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California to require COVID vaccinations or weekly testing for state, health workers

The state will require all public and private health workers, as well as the state’s 246,000 employees, to get vaccinated against the coronavirus and prove they had the shots, officials announced Monday, July 26, or be subject to at least weekly testing for the virus.

The order comes amid health experts expressing alarm about the highly contagious delta variant, which has contributed, along with slowing vaccination efforts, to increasing cases and hospitalizations in the weeks since California lifted most coronavirus-related restrictions on June 15. The statewide order also follows local efforts, particularly in Los Angeles County — which has seen hospitalizations double in two weeks — to stem the virus’s spread. Pasadena, which has its own health department, preceded the state in announcing it was working on a similar vaccination requirement for its employees. And LA County has reimposed an indoor mask mandate regardless of vaccination status — with health officials saying “self-attesting” wasn’t working.

Likewise, California’s new order means health and state workers will no longer be allowed to “self-attest” that they were vaccinated.

“Because too many people have chosen to live with this virus,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said at a news conference at a Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Oakland, “we’re at a point in this pandemic where individuals’ choice not to get vaccinated is now impacting the rest of us, and in a profound and devastating and deadly way.”

The announcement drew praise from the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents more than 15,000 healthcare workers at hospitals, nursing homes and medical clinics in California.

“This action will save lives by reducing the risk of the virus spreading among caregivers and people seeking care,” the union’s president, Sal Rosselli, said in a statement. “If we have learned anything over the past year and a half, it’s that our healthcare system cannot function when hospitals are too short-handed to effectively serve patients fighting for their lives.”

Indeed, several healthcare leaders recently said the region’s hospitals could still be overrun once again if the current increase in cases didn’t stop.

The new policy for state workers will take effect Monday, Aug. 2, and testing will be phased in over the next few weeks. The new policy for health care workers, which also applies to high-risk congregate settings — like adult and senior residential facilities, homeless shelters and jails — will take effect the following week, on Aug. 9. Health care facilities will have two weeks after that — until Aug. 23 — to fully comply.

California is not alone in taking action to try and contain the virus. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a similar requirement on Monday, and Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough also announced he will make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory for all health care personnel who work in Veterans Health Administration facilities.

It appears the mandates have widespread support in the medical community, both nationwide and in Southern California. Dozens of health care organizations, including the American Medical Association and American Nurses Association signed a joint statement calling for a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for health care workers, as many employers already do for influenza, hepatitis B, and pertussis.

But not every hospital in the region is ready to require vaccinations.

“Lakewood Regional Medical Center supports vaccinations for the community and our employees,” hospital spokeswoman Jennifer Bayer said Monday. “We are not requiring employees to receive vaccinations while the vaccinations are still under an emergency use authorization. We are closely monitoring trends and are making adjustments daily to ensure our staff, physicians and patients are protected.”

It is worth noting, however, that even though the three available vaccines have not received full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, they did undergo rigorous evaluations before receiving emergency use authorization, according to both the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC, in fact, says on its website that the vaccines were evaluated in tens of thousands of participants in clinical trials and as of July 19, 383 million doses have been administered nationwide.

Representatives of other Southern California facilities, meanwhile, said they were already looking into how to implement the new state requirement.

Providence Southern California has already drafted a policy requiring employees and physicians to show proof of vaccination or, for those who are not vaccinated, to sign formal declinations, spokeswoman Patricia Aidem said.

“We are reviewing other requirements of the new mandate and will determine how best to implement them,” Aidem said. “We know this is a difficult issue, but we must take steps to stop this pandemic. We are committed to educating our employers and the public about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine and the importance as cases again escalate.”

Eileen Neuwirth, executive director of communications at Huntington Hospital, in Pasadena, also said that facility was already working to come into compliance.

“The health and safety of our hospital workforce and our patients is our overarching priority,” Neuwirth said. “We strongly encourage everyone who is eligible to be vaccinated, as vaccination is the single most effective way to prevent severe illness and death from COVID-19.”

And Felipe Osorno, executive administrator of continuum of care operations at Keck Medicine of USC, said the medical center is fully on board.

“We welcome this announcement,” he said. “It’s very much in line with a policy we have in development right now and in line with what we’re seeing with many hospitals throughout the country.”

Currently, 84% of hospital staff and 87% of physicians are vaccinated at Keck, Osorno said. With the upcoming mandate and more strict requirements, he added, the hospital could probably expect to reach 90%.

Moving forward, Keck will only allow religious and medical exemptions with signed forms, eliminating a current blanket exemption for personal reasons, Osorno said.

He added the state action — rather than relying on hospitals to implement their own policies — will likely make the requirement more effective.

“With the vaccine, it’s been controversial whether you can mandate it or not,” Osorno said, “but when it comes from the state level, it gives hospitals more political and public support.”

It’s unclear how many local governments in the Southland will follow suit with their own vaccination requirements for employees.

But Pasadena, one of a handful of cities in the state that runs its own health department, already had plans in the works. Officials announced last week that the city was working on its own mandate for city employees to be vaccinated, and City Manager Steve Mermell said Monday, July 26, that he supports the state’s efforts.

“The more employers, public and private, that take such action, will make it easier to slow the spread of COVID,” he said, “which is rising faster than at any time previously during the pandemic.”

Pasadena Mayor Victor Gordo, meanwhile, noted on Monday that statistics from last October are eerily similar to what the region witnessed last week.

“We know what happened post-October; we had to endure a shutdown that tremendously affected our local economy and that was devastating to children who couldn’t attend school,” Gordo said. “And I think it would be negligent for us to look back two months from now and start having a discussion for more drastic measures instead of employing the tools that we know are effective today.”

Representatives for Long Beach, which also runs its own health department, said in a statement that the city is “reviewing the new guidance to consider how it may affect requirements for City employees.” But Long Beach will align with the new requirements on health care facilities and other high-risk settings, the statement said.

Orange County spokeswoman Molly Nichelson, meanwhile, said officials couldn’t comment on whether similar requirements would be put in place for county employees. Nichelson said they were waiting for more details on the guidance from the state, including what is the definition of a health care worker.

“We really have to see that guidance documentation that comes out from the state,” she said, “before we can comment on anything.”

Officials with the Los Angeles County Public Health Department also declined to say whether a similar mandate would go into effect for county workers there.

“We appreciate the Governor’s leadership,” the department said in a statement, and are “looking forward to working with the LA County Board of Supervisors on implementing strategies to enhance safety at the workplace and support vaccinations, our most powerful tool for ending the pandemic.”

Staff writers Brennon Dixson, David Rosenfeld and Tess Sheets contributed to this report.

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Source: Orange County Register

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