As more employers, cities, and states move to mandate vaccines for their residents, employees, and patrons in an emerging patchwork of rules, officials governing the Philadelphia region haven’t begun setting mandates — but Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, and Bucks County officials are weighing possible vaccine requirements for public workers.
While Democratic-controlled New Jersey implemented its first statewide vaccine requirements this week for certain health workers, Gov. Tom Wolf said Friday his administration was “still deciding” whether to require coronavirus vaccination for some or all state employees.
During a visit to an East Mount Airy vaccine clinic on Friday, he also indicated he hadn’t considered creating a state policy like New York City’s that would require restaurants and gyms to get proof of vaccination from patrons.
“I think [we’re] at this point now … where individuals have the ability to make up their own mind,” Wolf said. “I think people, patrons are going to be making up their own minds about whether they feel safe going to restaurants.”
Pennsylvania “is not contemplating proof of vaccination to access any businesses at this time,” Department of Health spokesperson Mark O’Neill said. “We do, however, support private businesses that choose to take steps to protect their employees and customers.”
Without a federal vaccination mandate or proof-of-vaccine program such as vaccine “passports,” localized vaccine verification steps have begun gaining momentum in recent weeks.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said his administration is contemplating several options, including “things in the general neighborhood of what New York City is doing.” He announced Monday he would be requiring vaccinations or weekly testing for certain health and long-term-care facility workers and hinted it could expand to other sectors, such as transit.
In Delaware, “everything is on the table,” Division of Public Health director Karyl Rattay said, but nothing has been implemented. Bucks County Commissioners’ Chair Diane Ellis-Marseglia said commissioners were considering requirements for county employees, and said she believed requiring proof of vaccination in some settings could increase the immunization rate.
Acting Philadelphia Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole said this week that implementing a system like New York City’s was not “top of mind.” And Wolf — whose previous pandemic restrictions led voters to approve curbing the governor’s emergency powers — said he would “follow my own counsel on this.”
“I’m not sure exactly what New York City is doing,” the governor said when asked about that city’s proof-of-vaccine system. “But again, we’re going to do what I think is best for Pennsylvania.”
Meanwhile, it has become increasingly clear that the U.S. needs a higher vaccination rate to fend off delta and future virus mutations. Measures like universal masking may be necessary unless vaccine-verification systems are put in place, predicted Esther Chernak, a physician and director of Drexel University’s Center for Public Health Readiness and Communication.
“Ultimately, we won’t need vaccine requirements if more people go out and get their shot right now,” Camden County Commissioner Director Louis Cappelli Jr. said in a statement.
Counties wary to act
Leaders in Camden, Burlington, Chester, Montgomery, and Delaware Counties are not considering implementing vaccine mandates for public employees or businesses, or said they did not have the authority to do so.
“We are firm believers that the vaccine is the strongest weapon in the fight against COVID-19,” said the commissioners of Chester County, where more than 99% of residents 12 and older have gotten at least one shot, according to the CDC. “However, the decision to receive the vaccine is personal. Likewise, the decision of a business to require the vaccination of their customers or employees is personal and not something that should be regulated by the county.”
This comes as New York City announced its mandate Tuesday for indoor venues, a move that in France led hundreds of thousands to flock to vaccination clinics. President Joe Biden this week threw his support behind New York’s mandates, urging state officials to empower businesses to require patrons to show they’ve been vaccinated.
If more businesses and officials followed the city’s lead, several public health experts told The Inquirer, the U.S. vaccination rate could see a boost at a crucial time when delta variant-driven outbreaks are spreading.
But as frustration and anger increase nationwide, a divide grows between the vaccinated and unvaccinated, and political tensions remain high, the decision to ask for vaccine verification for now is often up to individual businesses.
Coronavirus vaccines greatly reduce the risk of being hospitalized, or dying from the coronavirus. With the immunization rate not as high as public health officials had hoped it would be by now, the number of preventable deaths — mostly in the unvaccinated — continues to mount, and cases continue to increase, with undervaccinated communities most affected.
In response, Biden announced last week that federal workers must be vaccinated or undergo regular coronavirus testing, while a growing number of major companies and health systems are mandating vaccination for their employees.
Making being unvaccinated ‘inconvenient’
States and cities can take this step, too. California and New York are among those requiring vaccination for all state employees. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, said this week that state employees who work in congregate settings must get vaccinated by Sept. 1 or wear masks and get tested regularly, and Virginia announced a similar policy for all state employees.
Some private companies, such as Disney and Walmart, are mandating employee vaccination. Other companies are paying employees to get immunized; Chester County-based Vanguard announced this week it will give a $1,000 bonus to all employees who get vaccinated by Oct. 1. Montgomery County officials say they have seen high rates of vaccines even when employers just encourage the shots.
Others, including some universities and hospitals, are waiting until the vaccines have full approval by the Food and Drug Administration, which is expected to spur a wave of mandates.
No matter what policies are implemented, said epidemiologist Chrysan Cronin, a Mulhenberg University professor, they have to disrupt the lives of the unvaccinated in order to drive more people to get shots.
“It’s just going to have to come down to, well, you’re going to get vaccinated or you’re not going to be able to work. You’re not going to be able to go to a restaurant. You’re not going to be able to go to a movie theater,” she said. “We have to make it inconvenient.”
For proof that mandates work — and a lens into what a post-pandemic world could be like with more of them — look at the effectiveness of long-standing vaccine requirements, said Jennifer Horney, director of the epidemiology program at the University of Delaware.
There’s a reason “we don’t have big outbreaks of measles and mumps and rubella and all these things in schools and colleges” where vaccines against those diseases are required, she said. “We have plenty of evidence to show these kinds of vaccine mandates to participate in public activities, like public school, definitely work to protect the population.”
Staff writer Laura McCrystal contributed to this article.