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As The Delta Variant Rages, Calls Grow For Vaccine Mandates

NOEL KING, HOST:

Individual states, cities and counties are starting to make their own rules about COVID-19 vaccinations. In California, all state workers and all health care workers will need to show proof that they're vaccinated or wear masks and get regular COVID tests. And in New York City, the mayor and the governor say all city workers have to be vaccinated by mid-September. We have reporters in New York and California with us this morning. First up, NPR's Jasmine Garsd in New York. Good morning, Jas.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

KING: There are 340,000 employees of New York City, so this is quite a big deal. What prompted it?

GARSD: Well, cases in New York have nearly doubled over the past week, and there is a lot of concern here over the delta variant. September is the month when New Yorkers tend to come back from summer travels, school gets back in session, people head back to work. The city is reopening, and meanwhile, cases are creeping up. So there's this sense of urgency. Yesterday, Governor Andrew Cuomo put it into words that I think a lot of New Yorkers feel right now.

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ANDREW CUOMO: We cannot go through what we went through over the past year. We can't. We can't. You can't. I can't. The economy can't. Society can't.

KING: All of that said, we know that people feel some kind of way about being ordered to get a vaccine. How are city workers reacting to this?

GARSD: Reactions have been mixed. DC 37, which is the city's largest public employee union, said they encourage vaccination, but the city should negotiate with the union over weekly testing. We got a stronger reaction from FDNY EMS Local 2507, which represents EMTs, paramedics and fire inspectors. They say they strongly oppose this new rule and that a lot of members feel uncomfortable with a vaccine that hasn't gotten final approval from the FDA being mandated.

But there were also positive responses. The teachers union said they support the policy because it makes schools safer and ultimately allows for individual choices. You don't want to get the vaccine? Fine, then wear a mask and get tested.

KING: Right. It's one or the other. What are the numbers on vaccinations in New York City?

GARSD: Well, you know, even though 54% of New Yorkers are fully vaccinated, that rate varies tremendously from one neighborhood to the next. Only 31% of Black New Yorkers are vaccinated. The Bronx lags far behind. Governor Cuomo acknowledged that in immigrant communities and communities of color, there is a well-founded skepticism of the medical establishment. And he says he understands the mistrust.

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CUOMO: We don't know the long-term consequences of the vaccine. But we don't know the long-term consequences of COVID either. And I would rather take my chances with the long-term consequences of the vaccine than with the long-term consequences of COVID.

GARSD: Yesterday, Cuomo announced he's allocating $15 million to organizations to help vaccination efforts on the ground.

KING: NPR's Jasmine Garsd in New York City. Thank you, Jasmine.

GARSD: Thank you for having me.

KING: Also with us this morning, Nicole Nixon of CapRadio in Sacramento. Good morning, Nicole.

NICOLE NIXON, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: OK, so California's new rules, which the governor announced, take effect next week. What's going to change?

NIXON: So state workers will have to verify with their department that they have been vaccinated. If they haven't, then they have to wear a mask at work. They have to get tested every single week. Health care workers also have to provide proof of their vaccinations. Otherwise, they'll have to get tested once or twice a week, depending on what kind of facility they work in. Just over half of California is fully vaccinated. The case rate is much higher than it was in May, and it's continuing to go up. Governor Newsom says the people who are getting sick and going to the hospital are overwhelmingly unvaccinated. And that's putting hospitals in a scary position again.

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GAVIN NEWSOM: We're at a point in this epidemic, this pandemic, where choice - individuals' choice not to get vaccinated - is now impacting the rest of us in a profound and devastating and deadly way.

NIXON: So this move is another shift in California's vaccine strategy. It tried incentives, like a big jackpot, lots of smaller gift cards, which worked with limited success.

KING: I want to ask you about the response to this. Jasmine mentioned that in New York, the city unions have some mixed feelings about a mandate to get a vaccine. What are California's state worker unions saying?

NIXON: So they haven't taken a specific stand on the vaccine or testing requirement itself. Instead, the state workers union says they want more clarity. For instance, if a state worker is not going into the office, meaning they're teleworking, do they need to be vaccinated or get tested regularly? And the union says they want greater clarity from the governor on a centralized teleworking policy. They say there isn't one right now. It's just up to the agency someone works for, even though people have been working from home for well over a year now.

KING: And then health care workers in California are going to face the same decision - either get a vaccine, or get tested regularly. Health care workers are people on the front line. Are they in favor of this?

NIXON: You know, largely, they are. Many of these workers have seen just how sick this virus can make people. The California Primary Care Association says that they're happy. In a statement, they say the science is clear. The vaccines work, and they are safe. They went on to say that over 97% of people seriously sick or dying from COVID-19 are unvaccinated. And they say testing for all unvaccinated health care workers fits the model for good prevention. And the National Union of Healthcare Workers says they think this move will help, quote, "nudge hesitant caregivers to get vaccinated while decreasing the likelihood of a COVID-19 outbreak in medical facilities."

KING: Nicole Nixon of CapRadio in Sacramento. Thank you, Nicole.

NIXON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.