Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Wednesday that some city workers who are not vaccinated will soon need to be tested for the coronavirus weekly.
Although it was far from requiring vaccinations, the new policy was still notable: it was the city hall’s first effort to pressure a group of city workers to get vaccinated by disturbing those in the city. had not done so.
But that has left some public health experts wondering why city hall policy was so limited, especially when the spread of the Delta variant led to an increase in cases. The policy only applies to the more than 40,000 employees of the city’s public hospital system and some Ministry of Health workers who work primarily in health care facilities.
But Mr. de Blasio was reluctant to demand the same from the 300,000 other workers on the city’s payroll – police, firefighters, correctional officers, office workers, janitors and more.
In addition, Mr de Blasio said there were no plans to reinstate a mask warrant. For now, the policy announced on Wednesday will be the extent of the city’s response to the more than 600 new cases of the virus per day over the past week.
Some experts think it’s not enough
With the city’s vaccination rate barely budging and the Delta variant threatening a third wave of cases, some epidemiologists have expressed concern that the city is moving too slowly.
Dr Wafaa El-Sadr, professor of epidemiology at Columbia University, wondered why the city had not extended this policy to all city employees.
“I think the time is right,” she said.
About 60 percent of the public hospital system’s workforce is immunized, a rate lower than the city-wide full immunization rate for adult New Yorkers (65 percent). Some other municipal agencies have similar rates.
The fire department said only about 50 percent of basic firefighters and emergency medical technicians are vaccinated. About 60% of teachers were vaccinated at the end of June, according to the Ministry of Education.
Dr El-Sadr said the city should consider a stricter policy for teachers, requiring them to be vaccinated if they did not have a medical or religious exemption and were going to be assigned to classrooms with children too young to be vaccinated.
Another epidemiologist, Dr Kitaw Demissie, said that at this point in the vaccination campaign – seven months after and with recent results, even as the variants become more contagious – it was appropriate to start requiring testing for coronavirus negative from municipal employees who had not yet been vaccinated.
“It’s a very simple thing to ask,” said Dr. Demissie, dean of the School of Public Health at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn. “It’s a way to put pressure on people – or you can call it encouragement – to get vaccinated.”
Dr El-Sadr and Dr Demissie both noted that regular testing of unvaccinated employees could also help reduce transmission.
The program could be expanded
A number of unions representing municipal workers have expressed their opposition to mandatory vaccinations. But they did not speak out against the new policy of the town hall, which is more a screening mandate than a vaccination mandate.
The mayor said he wanted to start small with the city’s healthcare workers – a pilot program, of sorts – before considering expanding the policy to other agencies in the city.
“We had to start at the most important place,” de Blasio said on Wednesday. “These are our healthcare workers, and we need to build a model. “
“We are certainly looking at other possibilities,” he added, “but we are not there yet.”
What other cities are doing
San Francisco announced last month that it will eventually require all 35,000 employees in its city to be vaccinated.
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Los Angeles recently defined a new indoor mask mandate, including for vaccinated residents.
Chicago has travel restrictions in place and has warned that additional rules could arrive. Unvaccinated residents there are urged to get tested after traveling to Florida, Louisiana, and a handful of other states with higher cases.
In New Jersey, Gov. Philip D. Murphy said he hoped his state wouldn’t have to revert to an indoor mask warrant and other restrictions. But he said this week, “If we have to, we will. “
Mr de Blasio was hesitant to demand indoor masks again in New York City, although they are required in some places such as on public transport.
“If you’re talking about fighting Covid and the Delta variant and winning this battle once and for all, a mask is like a pea shooter and the vaccine is like a cannon,” the mayor said Wednesday. “The vaccine is what really wins. “
Eric Adams, the Democratic candidate for mayor, said on Wednesday that he did not want the city to return to requiring all New Yorkers to wear masks again.
“I hope we don’t,” Adams said in a TV interview, adding that residents should “be smart” and do their part to end the pandemic.
Hospitals have not systematically tested employees
Employee coronavirus testing policies at New York healthcare facilities have been spotty, so the new policy will at least help improve that.
Part of the reason for the lack of testing is that testing capacity was so limited at first and results could take a while. But it’s also because during the initial wave of last March and April, hospitals faced an overwhelming wave of patients and needed staff to work.
“In the early months of the pandemic, hospitals wanted nurses on the job,” the New York State Nurses Association, the state’s largest nursing union, said in a statement. “They didn’t inform employees of the exposures and didn’t test many of those who knew they had been exposed, even those with symptoms.”
(People with Covid-19 can also test positive for weeks after becoming ill.)
In the city’s public hospitals, there has been no routine employee testing program so far, with the mayor’s order.
“We are seeing a small third wave coming”
Just two months ago, New York’s epidemic seemed largely over: the number of cases was falling to levels not seen in a year and the vaccination rate was on the rise. Mr de Blasio promised it would be “New York summer” and many people nodded in agreement.
But the Delta variant poses a new threat. With the new policy, the city seemed to realize that some sort of action was needed.
The good news is that about 54% of all New Yorkers – and a vast majority of the most vulnerable – are fully immunized.
“We’re seeing a little third wave coming,” said Dr. Ronald Scott Braithwaite, a professor at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine who led a team that modeled the New York epidemic for city officials. His modeling team predicts a total of around 900 deaths in an upcoming third wave.
In the first wave of last spring, when ambulance sirens sounded across the city, more than 20,000 New Yorkers died from Covid-19. The death toll from the long second wave was less than half of it.
Dr Braithwaite said his modeling team predicted the third wave could peak in October, with some 400,000 to 500,000 New Yorkers infected.
More than 3.4 million New Yorkers have yet to receive a first dose of a coronavirus vaccine. This includes around 1.4 million children, many of whom are not eligible for vaccination.
No school change – for now
Mr de Blasio insists the schools will reopen fully in September as planned and the city will not offer a remote option.
“I think it would be a horrible shame if another year in the lives of our children were lost, and I think it would cause a lot of other problems and pain for our children,” said Mr de Blasio in an interview on CNN on Wednesday.
The mayor is urging parents to vaccinate students aged 12 and over, but younger ones cannot yet be vaccinated. The city plans to require students to wear masks at school and will put other safety rules in place.
“We have been saying for months and months that children will wear masks in the new school year,” de Blasio said this week. “It’s inside. It’s a lot of people together.
Emma Goldberg and Ashley Southall contributed reports.