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D.C. announces vaccine requirement for health-care workers

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), right, holds a news conference on Aug. 16 to address the city’s latest coronavirus policies. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
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A previous version of this article incorrectly reported that D.C. is requiring health-care employees in the city to get a coronavirus vaccine or get regular testing. Employees can opt for regular testing if their employer offers it as an option.

All health-care employees in D.C. must get at least the first dose of a coronavirus vaccine by Sept. 30, city officials announced Monday — the latest step in the District’s drive to push workers to get vaccinated as cases continue to climb.

D.C. Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt said the requirement applies to licensed and unlicensed health professionals and EMS providers working in the city, and workers can, for now, opt out in favor of regular testing if their employer offers that alternative. Once one of the vaccines gets full federal approval, however, workers can opt out only if they have a religious or medical exemption.

“It’s a very robust requirement, and it is necessary for us to ensure that we’re creating safe environments in our health-care facilities, and in any place where people receive health care . . . to make sure we can prevent outbreaks,” Nesbitt said. “We all saw what happened last year during the peak of the pandemic when health-care workers themselves were succumbing to the infection because they didn’t have opportunity for protection with a vaccine.”

D.C.-area hospitals do not yet have vaccine mandates for staffers — but many will soon

The requirement includes private ambulance services, personal health-care aides and other health-care facility workers — such as cleaning staff and those who provide dietary services. Additionally, Nesbitt said that anyone applying for or renewing a medical license or certification in D.C. will need to prove they are fully vaccinated.

But the requirement won’t hold much power until the vaccines receive full authorization. Once that happens, more severe consequences for unvaccinated health-care workers will kick in, such as the city potentially revoking the health-care licenses of noncompliant employees.

District officials said they decided on this slow-roll approach as a way to build trust among vaccine-hesitant health-care workers and give hospitals time to prepare for the more stringent requirement rules.

Yvonne Slosarski, spokeswoman for 1199 SEIU Maryland/DC Division, a union representing health-care workers in the District and Maryland, said some workers are still hesitant about getting vaccinated for an array of reasons: Some are worried about side effects, while others are concerned about missing work to get a shot or to deal with the side effects.

The union had issued a statement in June saying it did not support a vaccine mandate without a testing option, asserting that such a “hard-handed” approach would further frustrate health-care workers.

The new requirement for health-care workers comes less than a week after Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said D.C. employees must get vaccinated or be tested weekly for the coronavirus. That order applied to all city employees, contractors and grantees, including teachers, police officers and sanitation workers.

Jacqueline D. Bowens, the president of the D.C. Hospital Association, said in June that vaccinations would soon be required for most D.C. hospital workers, but facilities had been able to decide their own timelines for the mandates.

Tracking coronavirus deaths, cases and vaccinations in D.C., Maryland and Virginia

Several private health providers contacted on Monday said that they were just hearing about the city’s rule and that they would be working with staff to decide how to implement the requirement.

In Maryland, officials also announced earlier this summer that hospital staff would be required to get vaccinated — and said individual facilities could establish their own timelines. Some hospitals have set dates by which employees must be vaccinated; others have not.

D.C.’s seven-day average of new daily cases per 100,000 residents reached 21 last week, a number Nesbitt pointed out was twice as high as the same time last year. She called the surge “disheartening” considering the prevalence and availability of vaccine doses.

City data also shows that the vast majority of new cases and hospitalizations in recent months are being driven by the unvaccinated, Nesbitt said. Of the 45 people who have died of the virus in the District since May, none were fully vaccinated, and nearly all were African American.

“It’s truly a tragedy when we have the opportunity to prevent loss of life from covid-19,” but vaccine hesitancy persists, Nesbitt said. She added that the pandemic is now driven largely by unvaccinated 18- to 40-year-olds, who are “the ones who are keeping covid around.”

Hospitalizations in Maryland have more than doubled since Aug. 1, when there were 256 patients being treated for covid-19. On Monday, 526 people were hospitalized, including 133 in the intensive care unit — the most the state has seen since the end of May.

Many of the state’s rural counties — including Cecil, Worcester, Dorchester and Wicomico counties on the Eastern Shore, and Cecil County — are driving the state’s overall positivity rates and community transmission levels.

Statewide, there is a seven-day average of 14.14 coronavirus cases per 100,000 people. In Dorchester County, there is an average of 39.82 cases per 100,000 people, which is almost three times the state average. Wicomico County is at 32.4 cases per 100,000 people. Meanwhile, Prince George’s County is also higher than the state average at 17.89 cases, which is the highest it has seen since April.

Most severe covid cases, deaths in DMV region are among the unvaccinated

Virginia’s seven-day average of cases per 100,000 people rose to 24.11 on Monday — a number the state hasn’t seen since February. Hospitalizations for covid-19 there reached a seven-day average of 1,025 on Monday, part of a steady trend upward that began in late June.

On Monday, Nesbitt also discussed additional vaccine doses that were recently permitted by the Food and Drug Administration for people with specific health conditions and medical histories, such as solid-organ transplant recipients and those with autoimmune disorders.

She said the city is urging D.C. residents to speak with their health-care providers about whether an additional vaccine dose is appropriate.

Karina Elwood and Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.

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