Governor Andrew Cuomo tweeted on Wednesday that patient-facing health-care workers employed by state hospitals must “get vaccinated to help keep both patients and workers safe.” Cuomo has stopped short of a vaccine mandate for other public employees; they have the option of either getting the vaccine or undergoing regular COVID testing. In New York City, where 58 percent of adults are fully vaccinated, just over half of firefighters, 43 percent of cops, and 42 percent of correctional workers are. Rates are higher among educators, public transit, and public hospital workers, though there’s still room for improvement in each of those groups.
Federal employees may soon be subject to requirements similar to the ones Cuomo announced. CNN reported on Wednesday that President Biden was preparing to announce a vaccine or testing option for all federal workers and contractors. All of this falls short of a vaccine mandate for public and private employees, but as COVID cases rise, fueled by the Delta variant, mandates may become more likely.
The virus increasingly leaves public officials little other choice. The Delta variant has proven to be highly contagious, and while the vaccine prevents serious illness, recent evidence suggests that vaccinated individuals who are infected may transmit the virus to others. To prevent or mitigate another swelling COVID wave, governments have to consider radical measures.
Eight months after the first vaccine was approved, vaccine hesitancy persists. About one-third of those eligible to receive the vaccine have not yet done so, and their reasons are varied. Some, for example, may not realize that the vaccine is free and fear they won’t be able to afford the potentially life-saving medicine. Then there are those who refuse the vaccine altogether, a tendency that sets them apart from the hesitant. Nationwide, 16 percent of those unvaccinated today say they’ll only get the vaccine if required, the Kaiser Family Foundation reports. That could become a crucial figure as another COVID wave crests.
Mandates wouldn’t necessarily be easy to impose, even with those who aren’t hard-core anti-vaccination. More than 150 workers either resigned or quit after Houston Methodist required them to get the vaccine this summer. (A federal judge had tossed a lawsuit against the hospital’s mandate.) 1199SEIU, a union representing health-care workers, recently protested the New York-Presbyterian health system after it announced a vaccine mandate for employees. “We believe that our members are best equipped to make the health care decisions that are right for their bodies and for their families,” the union’s communications director, Cara Noel, told ABC Channel 7. “We have been promoting vaccination, but to make vaccination a condition of employment is absolutely wrong.” Mayor Bill de Blasio roused some labor ire after he announced a regime of vaccine or regular testing for the city’s public workers. “The city and the mayor cannot simply disregard the civil liberties of the workforce,” Oren Barzilay, the president of FDNY EMS Local 2507, told the Associated Press.
That position isn’t shared by all in the labor movement. Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, recently said that the federation supports vaccine mandates. Unions are right to fear employer overreach, and typically, they’re right to reject new conditions on employment. Regular COVID testing and vaccine mandates should both be negotiated at the bargaining table. But to reject vaccine mandates wholesale, workers — and their unions, as it applies — place themselves in opposition to the public good.
Frontline workers are obliged to something larger than themselves: their colleagues and to the public. Ideally, the facts would be enough to convince anyone to get their shots. Education will go far, and it, combined with the passage of time, has convinced many to get the vaccine. But at this point in the pandemic, it’s clear that education is often insufficient. Vaccination rates still aren’t where they should be, and vaccine hesitancy extracts a high cost. Government bodies ought to mandate vaccines where they can, and frontline workers should acquiesce. Doing so is the only reliable way to protect the public — and themselves — from a virus that cares nothing for their personal liberty. Solidarity demands more of workers, a sense of empathy and care for others. So do the times.