I don’t think that should be allowed," she said. “Because if someone wants to take the vaccine, that’s up to them.”
She said nothing will change her mind and that many of her coworkers agree.
“I think people will do the test every week, yeah they will. Literally, it’s right around the corner so people will just go and get the test," she added.
Some private hospital networks in the city are already considering vaccine mandates. NYU Langone will make vaccinations mandatory for employees without a valid exemption once the U.S. Food and Drug and Administration grants the COVID-19 vaccines full approval, according to Robert Magyar, a representative for the system.
Carlina Rivera, chair of the City Council’s hospitals committee, said during the news conference that the requirement, if successful, should be expanded to all municipal workers.
DC37, the union that represents most city employees, has remained opposed to vaccinate mandates, but signaled its support for the new rule.
“District Council 37 supports and has been encouraging of more testing,” Freddi Goldstein, the director of communications for the union, said in an emailed statement. “Of course with all things, we’ll need to see how the testing is being implemented, but our primary concern is the safety of our members and their patients and testing gets to that.”
Two public health experts who spoke to NY1 said they supported the rule, but do not believe that testing is a substitute for vaccination.
“We’re a little bit between a rock and a hard place here. The non-coercive measures have stopped working,” said Dr. Stephanie Woolhandler, a physician and professor of urban public health at the City University of New York. “Presumably testing is inconvenient enough for people that it really prods them to get vaccinated.”
Denis Nash, also a professor of public health at CUNY, said that these kinds of rules should be implemented sooner rather than later, since variant-driven spread of the virus will only continue, and it takes at least five weeks for people to achieve full protection after getting their first shot.
“There needs to be strategies like testing and masking while and until people can get vaccinated,” he said.
De Blasio said he hoped the rule would spur other private and public health systems to pursue similar rules.
“I do think it will create momentum,” he said.