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Momentum Grows Across The Country For Mandatory COVID-19 Vaccinations

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Vaccine mandates are on the rise. Facebook and Google are among the latest companies to announce new vaccine requirements for workers coming back to the office. With the delta variant fueling a surge in cases, a growing number of hospitals, universities and municipalities say they will now require unvaccinated workers and students to get a COVID-19 shot. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Back in April, Houston Methodist hospital announced that vaccines would be mandatory for employees. At the time, there was grumbling. There was criticism. Some workers even sued the hospital. But in the end, hospital CEO Dr. Marc Boom says most people got on board.

MARC BOOM: Probably 99.3% of people complied with our policy. So we had a whole bunch of people who just rolled up their sleeve, did the right thing. And, frankly, now we're glad that they did that.

AUBREY: Emergency room nurse Peyton Grisham (ph) says she was very hesitant at first. She just didn't like the idea of a mandate.

PEYTON GRISHAM: Honestly, it freaked me out at first. There was that really big rumor going around that it could affect your fertility.

AUBREY: But after talking with doctors and other nurses, she understood there was no evidence to support that. Now she's relieved she got the shot because she's protected, especially as cases surge.

GRISHAM: We've seen a bunch of people die from COVID. We've seen people on ventilators, countless people.

AUBREY: Dr. Boom says these deaths are largely preventable through vaccination. And mandates, he says, work.

BOOM: What better way to make sure that we protect our patients than to vaccinate ourselves against a terrible disease with a safe and effective vaccine? So I think you're going to see the calculus shifting quite a bit.

AUBREY: Over the last few days, there's been a flurry of announcements. California announced a vaccine requirement - or regular testing - for state employees. And in New York City, there will be a requirement for teachers, firefighters and police. Dr. Zeke Emanuel of the University of Pennsylvania says more than 50 medical groups have called for mandatory vaccinations of all health care workers, given that many remain unvaccinated.

EZEKIEL EMANUEL: We've made vaccines readily available. We've made it free. How cheap can it be? We've educated people. We've worked with community leaders. But the next logical thing is to mandate.

AUBREY: Given that vaccinations have stalled a bit at a time when cases are steadily increasing. A growing list of universities say they'll make COVID vaccinations mandatory this fall with exemptions for religious or medical reasons. Cal State had said it would wait for full FDA approval of the vaccines, but announced this week they'll go ahead with the requirement now amid the delta surge. At nursing homes around the country, about 62% of employees have been vaccinated. And outbreaks of COVID have been linked to unvaccinated workers. Katie Smith Sloan is CEO of LeadingAge, a trade group that represents nonprofit providers, including nursing homes. She is strongly encouraging all of them to consider vaccine mandates for staff, given vaccination rates have trailed off.

KATIE SMITH SLOAN: The numbers do seem to be stalled. And we don't want a repeat of what we've been through. So now is the time to take some extra precautions.

AUBREY: New data from Israel, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, finds vaccinated health care workers have been highly protected against breakthrough infections. And that's reassuring, says registered nurse Krystal Haversham (ph). She works at Well-Spring Retirement Community in Greensboro, N.C., where a mandate was announced this week.

KRYSTAL HAVERSHAM: I do think the mandate is a good idea. I mean, I think people feel safer.

AUBREY: There will be exemptions for those with valid medical or religious reasons. Otherwise, employees have until the end of October to get fully vaccinated.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF AK'S "WANDERLUST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.