California calls for booster vaccinations for medical workers

ADAM BEAM / Associated Press

California’s roughly 2.5 million health care workers have until February 1 to get a booster vaccination against the coronavirus or to lose their job, Governor Gavin Newsom said on Wednesday.

Newsom announced further details on the booster mandate during a press conference Wednesday at a vaccine clinic in Oakland. He had initially announced a new rule on Tuesday afternoon.

California became the first state to mandate vaccination for health care workers in September. Most of the workers have complied. But thousands of others have either lost their jobs or have been suspended.

Now California is at least the second state, after New Mexico, to require a booster vaccination for its healthcare workers. Also this week, two of the nation’s largest public university systems – California State University and the University of California – announced that students would need a booster vaccination for the spring semester.

California also requires that other groups either be vaccinated or undergo weekly tests, including government employees and ultimately teachers and students. But Newsom said Wednesday it has no plans to require booster vaccinations from these other groups.

Instead, he said California will provide up to two coronavirus test kits to take away for each of the state’s 6.1 million+ students in the state’s public schools, while expanding lessons in the 6,288 state test centers.

However, Newsom said the rules for booster shots may change.

“Hopefully we don’t have to take that into account if all of our interventions are successful,” Newsom said.

California scores significantly better than other states when it comes to the spread of the virus. Of everyone who tested for the virus in California, only 3.3% tested positive – the lowest rate in the country, Newsom said. California has the sixth lowest case rate with 13.6 new cases per 100,000 people in seven days.

As of Tuesday, California had 3,589 coronavirus patients hospitalized, a 12% increase since December 1. But that’s far less than the peak of the surge last winter, when the state had nearly 22,000 coronavirus patients before vaccines were widely available. Today, more than 70% of California’s 40 million or so residents are fully vaccinated.

Much is unknown about the Omicron coronavirus variant, including whether it causes more or less serious illness. Scientists say Omicron spreads even more easily than other strains of coronavirus, including Delta. Early studies suggest that those vaccinated need a booster dose to best prevent omicron infection, but even without the extra dose, the vaccination should still provide strong protection from serious illness and death.

Federal officials said Omicron is the most common form of the virus in the United States, accounting for 73% of all cases on Monday. In California, state officials estimate that around half of the cases are due to Omicron, but Newsom said the real number is likely much higher and will be released on Thursday.

California reported more than 10,900 new cases on Tuesday. On Wednesday, Los Angeles County – the most populous county in the country with nearly 10 million people – reported more than 6,500 new cases, more than double Tuesday’s number. Local health officials said the county could have more than 20,000 cases a day by the end of the year.

Barbara Ferrer, the county’s public health director, said officials are not considering topping up requirements beyond the state’s new regulations on health workers. More than 2 million Los Angeles residents who are older than 5 years remain unvaccinated. And 62% of residents who are entitled to a booster vaccination have not.

Nationwide, more than 8.8 million Californians have received a booster vaccination to date.

“We need to increase that number if we are to hold the line and reduce growth for hospitals,” Newsom said.

While hospitals have far fewer coronavirus patients than they did a year ago, most are struggling with a shortage of health workers. A recent study by the University of California at San Francisco estimates that a nationwide long-term care shortage will last until at least 2026.

A new booster mandate could convince more workers to quit. But the California Hospital Association said Wednesday it supports the new rule “to further protect health care workers and hospital patients.”

“While we don’t know enough about Omicron to determine its precise implications for the need for hospital care, we do know that booster syringes provide additional protection – something that will be vital to the care of everyone in need like California.” And the nation as a whole continues to face a persistent shortage of health workers, “said Carmela Coyle, president and CEO of the California Hospital Association.

The California Nurses Association said it is reviewing the new booster mandate for health care workers. In a press release, the group said it strongly supports anyone who gets vaccinated while respecting medical and religious exceptions. However, they said that other measures were needed to protect health workers.

“Science shows that a multi-measure approach to infection control is most effective and vaccination is only one component, albeit a crucial one,” the group said in a press release calling for more personal protective equipment and adequate staffing in hospitals.

Associated Press reporter Stefanie Dazio contributed to coverage from Los Angeles.

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