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Delta Surge Sparks Vaccine Mandates and Return to Masks

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Governor Cuomo's NYS flickr page.
New York Governor Cuomo's team urging people to get vaccinated

WBGO reporter Bob Hennelly chats with host Doug Doyle about the Delta variant of the coronavirus and how it's sparking vaccine mandates and a return to wearing masks indoors.

DOYLE: A dramatic spike in the Delta variant of the coronavirus has caused infections to soar here and around the nation and prompted a wave of vaccine mandates for both public and private sectors in just the last week. At the same time, the CDC has reversed itself on its guidance from May that vaccinated individuals no longer needed to wear masks in indoor public settings. It is now suggesting people wear masks based on local conditions.

With us now is WBGO’s Bob Hennelly, who is also the City Hall reporter for the Chief-Leader.

Thanks for joining us Bob.

HENNELLY: Thanks for having me.

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Doug Doyle/Zoom
Bob Hennelly and Doug Doyle chat on Zoom about the Delta variant

DOYLE: It’s been a while since we have spoken on the WBGO Journal about the coronavirus. Where are we in this fight right now?

HENNELLY: By the numbers, by the dashboard what we are seeing is we are hitting around 500 deaths nationally, nowhere near the 3,000 a day we saw tragically happen in January. We are seeing in states and locales where the vaccination rate is below the national average, where you’re seeing just 35 percent or 40 percent vaccinated, we are seeing the Delta variant is blowing through this population and is accelerating hospitalizations and deaths in those places. And we are also seeing an increasing awareness by public health officials that they underestimated the transmissibility of the Delta variant, which is, depending on what you consult, many times more contagious than the original Alpha virus we spent the last year and a half fighting.

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Governor Cuomo's NYS flickr page.
Governor Andrew Cuomo continues to push for people to get vaccinated in New York

DOYLE: So, Bob, can you localize those stats for us?

HENNELLY: What we are seeing is that thanks to the fact that New Jersey and New York tend to have a higher rate of vaccination in the aggregate, we are still seeing relatively low numbers in terms of hospitalizations and deaths. But the CDC does have a county-by-county tracker guide online where you can look to see what’s going on with the transmission of coronavirus, because remember that hospitalizations and deaths are lagging indicators. It takes a couple of weeks sometimes to get a sense of the severity of what’s going on. Based on that, if you happen to be in New York City, four of the boroughs are considered to have substantial transmission going on, and Staten Island has a high level of transmission going on.

Here in New Jersey, it’s a picture with many counties in the substantial category, and Monmouth, where I am now, considered a high transmission area. And that’s the determination that you have to make when you decide if you are going to don a mask or not. A lot of this comes from learning on the fly about the incredible transmissibility of this variant. Of course, the concern here for public health officials is that the more that you have unvaccinated individuals in the population, the greater the chance of a variant getting traction, which ultimately may undermine, as we saw in Manaus, Brazil, the ability of people that had natural immunities because they have been exposed to an earlier variant, or even, heaven forbid, the people that are vaccinated. We have seen some evidence of that already.

DOYLE: So, what do the public health experts you have been talking to believe is driving the infection rates going up?

HENNELLY: One of the important studies about this came out with a CDC analysis of an exposure that happened in a Kentucky nursing home where some 80 percent of the residents, the elderly people living there, had vaccinations but the vaccination rate for the employees was somewhere around 50 percent. What happened in this documented outbreak case study published by the CDC was that one individual who was on staff who was unvaccinated set off an outbreak which resulted in dozens of people getting sick, two residents who were unvaccinated dying and another who was vaccinated. What they are realizing is that having so many people being unvaccinated in such critical path occupations is setting us up for having this kind of exponential explosion of a variant because people in the healthcare professions themselves weren’t sufficiently protected through vaccination.”

DOYLE: Last week, Mayor de Blasio announced a vaccine mandate for all of New York City’s 320,000 municipal employees. New York State Gov. Cuomo for New York State workers did the same. President Biden is expected to do the same for federal workers as are private sector employers. Can you flesh out what this all means? It’s pretty much unprecedented isn’t it?

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Governor Cuomo's NYS flickr page
Officials in New York state continue to stress the need to be vaccinated

HENNELLY: It is. So, it is important here to drill down in the details. Mayor de Blasio is requiring that public employees either get vaccinated or submit to weekly testing. That way he is providing them an option, so it is not strictly a mandate as such. And that is really astute in the sense that it is important to understand that these vaccines, as effective as they are, and as widely used as they are, are still technically being administered under what’s called an Emergency Use Authorization, which means they don’t have full FDA approval and have been issued doing a time that is a state of emergency and so permanent designation is done after there has been more benchmarking and tests. And we have from time to time had some reports of isolated severe reactions but nothing that should undermine the confidence in the vaccine overall. But that designation, which is important, is not expected to happen at the earliest until the fall.

That said, what we are seeing in Gov. Cuomo’s iteration, is that for frontline health care workers, who are involved in congregant or hospital settings, there is not going to be a testing option out.

Similarly, it’s important to keep in mind that the US Veterans Administration has come up with a requirement that 115,000 workers who have the most direct involvement with patients will have to be vaccinated.

This movement started a few months back when private health care providers and assisted living facilities came up with this out of Texas mandating the vaccine with no option to test instead. It was pretty much ‘our way of the highway.’ Initially, it appears the employers right to do this in health care settings is holding up in the courts. It’s important to know that the DOJ has signaled it does not violate the Constitution for employers to do this.

Also, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a few months back, offered guidance that said a vaccine requirement was permissible as long as you provided a reasonable accommodation for people who may have a health issue with taking the vaccine and have an option for people who have a religious objection. If those are in place EEOC says there should be no problem with the mandate. So, we are in an uncharted territory. And it’s going to be resolved in the courts and the court of public opinion.

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Governor Cuomo's NYS Flickr page
New York's state push to get people vaccinated

DOYLE: So much of your coverage if this has been about the unions. What are they saying about all this?

HENNELLY: Well, we had Mr. Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO on C-Span say on Tuesday that he supports it. We see a kind of mixed response depending on the circumstance. Remember, to a large degree, healthcare workers have been providing advice which has been ignored throughout the pandemic. People who listen regularly to our air know that early on the New York Nurses Association and other healthcare unions were saying ‘hey, don’t tell us we should be reusing N-95 masks.’

Remember the guidance before the pandemic was you were supposed to dispose of an N-95 after each clinical encounter. The CDC, being pragmatic and seeing the limit of supply of masks, suggested that people carry the same mask back and forth. And at the time the nurses warned that two things would happen, they would die, their families would get infected and hospitals would become vectors for the disease because of the loosening of the standard. Both things happened.

According to the Guardian newspaper and Kaiser Health News 3,700 to 4,000 healthcare professionals in the United States alone have died from an occupational exposure. So, the unions are feeling that even now, they told the CDC to not lift the mask mandate, so there is a concern that the politicians are rushing the vaccine mandate rather than doing the things they need to do at the same time to support the healthcare system.

We know that politicians don’t want to tell the people they have to go into restrictions, so there is a concern that this is a copout. Generally, the unions support the concept of a vaccination. The American Federation of Government Employees represents several hundred thousand Federal employees and did a very big push online for vaccinations. So, they also have to be really concerned about individual members who have these real issues like what medical advice are they getting from their personal internist about taking the vaccine?

That’s the challenge for unions, they have to be concerned about the aggregate but also protective of the individual.

DOYLE: So, Bob, the next time we get together on the WBGO Journal we are going to have even more fun because we are going to be talking about your new book “Stuck Nation-Can the United States Change the Course of Our History of Choosing Profits over People?”

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Robert Hennelly
Bob Hennelly's new book "Stuck Nation-Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?"

How long did it take you to do this book?

HENNELLY: I would say, a decade of reporting. There are stories that regular listeners to WBGO will recognize. It’s based on first-hand reporting capped off by the last crazy year we have been working on including a pandemic and an insurrection. Who would have ever imagined?

DOYLE: We will talk much more about Stuck Nation with Bob Hennelly the next time we get together on the WBGO Journal.

Note: You can watch the interview at https://fb.watch/75a3VL9-pK/.