Employees of Philadelphia’s higher education and health care systems must be vaccinated by mid-October, or wear masks while indoors and get COVID tested at least once a week, city officials announced Friday.
Under the new mandate, all students and employees must be vaccinated by Oct. 15 unless they have religious or medical exemptions, said acting Philadelphia Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole.
Healthcare workers who are not vaccinated will be required to wear a mask and get a PCR or antigen test twice per week, Bettigole said.
Unvaccinated college students and staff will be required to wear a mask indoors, and get a PCR test once per week or an antigen test twice per week, Bettigole said. Once a college reaches a 90% vaccination rate, unvaccinated people can forego testing but must wear a mask indoors.
The city also made an adjustment to the indoor mask mandate announced earlier this week to accommodate parents with young children who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated. Now, essential businesses like grocery stores, doctors offices, and pharmacies must require masks indoors and cannot be vaccination-only establishments. Additionally, if a family is dining at a restaurant that requires guests to be vaccinated indoors, masked children can go inside to use the bathroom and the business would not be violating the mandate, Bettigole said.
The Philadelphia Board of Health voted to institute the mandate on Thursday, due to the delta variant’s high transmission rate and fast climbing infection rates among college-age students. The board was also concerned that soon the city’s colleges will bring in tens of thousands of students, including from places with higher levels of infection than Philadelphia, said Marla J. Gold, vice provost for community healthcare innovation at Drexel University and a member of the city’s board of health.
”This protects the students,” said Gold. “It protects the workers. It protects the people who live in Philadelphia.”
Bettigole said officials discussed the mandate “extensively” with the city’s law department, and the Board of Health has the authority to enact vaccine mandates during an emergency like the coronavirus pandemic. It is possible that the city will expand the vaccine mandate to include more categories of people, Bettigole said.
”This is what we’re doing today and we’re hopeful that this will be enough to control the spread and to protect the people who are most vulnerable,” she said. “I can’t promise you that we wouldn’t be adding other groups to this. It just depends what happens.”
Under the new regulations, “health care worker” includes employees, contractors, students and volunteers who work in-person at an organization that provides health care services — regardless of whether their job includes direct contact with patients.
Home health aides and nursing home workers, which Bettigole said are “some of our highest-risk and lowest-vaccinated workers,” are included.
People who work entirely through telework do not have to get vaccinated. The vaccine mandate also does not apply to grocery stores, convenience stores, pharmacies, membership-based warehouse stores and other businesses that may provide health care services but are primarily retail businesses.
Philadelphia’s largest health systems have already mandated that staff be vaccinated. Thomas Jefferson University will require staff within its health system and those in non-medical fields to get vaccinated by Oct. 29. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia set a deadline of Oct. 20 for staff to get vaccinated. Penn Medicine was the first to require COVID-19 vaccination when it announced in May that employees would need to be vaccinated by Sept. 1.
Most Philadelphia universities had also instituted vaccine mandates for students, faculty, and staff before returning to campus this fall, including the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel, La Salle, Holy Family, Thomas Jefferson, and St. Joseph’s University. The Community College of Philadelphia required faculty and staff to get inoculated by Oct. 1, and students by Jan. 18. Exemptions for medical and religious reasons are allowed.
Temple said in a statement that it stands ready to implement the new vaccine requirement. The university already had planned to require students and employees who weren’t vaccinated to be tested weekly for the virus.
“Public health experts have made it clear that widespread vaccination is our best defense in the fight to mitigate the virus, and to restore the joy and value of gathering with families, friends, and colleagues,” Temple President Jason Wingard said in a statement. “It is also the responsible action to protect the health and welfare [of] our communities.”
Bradley A. Smutek, president of Temple’s student government, said he was elated.
”This is what needed to happen,” the senior history major said. “The vaccines are safe. They are effective. They are by and large now accessible and the city is going to make them more accessible. This is exactly what we needed to get back to normal.”
Staff reporter Sarah Gantz contributed to this article.