Philly not considering stronger vaccine mandate for city workers

Health Care workers receive the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine in Florida
REUTERS/Marco Bello

Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration is not “currently discussing” enacting a strict coronavirus vaccine mandate for municipal workers, the city’s top health official said Wednesday.

Only about a third of city workers have provided proof of COVID-19 vaccination, though they are not required to submit documentation.

Since Sept. 1, all unvaccinated municipal employees have been told to wear both a cloth and a surgical mask while in enclosed spaces.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on Wednesday said city workers there who do not get at least one shot by Oct. 29 would be forced to take unpaid leave.

“The mandates that we have that are very strict are for places where people are highly vulnerable,” Acting Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole said, “or where we’re seeing high levels of spread.”

“City workers who are not healthcare workers don’t necessarily fall into either of those groups,” she added.

Philadelphia has issued mandates for people working in hospitals and long-term care facilities, as well as college students and staff.

Barring a medical or religious exemption, those groups were required to be at least partially vaccinated by last Friday, Oct. 15. They must receive their second shot no later than Nov. 15.

Officials originally set an Oct. 15 deadline for full vaccination but earlier this month decided to extend the timeline to avoid possible staffing shortages.

“So far, the data looks very encouraging, including a steep increase in the vaccination rate for long term care workers to at least 90%,” Bettigole told reporters.

Healthcare workers employed in other settings, such as home health aides, must receive their initial dose by Friday and their final shot before Nov. 22.

Anyone from the categories who qualified for an exemption or is only partially vaccinated after the initial deadline is required to get tested once or twice a week, depending on occupation.

School District of Philadelphia teachers and staff have also been required to get inoculated, and administrators on Wednesday said that 81% of employees — about 15,500 people — have been vaccinated.

School workers had to provide their vaccination status last month. Immunized employees are tested for the virus once a week, and those who did not get the shot are swabbed twice a week.

“Our worry had been that when kids went back to school, we would really see a large surge,” Bettigole said. “That really hasn’t happened, although our highest case rates right now are in people under the age of 20.”

At least 826 public school students and staff have tested positive since the start of the academic year, according to the district’s online dashboard.

Overall case counts have been stable since early September, Bettigole said. The city is currently averaging about 250 new infections a day, and the COVID-19 test positivity rate is under 3%.

Eighty percent of Philadelphians eligible for a vaccine have received at least one shot, and 66% are fully vaccinated, according to health department data.

About 8,000 Pfizer-BioNTech booster doses were administered last week, and more than 32,000 have been distributed in Philadelphia since federal regulators approved the extra shots late last month, Bettigole said.

Booster shots are available to people who completed their two-shot Pfizer series at least six months ago and are 65 and older or have an underlying medical condition. People who work or live in higher risk settings are also eligible for a third dose.