Mayor Adams has exempted professional athletes and performers from the city’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for private employers. This overdue and commendable action highlights the absurdity of continuing the city’s mandates for other private workers and city employees. Simply put, there is little to gain from continuing these mandates and lots to lose.
Vaccine mandates attracted attention in October when Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving refused to comply with an earlier city mandate requiring anyone entering an indoor venue, including basketball arenas, to be vaccinated. That meant Irving could not play in the 43 regular-season home games in Brooklyn. The team balked at having a part-time player and excluded him from practices and road games, a policy it relaxed in December when Omicron infected Brooklyn’s vaccinated players and depleted the roster.
Three weeks ago, Adams proclaimed, “It’s time to open our city and get the economy back operating,” and lifted the indoor venue mandate.
But another mandate — a first-in-the-nation vaccine mandate for private businesses — imposed in December by then-Mayor Bill de Blasio just five days before leaving office, remains in effect. It requires workers at New York City businesses to show proof of vaccination. This would have kept Irving off the basketball court and New York’s unvaccinated baseball players off the field in the season that starts in two weeks.
No longer necessary
Adams’ athletic exemption was undoubtedly influenced by the incongruity of requiring vaccinations for athletes playing in front of thousands of unmasked fans who may or may not be vaccinated. Yet the mayor should end the mandate for all employees, including city workers covered by a separate mandate imposed in October, since they no longer protect workers from infection.
Initially, vaccines were effective at stopping infection with the virus that causes COVID-19. But effectiveness against transmission has progressively declined as new viral variants have supplanted older ones.
By the time the private-business mandate went into effect, the highly transmissible Omicron variant was sweeping the nation and comprised 85% of New York-area cases. It was already clear that vaccines provided far less protection against Omicron infection than against earlier variants. Vaccines provide even less protection against the newer and more transmissible Omicron BA.2 subtype, which currently accounts for 35% of cases nationwide and 52% in the New York area.
Vaccine mandates are also unnecessary to protect the healthcare system from being overwhelmed. New hospital COVID admissions have fallen to the lowest levels since early in the pandemic. Only 72% of ICU beds nationwide are in use, well within normal, pre-pandemic ICU-bed occupancy range. And of these beds, only 3.66% are being used for COVID-19 patients. New York ICU figures are identical.
Employee mandates seem pointless when 87% of New York City residents 18 and older — those in the work force — are fully vaccinated and another 10% are partially vaccinated. Nationwide, 89% of the most vulnerable population, ages 65 and older, is fully vaccinated. Moreover, more than half of the US population has had COVID-19. Natural immunity following recovery provides at least as good immunity as vaccination.
Continuing the mandates will hobble businesses that are already struggling to fill vacant positions. The city-worker mandate has resulted in 1,430 employees, including essential workers such as police, firefighters and teachers, being laid off. Thousands more city workers await rulings on their exemption applications.
Vaccination is still strongly recommended for most people. Even though effectiveness against infection has waned, the shots remain highly effective at protecting against severe COVID disease and death. While I and other medical professionals think that workers who refuse vaccines are misguided, the people they are potentially harming are themselves.
Adams may not want to give the appearance of backing down to city employees who refused vaccination orders while most of their colleagues obeyed. A potential compromise would allow the return of unvaccinated city workers who can demonstrate recovery from a COVID infection or adherence to periodic testing.
The mayor seems genuinely interested in promoting the city’s economic recovery. But recovery cannot occur when thousands of private and city employees are barred from work. The science shows that the time has come to lift these outdated and unnecessary employee mandates.