Acting Philadelphia Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole issued a key reminder this week for staff of hospitals and long-term care facilities and for students, staff and faculty at higher education institutions. They must have their first COVID-19 vaccination dose or an exemption by Friday.

Bettigole sald the majority of people in those settings have been vaccinated.

“You know that getting vaccinated isn’t about making a deadline — it’s about saving the lives of the people around you,” she said during a virtual news media update Wednesday.

“In high-risk health settings, it really can be a matter of life or death. And given that in these settings a health care worker’s most important job is to keep people alive, being vaccinated during a pandemic is the lowest bar to clear. I’ve said it before: If you’re not willing to do what it takes to protect patients, maybe health care isn’t the job for you.”

Bettigole said she was confident that more health care workers and people in higher education would get vaccinated ahead of the deadline. She noted that 85% of workers in Philadelphia’s long-term care facilities have already received their first dose.

Zachary Shamberg, president of the Pennsylvania Health Care Association, issued a letter to Bettigole asking that the city Department of Public Health delay the deadline.

“It is our understanding that frontline health care workers who do not receive at least the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by this Friday will be terminated from their roles. For nursing homes, that represents approximately 25% of the workforce,” Shamberg wrote.

“As we await forthcoming federal guidance — and a similar mandate — from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), and as we work to combat the current workforce crisis, we are requesting the Philadelphia Department of Public Health delay its mandate deadline so that providers have more time to boost COVID-19 vaccine acceptance rates,” the letter said.

“Additionally, we are requesting that you consider an alternative to mandating the vaccine, such as routine, weekly testing, so that workers can remain on the frontlines to provide care for our vulnerable residents.”

Bettigole said the mandate does not require long-term care facilities to terminate unvaccinated staff.

“They are not required to terminate people. They simply can’t have them work,” she explained.

“They could carry people on unpaid leave and give them a certain time to get vaccinated. That probably would be a reasonable approach. But it’s not an option to continue to have these unvaccinated staff members coming into these facilities with vulnerable seniors who are at risk.”

The federal government is expected to publish detailed rules on a vaccine mandate later this month that will apply immediately to all health care settings that receive Medicaid and Medicare funds.

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