For months the de Blasio administration has resisted forcing public employees to get the coronavirus vaccination even as Governor Cuomo threatened to withhold future doses from the city hospital system.
But Dr. Jay Varma, Mayor de Blasio's top virus adviser, April 29 indicated the city's patience was ebbing, particularly regarding health-care workers, citing a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on a nursing home in Kentucky where unvaccinated staff were determined to be the source of dozens of infections and two deaths.
In a briefing with reporters, Dr. Varma said, "We have seen now through reports from CDC about outbreaks that have occurred in places like nursing homes where some staff have chosen to go unvaccinated. And there is going to be a time in the future where a vaccination or proof of immunity and/or proof of infection has to be established as well."
He continued, "We're not at that point yet because we do want to make sure this is convenient. We want to make sure people have the information. But we do need to understand that in certain settings, it's going to be important for people to be vaccinated, not just for their own health, but for the health of the people that they're paid to protect."
A number of sizable city agencies have reported that only half of their employees have been vaccinated, including both Emergency Medical Service workers and Firefighters in the Fire Department, New York City Health+Hospitals, and the Department of Education, whose 147,000 workers' access to the vaccine was phased in after those other employee groups were given priority because of the nature of their jobs.
The New York Times reported April 21 about that Kentucky nursing home, where 90 percent of the residents had been vaccinated but only half of the workforce had. Dozens of residents and employees were infected, and two unvaccinated residents died.
Full Reopening July 1
Dr. Varma's remarks came as the Mayor announced that thanks to an increasing percentage of New Yorkers getting vaccinated the city would be open fully by July 1.
"We are ready for stores to open, for businesses to open, offices, theaters, full strength," Mr. de Blasio proclaimed during an appearance on MSNBC's Morning Joe.
"We've said a month or so ago, it was the variants versus the vaccination," Mr. de Blasio said. "What was going to win, which one was going to win the race? Vaccination is winning this race, going away, 6.3 million vaccinations, COVID's plummeting. We now have the confidence that we can pull all these pieces together and get life back really in many ways to where it was, where people can enjoy an amazing summer."
According to the city, 36 percent of the general population has been fully vaccinated. On April 23, the Mayor said 146,000 of the city's 310,000 civil servants had been fully vaccinated.
At his April 28 press briefing Dr. Mitchell Katz, H+H's CEO and President, told reporters that employee outreach was continuing and the system was making progress.
'May Feel They're Immune'
"The level of trauma that people experienced, how in order to go to work in a pre-vaccination world, you had to overcome your tremendous fear of COVID," Dr. Katz said. "Many people, not health care workers, were able to stay home or protect themselves until they got vaccinated. Health care workers, not true. They had to go not only to work, but often into the rooms of people with COVID, and that creates a particular dynamic where a certain number of people may feel they are immune, they are protected."
Mr. de Blasio's pledge to open the city fully was made four days ahead of the May 3 reopening of dozens of mayoral agencies to 80,000 employees who have been working remotely since the start of the pandemic.
According to the FDNY's latest data, 50 percent of Firefighters have gotten the vaccine while 48 percent of their EMTs have. Both the Uniformed Fire Officers Association and and District Council 37 Local 3621, which represents EMS superior officers, reported a higher level of compliance among their members.
Local 3621 President Vincent Variale, who had the virus, said he understood his members' hesitancy even though he opted to get the shot in March.
"A lot of members were worried about being guinea pigs, and they were concerned since it was being done under emergency provisions," he said April 29, referring to the conditional approval of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines last December by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
'Less Likely to Get It'
Mr. Variale said EMS attitudes toward the vaccine was informed by the fact that thousands of members of the service had already survived their own battle with the virus. "We deal with death and illness all the time, so members figure if they got sick with it, they already have the antibodies and are less likely to get it," he said.
He said some EMTs were wary because of erroneous claims after 9/11 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that the air was safe to breathe in the vicinity of the World Trade Center.
"And then look at the CDC at the start of the pandemic when they were telling us we could wear a bandanna because they didn't have enough N-95 masks to go around," he said.
"Approximately 60 to 70 percent of New York City Firefighters have been infected by coronavirus since this began—thousands of them in the last few months when the second wave came through," said Uniformed Firefighters Association President Andy Ansbro. "Many of them will get the vaccine in their own due time. We are still encouraged by the fact that 300 to 400 are signing up every month. It's a slow flow, but it is a steady flow."
Close to 1,200 of the FDNY's civilian workforce and 5,252 FDNY retirees have also been vaccinated.
From the beginning of the vaccination program Mayor de Blasio has said the city was not going to make it a mandatory condition of employment.
Lean Toward Requiring It
Such a requirement is being hotly debated in medical circles for congregate-care facilities, while individual assisted-living and elder-care companies have opted to mandate it. A recent Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that among health-care workers who worked for an employer, "nearly 6 in 10 said they would support their boss requiring vaccinations for all employees who work with patients."
Michael Sussman, a civil-rights attorney who has been representing NY Teachers for Choice, said during a phone interview that such mandates would run afoul of a court ruling that the Pentagon could not compel soldiers to take an anthrax vaccine.
"If 50 percent of the population is resisting, you run into the Prohibition-like risk where the government can't reasonably take positions in opposition to that large of a segment of the population without risking its legitimacy," he said. "When I was a kid, our parents vaccinated us—it was a social contract—and individual families didn't evaluate it. They just complied. Now, people feel they have sufficient information to make their own decision."
We depend on the support of readers like you to help keep our publication strong and independent. Join us.