Philly mandates vaccines for healthcare workers, college students

A vaccinator draws a COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in Philadelphia.
REUTERS/Hannah Beier

Healthcare workers, college students and university staff in Philadelphia—barring a documented exemption—have to be vaccinated against the coronavirus by mid-October, the city’s board of health decided late last week.

Additionally, the board clarified how the city’s indoor masking mandate, rolled out with only hours’ notice last Wednesday, applies to children too young to receive a shot.

The measures represent the city’s attempt to control the spread of the Delta variant, which experts believe is causing a rapid rise COVID-19 infections.

“At a certain point, with cases soaring and hospitalizations on the rise, we have to act,” Acting Philadelphia Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole told reporters Friday. “There are hospitals in this country that are full, where soon doctors will be in the position of having to decide which critically ill patient gets the ventilator or ICU bed.”

In less than a month, the city’s two-week case average has experienced a five-fold increase, from 207 on July 11 to 1,190 on Aug. 8. Over the same period, the positive test rate has grown from 2.3% to 6.1%.

COVID-19-related deaths have remained at pandemic lows, according to health department data, and, as of Thursday, 145 people were hospitalized with the virus, far fewer than during previous spikes.

Some Philadelphia parents wondered whether they would have to leave their children home for errands when Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration said businesses could mandate masks or require all customers to be vaccinated.

Children under 12 are not eligible for a shot and so are not permitted inside vaccinated-only establishments.

Under the amended rule, certain businesses, including grocery stores, pharmacies and doctor’s offices, do not have the option of going mask-free and checking immunization cards. Instead, they must enforce mandatory facial coverings.

For restaurants that implement indoor vaccine requirements, children dining with their families outside can use the restroom without violating the order, Bettigole said.

Outside of Philadelphia, facial coverings are still not required in the state; however, Montgomery County officials on Monday plan to recommend indoor masking in public and will require it in county buildings.

Philadelphia’s healthcare employees, a wide-ranging category that includes home health aides and people who do not work directly with patients, as well as college students and staff must be inoculated by Oct. 15.

Any healthcare workers who qualify for a religious or medical exemption will be required to get tested twice a week, Bettigole said.

Colleges will have the option of regularly testing exempted students and employees or offering them virtual classes, officials said. If a campus has a vaccination rate of 90% or more, they can instead choose to allow unvaccinated people to wear two masks.

COVID-19 infection rates are currently highest in Philadelphia among the 20-to-34 age group, and just over half of residents ages 18 to 44 have received a shot, compared with nearly 78% of the city’s adult population.

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