Pennsylvania and New Jersey have already administered more first doses of coronavirus vaccine in August than July, an Inquirer data analysis found, providing promising news as the highly transmissible delta variant spreads and hospitalizations — primarily of the unvaccinated — continue to rise.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, meanwhile, is considering expanding vaccine requirements to more state employees, his office told The Inquirer on Tuesday, and is “evaluating additional commonwealth employer policies” — a move that could also increase the inoculation rate.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy on Monday announced all teachers and state employees must be vaccinated by October or get tested at least once or twice a week.
Between Aug. 1 and Wednesday, nearly 399,000 first shots had been given across Pennsylvania, according to the data analysis, marking an increase from the 355,557 first doses administered in all of July. In New Jersey, almost 287,000 people had gotten first doses so far this month, the analysis showed, compared with 237,639 in July. With several days left in August, and more vaccine mandates expected in light of Monday’s full authorization of the Pfizer vaccine by the Food and Drug Administration, the tallies could still get an additional boost.
Public health leaders have been pushing for more vaccinations in recent weeks as the delta variant threatens to reverse the progress that was made in fending off the pandemic earlier this summer. In the last two weeks, confirmed coronavirus cases have risen about 62% in Pennsylvania and 49% in New Jersey, according to the New York Times, while virus-related hospitalizations have increased 70% in Pennsylvania and 48% in New Jersey.
Earlier this month, Wolf and Murphy announced vaccine mandates for state employees in health and congregate facilities. Philadelphia went a step further, mandating masks in indoor businesses unless the establishment requires patrons and staff to show proof of vaccination.
On Wednesday, Wolf called on the legislature to return to Harrisburg immediately to pass legislation mandating the use of masks in K-12 classrooms and child-care centers throughout the state.
As the Wolf administration continues evaluating additional mandates, the governor’s office said it supports requirements by private employers and strongly encourages all state workers to get shots.
In Philadelphia, there have been early signs that the city’s stricter measures are working. Last week, Philadelphia recorded 20,000 vaccinations, its highest count in two months. In recent weeks, suburbs such as Chester and Montgomery Counties have also noted slight increases in vaccinations, officials there said.
”I think what’s driving increased immunization is maybe a little bit of concern about delta, but a lot of it is mandates,” Esther Chernak, a physician and director of Drexel University’s Center for Public Health Readiness and Communication, said Wednesday. “The mandates are key. ... That’s where we’ll start to see big increases.”
Nationally, the pace of vaccination has increased, too, especially with cases surging and hospitals being overwhelmed across the country, particularly in Southern states.
But there is still much work to be done to reach a level of immunity that could suppress delta, which some experts have estimated as an 80% or higher vaccination rate due to its increased transmissibility.
“We’ve got to aim high because we need 80% or so for this to be over,” Simon Haeder, an assistant professor of public policy at Pennsylvania State University who has researched vaccine hesitancy, access, and mandates, said in an interview Friday. Had more people gotten shots already, he added, “it could be over right now,” but he predicts it will take a while to reach that threshold with delta circulating.
Nationwide, more than 160 million people, including children, are not fully vaccinated, including more than six million Pennsylvanians and 3.3 million New Jerseyans. The number of first doses given so far this month still remains far below the April peak of vaccinations. That month, Pennsylvania gave 2,265,647 first shots, according to federal data, while New Jersey administered 1,586,182.
In a month, vaccine providers will also have to balance administering booster shots, which are set to be offered to fully vaccinated people eight months after their second doses, pending FDA approval. This could create another rush on clinics, though officials told The Inquirer last week they expect this rollout to go more smoothly than the initial one last winter.