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D.C. employees must get coronavirus vaccine or get tested weekly, mayor says

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announces Aug. 10 that city employees will need to get vaccinated against the coronavirus or take regular tests. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced Tuesday all city employees and contractors will be required to be vaccinated or undergo weekly testing for the coronavirus, with vaccination required for new employees.

Bowser stopped short of issuing a full mandate, and officials argued that educating employees about the vaccine and allowing for a testing option — instead of issuing a blanket requirement — would ultimately increase vaccination rates.

If it doesn’t, City Administrator Kevin Donahue said the city would consider other strategies.

“The goal is to get everyone vaccinated,” Donahue said. “There is an opportunity working with our employees and their unions to be able to boost our vaccine numbers much higher than they are now, I believe without getting to the point where we have to impose a mandate as a condition of employment.”

The order — which applies to all city employees and contractors, including teachers, police officers and sanitation workers — requires them to be fully vaccinated by Sept. 19 or take weekly coronavirus tests. Employees who fill job openings that were posted after Aug. 13 will be required to get vaccinated unless they have a medical or religious objection, in which case they will be required to get weekly tests.

But the order will not apply to teachers and staff at charter schools, which are publicly funded and privately operated institutions that educate nearly 50 percent of public school children. Many charter schools are expected to enact a similar rule among their employees, according to local charter leaders.

So far just 59 percent of the city’s 37,000 workers have reported their vaccination status to officials, according to D.C. data, with 54 percent of those employees reporting being fully vaccinated. Unvaccinated employees will be required to complete self-test kits and, with the help of their supervisors, virtually upload proof of a negative test each week.

The Bowser administration had said last week that officials were working with local labor leaders to determine how a vaccine requirement would be enacted and enforced. At Tuesday’s announcement, the mayor was flanked by the city’s most powerful labor leaders, a sign that they backed her decision.

With caveats, Washington Teachers’ Union follows national unions and says it would support a vaccine mandate

“As union labor leaders, we wanted to make sure that they have put something in place and represent those that didn’t want to fully become vaccinated at the moment,” said Corey Upchurch, president of AFSCME Local 1959, which represents school bus drivers and attendants. “Weekly testing will be a good option for them.”

The city has seen a steady increase in virus cases, driven in part by the highly contagious delta variant and pockets of unvaccinated residents.

“We know that we have been very steadfast and successful in crushing the virus in the District, and now we are going to do that with the delta variant,” Bowser said. “The way to do that, however, is to get everyone vaccinated.”

D.C. Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt said people between the ages of 25 and 34 are driving the increase in cases in the city. D.C. children between the ages of 5 and 14 are also experiencing an uptick of cases when compared with last year and now account for 10 percent of new cases.

Nesbitt stressed that there are huge disparities in vaccination rates between White and Black residents in these age groups. For example, 51 percent of White children 12 to 15 years old have received at least one dose, while just 14 percent of Black youths in the same age group have received one.

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While Nesbitt said the city has seen an increase in breakthrough cases in vaccinated residents, the majority of cases are occurring among unvaccinated people. And the overwhelming majority of people hospitalized are unvaccinated.

“The vaccine indeed is still working,” Nesbitt said. “Since vaccines became available, out of all of the hospitalizations of D.C. residents, about 1 or 2 percent of those hospitalizations were in people who were fully vaccinated.”

Bowser’s move follows announcements last week by the governors of Maryland and Virginia that they are requiring some state employees to get vaccinated or take weekly coronavirus tests by Sept. 1. And last week, D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D), an independent elected official, announced that employees in his office would be required to get vaccinated by Sept. 13 or get tested weekly.

At the news conference Tuesday, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said there is no plan to test vaccinated employees who work in school buildings. The school system has not yet announced specific safety protocols for those buildings. But Ferebee said that given the latest and looser Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on who is considered a close contact, he does not expect to quarantine entire classrooms if someone in the group contracts the virus, as was the policy in the previous academic year.

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Coronavirus news in D.C., Virginia and Maryland

The latest: More than two years into the pandemic, covid cases in the D.C. region are rising again, , while liberal Montgomery County asks who deserves credit for its robust covid response. Meanwhile, Black funeral directors still face a daunting amount of deaths from covid and the omicron wave has had an unequal toll in the DMV.

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Omicron: Remaining covid restrictions in the D.C.-area, plus a breakdown of variant symptoms and mask recommendations.

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