By VICTORIA COLLIVER
OAKLAND — California, New York City and the Department of Veterans Affairs on Monday announced that their own government employees must get vaccinated or get tested regularly, stopping just short of an absolute mandate as the nation experiences an alarming resurgence of Covid-19.
The cascading requirements mark an abrupt shift in policy for some of the nation’s largest public employers, which initially tried to use encouragement to boost the nation’s stagnating vaccine takeup. The changes will directly affect hundreds of thousands of people, from health care and state government employees in California to frontline VA health employees in every state.
California next month will start requiring state workers, as well as public and private health care employees, to provide proof of Covid-19 vaccination status or to undergo testing at least once a week. And New York expanded a previously announced mandate for health care workers to include all 300,000 municipal employees, beginning Sept. 13.
“We have reached the limits of a purely voluntary system,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday. “It’s time for more mandates, different kinds, different places.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs on Monday became the first federal agency to embrace such a policy. The White House has been wary of vaccine requirements, preferring instead to urge local governments and private businesses to set their own rules around vaccinations.
“Whenever a Veteran or VA employee sets foot in a VA facility, they deserve to know that we have done everything in our power to protect them from COVID-19,” Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement Monday. “With this mandate, we can once again make — and keep — that fundamental promise.”
Roughly 115,000 employees will fall under the VA’s mandate, according to the New York Times, which first reported the decision. It will give the workers eight weeks to get vaccinated.
California’s roughly 246,000 state workers will be asked starting next month to show proof of vaccination or be tested weekly for the virus. The rule does not apply to public schoolteachers, who are local district employees.
The state’s new requirement will also apply to hundreds of thousands of health care workers in public and private settings. Those in higher-risk health care facilities who remain unvaccinated will have to undergo testing twice a week and will be advised to wear N95 masks.
“Too many people have chosen to live with this virus,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom said at a news conference Monday in Oakland. “We’re at a point in the epidemic, this pandemic, where choice, individual choice not to get vaccinated, is now impacting the rest of us in profound and devastating and deadly ways.”
California, as well as much of the rest of the country, is on the brink of a fourth surge driven by the highly contagious Delta variant. The statewide case rate is five times higher than it was on May 15, and the vast majority of new cases and hospitalizations continue to disproportionately affect those who are unvaccinated.
Newsom said that about 75 percent of eligible Californians have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and the state last week saw a 16 percent increase in new vaccinations compared to the previous week.
Local health officials last week in San Francisco and two other Bay Area counties recommended employers require proof of vaccination. San Francisco and Pasadena already announced their city workers will be required to get vaccinated once federal regulators fully approve the vaccine.
Some businesses, particularly bars and restaurants, are already starting to require proof of vaccination for patrons. On Monday, an alliance of 500 bars in San Francisco recommended their members ask for verification upon entry.
Last week, the NFL said that teams experiencing an outbreak among unvaccinated players could be forced to forfeit games, placing a multimillion-dollar financial incentive on teams and their players to get vaccinated.
A major health care union and the hospital trade group in California expressed support for the state’s new policy. Officials from SEIU-UHW called the move “a reasonable step to protect the safety and wellbeing of patients and healthcare workers, many of whom are suffering from the prolonged trauma and stress of dealing with the pandemic.” The union reported about 70 percent of its workers have been vaccinated.
Still, the approach has its detractors. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has compared mask rules to the Holocaust and vaccination requirements to segregation, used the moment to advocate for Newsom’s removal from office ahead of the Sept. 14 recall election.
“Mandating vaccines against people’s will is unconscionable,” the Georgia Republican tweeted. “Which is why you’re being recalled.”
During Monday’s press conference, a frustrated Newsom lashed out at those who use their megaphones to spread misinformation about the vaccines.
“We’re exhausted by the Ron Johnsons and Tucker Carlsons. We’re exhausted by the Marjorie Taylor Greenes,” the governor said. “We’re exhausted by the right-wing echo chamber that has been perpetuating misinformation around the vaccine and its efficacy and safety. … It’s disgraceful, it’s unconstitutional and it needs to be called out.”
Nick Niedzwiadek and Téa Kvetenadze contributed to this report.