By Michael Brice-Saddler and Perry Stein,
Bill O’Leary The Washington Post
All health-care employees in D.C. must get at least the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine or begin regular testing 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. 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.”
The requirement includes private ambulance services, personal health-care aides and other health-care facility workers — like cleaning staff and those that 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.
The announcement comes less than a week after Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said D.C. employees must get the coronavirus vaccine or be tested weekly for the virus. 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 D.C. would soon require vaccinations for hospital workers, but facilities so far had been able to consider the mandate on varying timelines.
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 double the rate from the same time last year. She called the surge “disheartening” considering the prevalence and availability of the vaccine.
City data also show 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 city since May, none were fully vaccinated and nearly all of them were African American.
“It’s truly a tragedy when we have the opportunity to prevent loss of life from covid-19,” Nesbitt said, adding 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 Worcester, Dorchester and Wicomico counties on the Eastern Shore, and Cecil County, which borders Pennsylvania and Delaware — are driving the state’s overall positivity rates and community transmission levels.
Statewide, there is a 7-day average of 14.14 cases of covid-19 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.
Virginia’s seven-day average of cases per 100,000 people rose to 24.11 on Monday — a number that 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, like 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.
Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.