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California’s New Vaccine Requirements and Mandates, Explained

The state of California, as well as some local governments, will soon require all public employees to be vaccinated against COVID. Here’s why they’re taking that step.

PUBLISHED JUL 29, 2021 12:00 A.M.
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With COVID cases on the rise, state and local governments are moving to require vaccinations for public employees.

With COVID cases on the rise, state and local governments are moving to require vaccinations for public employees.   U.S. Secretary of Defense / Flickr   C.C. 2.0 Generic License

In California, as of July 27, 2021,  52.41 percent of the state’s population, more than 20.7 million people, were fully vaccinated against the COVID-19 coronavirus, according to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control.  That was not enough. 

With the delta variant spreading at an alarming pace in California and throughout the United States, getting the vaccine may soon no longer be optional.

Starting on Aug. 2 for almost a quarter-million Californians, it won’t be.

On July 26, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that all state employees—who number about 246,000—would be required to prove that they have been vaccinated, or failing that, they must be tested for COVID infection at least once per week, according to a report by the Los Angeles Times. Newsom, however, stopped short of calling his order a vaccine “mandate.” But according to the Times report, it ends the “honor system” which relied on unvaccinated employees to tell the truth about their status.

Unvaccinated state workers will continue to be required to wear masks indoors at work. The difference is, now they can no longer pretend to be vaccinated if they object to masking.

Newsom’s order also applies to health care workers—both those who work for public facilities and in the private healthcare industry. The new requirement for health industry employees kicks in on Aug. 9. Workers in that field who cannot prove that they have been vaccinated will be subject to COVID testing twice weekly. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the healthcare industry in California employs just short of 1.7 million people.

Local Governments Lead the Way on Vaccine Mandates

Santa Clara County on July 23 became the third local government to announce plans for a vaccine requirement. The mandate would affect 22,000 employees, according to a San Francisco Chronicle report. San Francisco and the Southern California city of Pasadena previously said that they would require employees to get vaccinated. In San Francisco, the order will affect all 35,000 city employees. The city is not messing around with its new requirement, either. Employees who refuse to get the shot once the mandate takes effect risk getting a pink slip, according to the Chronicle.

Pasadena’s approximately 2,000 city employees also face a vaccine requirement, with only 60 percent of them self-reporting that they have already received a vaccination—compared to 80.5 percent of the city’s 141,000 residents, according to Pasadena’s online COVID-19 dashboard.

The state’s largest city, Los Angeles, on  July 27, announced its own vaccine requirement for city workers, after what Mayor Eric Garcetti called an “alarming” rise in cases among municipal workers over the previous week. A total of 33 police officers there tested positive for the virus in that span. The Los Angeles requirement also allows workers to substitute regular testing for the vaccination.

Los Angeles County had not yet made vaccines a requirement for county employees, even though it put the indoor mask requirement for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people back into place earlier in July, only one month after it had been lifted when Newsom ended all California COVID health restrictions on June 15.

When Santa Clara County will put its vaccine mandate for public employees into place remained unclear as of late July, but the county was set to be the first local government to impose a mandate before the federal Food and Drug Administration gives official final approval to any of the three vaccines currently in use in the United States. The three vaccines—created by the pharmaceutical firms Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson—have each been green-lighted by the FDA only for “emergency use.” 

A state of emergency for the COVID pandemic was declared nationwide by then-President Donald Trump on March 13, 2020. On Feb. 24, 2021—a little more than a month after taking office—President Joe Biden extended the national emergency declaration. 

As long as the national emergency remains in effect, people can keep right on getting the vaccine. Once the emergency is lifted, the shots may be given only if they’ve received official approval. Private companies will remain in the clear legally if they continue to require their workers to get vaccinated.

That’s the point, also, when San Francisco and Pasadena will put their vaccine requirements into place. So when will that be? Who knows?

Percentage of Cases Among Vaccinated on the Rise

The FDA approval process under normal circumstances can take a year or more. But the COVID vaccines will likely be placed under “priority review,” which can shorten the timeline to six months. Only two of the vaccine makers have submitted their products to the FDA for approval—Pfizer on May 7, and Moderna on June 1, meaning that even if the FDA adheres to the six month timeline, the earliest any vaccine will be approved would come sometime in November.

In the meantime, with barely more than half of California residents being fully vaccinated, and slightly less than half (49.2 percent) nationwide per the CDC, the delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 continues to run wild in the state, and throughout the U.S., mostly affecting unvaccinated individuals—but hitting small but increasing numbers of vaccinated people as well.

In Los Angeles County, the state’s most populous, officials in early July said they believed 99 percent of new COVID cases involved non-vaccinated people. But on July 23, they revealed data from the month of June showing that a full 20 percent of diagnosed cases occurred in people who had been vaccinated.

Health officials are careful to note that even with an increased number of vaccinated people becoming infected, the rate of serious illness and death among vaccinated people is still extremely low. Los Angeles County data showed that between Jan. 19 and July 20, 4.85 million residents received one of the vaccines.

Of those 4.85 million, 6,520 later tested positive for the coronavirus, a rate of one for every 776 vaccinated people. More importantly, just 287 needed to be hospitalized, approximately one in 17,000. Only 30 ended up dying—roughly one of every 161,700.

While the 20 percent figure recorded in Los Angeles County appears alarming, and definitely indicates increasing danger overall from the virus, it needs to be placed in perspective. Because no vaccine provides absolute invulnerability from the virus, there will always be “breakthrough” infections. As the fully vaccinated percentage of the population goes up, the percentage of new cases involving vaccinated people will go up as well. Think of it like this: if at some hypothetical point in time, 100 percent of California residents get vaccinated, then at that point, 100 percent of new infections will occur in vaccinated people.

In Los Angeles County, more than half of all residents—52 percent—were vaccinated by the end of June. That means the unvaccinated 48 percent of the county accounted for 80 percent of the new cases, or about 4,000 cases compared to 1,000 in the vaccinated 52 percent, according to data from the public health department there.

Vaccines: 99 Percent Effective Against COVID Hospitalization and Death

The officials also emphasized that if vaccination does not quite provide total protection against COVID that leads to hospitalization or death, it comes pretty close. According to data from Los Angeles County, from December of 2020 through early June 2021, vaccinated people accounted for a mere 1.3 percent of hospitalizations due to COVID, and an even more minuscule 0.2 percent of deaths.

Vaccination, they stress, is far and away the best way to protect against COVID, both for individuals, and for the state—and American society—as a whole.

Of the new cases, the delta variant accounted for the largest share. According to California Department of Public Health data, on July 21, 82.8 percent of samples from positive COVID tests over the previous month contained the delta variant, also known by its technical name, B.1.617.2 (and previously referred to as the “Indian variant” because it was initially detected in India, in October 2020).

That share was up from 52.8 percent one month earlier, and from just 5.9 percent on May 21.

The upshot of the increases is that more and more Californians will soon be required to get the vaccine, whether they want to or not. In addition to the new requirements for health workers, state employees and the upcoming mandates for public employees in Santa Clara County, San Francisco and Pasadena, California State University announced on July 27 that all students, faculty and staff will be barred from all 23 campuses in the system for the upcoming fall semester unless they get vaccinated, according to EdSource.

The vaccinations must be done by Sept. 30, though some requirements will vary from campus to campus. CSU employs about 56,000 faculty and staff, and has an enrollment of approximately 485,500 students.

The CSU requirement will take effect without the FDA’s official approval of the vaccines. Students, faculty and staff who remain unvaccinated will be subject to strict COVID testing.

Federal workers in California, who number about 172,533, are also expected to soon be subject to a vaccine mandate. On July 29, President Biden put a vaccine requirement in place for federal workers and government contractors, according to a CNN report. Government workers who remain unvaccinated will be subject to twice-weekly COVID tests, must wear a mask at all times on the job, and will face restrictions on their work travel.

Taken together, once they all take effect, the vaccine requirements and mandates announced in late July alone will mean that approximately 2.7 million California residents will be compelled to get a vaccine against COVID-19. Add to that the 52,000 California-based employees of Google, which on July 28 became one of the most prominent private companies to announce a vaccine requirement for employees.

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