Vaccine Requirement For City Hospital Workers Could Be First Step Toward Broader Mandate

New York City will require public hospital employees to be vaccinated or undergo weekly testing, in what could be a first step toward a broader mandate that extends to all of the city’s roughly 300,000 municipal workers.

“We are upping the ante here,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said during his regular press briefing at City Hall.

About 42,000 employees work for the city’s public hospital network, which includes 11 hospitals and more than 70 city-run health clinics. To date, about 60% of that workforce is vaccinated, according to Mitchell Katz, the chief executive of the city’s public hospital system. The average vaccination rate of all hospitals—public or private—is 70%, according to state data. About 65% of all adults in New York City are fully vaccinated.

The new health order, which takes effect on August 2nd, will initially apply to clinic-based staff, which includes doctors, nurses, social workers, custodians, and registrars. Health officials said they hoped the policy could be a model for the private health care industry.

Still, the new health order notably stops short of mandating vaccinations, which has faced resistance from unions. NewYork-Presbyterian last month became the first hospital system in the state to require its workforce to get vaccinated. At the time, Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union, the largest health care union in the country which has deep ties to de Blasio, vowed to fight the measure.

So, city healthcare workers can opt to provide a negative test each week rather than proof of vaccination.

George Gresham, the president of 1199, commended de Blasio for giving its members a choice. “The health and safety of our members and their patients remains our top priority, which is why we encourage our members to get vaccinated, he said. “However, there are other cooperative avenues that can be taken to address the concerns of both labor and management.”

Calling the policy “a great first step,” the mayor said that the city will consider extending the requirement to other city employees, which includes first-responders like police officers and firefighters as well as teachers.

Several nationally recognized public health experts joined de Blasio remotely at the press conference.

Dr. Céline Gounder, an infectious disease specialist who advised the Biden administration, was among those who said the city’s policy correctly balances the rights of patients, individual rights and broader public health concerns.

Ezekiel Emanuel, a professor of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania, said he had called for a vaccination mandate for healthcare workers back in April.

“The essence of our ethical obligation is to put patients first,” Emanuel said, of healthcare workers. “The new order merely puts into effect that ethical obligation.”

City Council Member Carlina Rivera, who chairs the council’s hospital committee, added that should the measure prove successful, the city may look at a similar mandate for all city workers. The mayor echoed this position: “We are definitely looking at other possibilities,” he said, adding that the latest effort amounted to a test-run in high-priority care settings.

In June, San Francisco issued an order requiring all of its 35,000 workers to get vaccinated within 30 days. The city later amended the order to take effect in September. Individuals there can also apply for exemptions.

“If healthcare workers and CUNY students have to take serious precautions and ultimately be vaccinated, far more New Yorkers should be able to follow the rules,” said Rivera.

The urgency for vaccination has grown with each passing day amid climbing caseloads driven by the more contagious delta variant. The seven-day average of new cases is now around 600, double from the prior week.

At the same time, de Blasio has refused to reinstate an indoor mask requirement for all New Yorkers. He has repeatedly argued that putting the focus on masks is misguided given that vaccinations are the best defense against infection.

“A mask is like a pea shooter and vaccination is like a cannon,” he said on Wednesday.