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Following approval for the vaccine, some leaders across the country immediately tell public employees and college students to get vaccinated now.
Cities, states and universities began enacting Covid-19 vaccine mandates Monday afternoon after the Food and Drug Administration announced full approval of the two-dose Pfizer shot.
The vaccine, manufactured by Pfizer-BioNTech, had been available in the United States under an emergency use authorization since December. That order remains in place for children between the ages of 12 and 15, and for extra doses for some immunocompromised patients.
Two other vaccines, made by Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, are also available under the emergency provision. Pfizer’s is the first vaccine to receive full approval from the FDA, a milestone officials hope will prompt hesitant people to finally get a shot.
“As the first FDA-approved Covid-19 vaccine, the public can be very confident that this vaccine meets the high standards for safety, effectiveness, and manufacturing quality the FDA requires of an approved product,” Dr. Janet Woodcock, acting FDA commissioner, said in a statement. “While millions of people have already safely received Covid-19 vaccines, we recognize that for some, the FDA approval of a vaccine may now instill additional confidence to get vaccinated.”
Government leaders across the country reacted swiftly. In New York, the agency’s approval automatically triggered a state policy requiring public colleges and universities to mandate the vaccine for students who plan to attend class in person. Students at the State University of New York have a grace period of 35 days to receive the vaccine, according to the university’s policy, while students at the City University of New York have 45 days to present proof of full vaccination before being “subject to potential academic withdrawal.”
The University of Minnesota, with a total enrollment of roughly 60,000 students, said it would add the Covid-19 vaccine to its list of required immunizations.
In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a new requirement that all education employees provide proof of receiving their first vaccine dose by Sept. 27. The policy applies to “all 148,000 Department of Education employees, including school-based and central staff, as well as DOE contractors who work in school-based settings,” the mayor’s office said in a news release.
“The vaccine is both a personal defense against disease and a community defense against spread,” Dr. Dave A. Chokshi, the city’s health commissioner, said in a statement. “When it comes to younger children, our defenses are their defenses. This is the right policy where it matters most–in our schools.”
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy on Monday announced a similar policy, requiring all state employees, as well as “all preschool to grade 12 personnel,” to either be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 or submit to Covid-19 testing “at minimum one to two times per week.” Murphy also tightened the criteria for medical exemptions from masks, saying that individuals in “all public, private, and parochial preschool programs and elementary and secondary schools, including charter and renaissance schools” must furnish a written note from a doctor to justify their claims.
“Scientific data shows that vaccination and testing requirements, coupled with strong masking policies, are the best tools for keeping our schools and communities safe for in-person activities,” Murphy said in a statement. “We will continue to work collaboratively with school officials, teachers unions, and public-sector union partners over the next several weeks as this new requirement goes into effect.”
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Monday she would require city employees, including teachers and police, to be vaccinated, but would wait to continue negotiations with labor unions before announcing a formal policy.
“We’re working through those discussions which have been ongoing now for a couple weeks with our colleagues in organized labor that represent city employees,” she said at a news conference Monday. “But we absolutely have to have a vaccine mandate. It’s for the safety of all involved, particularly members of the public who are interacting with city employees on a daily basis. It’s important for colleagues to also feel like they have a workplace that’s safe. So a vaccine mandate from the city will come, and we’ll make specific announcements in the coming days.”
The Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, the city’s law enforcement union, said on its website that it had had “ZERO negotiations with the city thus far” and remained “100% opposed to MANDATORY vaccines.” Union officials were expected to meet with the city on Tuesday, a gathering at which the FOP promised to “fight any attempt by the city to force the issue on several points.”
Other government officials said definitively they would not issue vaccine mandates. Dr. Alexia Harrist, Wyoming’s state health officer and epidemiologist, said Monday that “there will be no state vaccine mandate” despite increasing “hospitalizations and death...due to the highly contagious Delta variant.”
But residents should consider receiving the vaccine, she said.
“We know promoting vaccination among eligible students, school staff, family members and throughout our communities can help schools stay open and vibrant as well as help keep students and their teachers in the classroom,” she said in a statement. “An additional benefit to Covid-19 vaccination is that individuals who are fully vaccinated and identified as close contacts do not need to quarantine, which can be helpful in the school setting.”
‘Driven by Data’
Leaders in other regions were more measured. Steve Benjamin, mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, said he thought the FDA approval would make it easier for governments to enact vaccine mandates for public employees but that his administration had not yet gotten to that point.
“It puts all governments in a much stronger position if that’s the position you’d take,” he said. “The approval should remove all the suspicions of reasonable people, and I think the rise of (virus variants) will push more and more people to the reality that we may be forced into the position of doing something policy wise, or with our regulatory powers, if we can’t shake the pandemic because people won’t get vaccinated.”
Benjamin said he would continue to monitor the data before making a definitive decision on mandating vaccines for city employees, similar to the process he used before declaring a new state of emergency that included a mask mandate for students, faculty, staff and visitors at schools. The state attorney general filed a lawsuit against the city over that decision, saying it defied a state law that prohibits localities from requiring masks.
“Before I did the emergency declaration on masks for school children, I made sure that the data directed that decision,” Benjamin said. “Our policies will continue to be driven by data. If in fact we get to a point that the data indicates that we have to push harder on this, then I will leave all options on the table.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.
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