Philadelphia is extending its deadline for health-care workers and higher education students and employees to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, acting Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole announced Wednesday, citing concern from employers that they would be unable to meet next week’s deadline.
“My goal is to get everyone vaccinated and not leave our health-care and higher education systems shorthanded,” Bettigole said.
Instead of being fully vaccinated by the end of next week, staff of hospitals and long-term care facilities, along with higher education students, faculty, and staff now must receive at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by Oct. 15 and a second dose a month later.
Bettigole announced an even longer extension for all other health-care workers, including those who work as home health aides and in behavioral health settings — which she said have the lowest vaccination rates. Those workers now must receive at least one dose of the vaccine by Oct. 22 and a second dose by Nov. 22.
Under Philadelphia’s mandate, religious and medical exemptions are available. Those with exemptions are required to wear masks and get tested for the coronavirus twice a week. But unvaccinated workers or students without exemptions are unable to continue working or studying in health care or higher education settings.
The city announced its vaccine mandate for health-care and higher education workers in August, with an initial deadline of Oct. 15. Despite that advance warning, Bettigole said she heard from many employers requesting additional time for their staff to get their shots.
Across the country, similar vaccine mandates have threatened to exacerbate staffing shortages as some workers are fired or suspended for not complying. But the measures have also worked, with vaccination rates of 90% or higher reported at major health systems that have mandates in California, New York, and North Carolina.
And in the Philadelphia region, demand for the vaccine has been relatively high among the general public, with 73% of all residents — and more than 80% of adults — in Pennsylvania and New Jersey having gotten at least one shot as of Wednesday. The pace of new vaccinations picked up at the end of the summer, but has slowed considerably in recent weeks.
Only two of nearly 50 Philadelphia nursing homes had 100% full vaccination rates among employees as of Sept. 19, the most recent federal data available, and more than 20 facilities had rates below 75%. Vaccine uptake by workers in long-term care facilities — the vulnerable residents of which were hit hardest by the pandemic — has also been an issue across the country and the region.
The University of Pennsylvania Health System has 99% compliance with its vaccine mandate announced in May, while Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia said it has 93% of employees vaccinated and Jefferson Health has 85% of employees fully vaccinated.
John Preston, secretary treasurer for Teamsters Local 929, said he was relieved to hear the city had extended the deadline for its mandate. Only about 60% of the 112 members in his union who work for the American Red Cross — including people who deliver life-saving blood and blood by-products throughout the city — have been partially or fully vaccinated, he said.
The city’s extension will help the Red Cross “address some anticipated staffing challenges as we work to support employees in their efforts to get the vaccine,” said Dave Skutnik, a regional spokesperson for the organization.
The Visiting Nurse Association of Philadelphia had been on track to meet the city’s deadline, with more than 90% of its 213 employees fully vaccinated as of Wednesday, said Dawn King, senior vice president of home health. She said only a couple of workers were planning to leave instead of being vaccinated.
The association was able to achieve such a high rate by offering all three vaccines itself, she said, and bringing in a Temple doctor “who spent a lot of time educating our staff.”
Colleges and universities in Philadelphia are also working to get students and employees vaccinated. Temple University said Wednesday that 93% of students, faculty, and staff are fully vaccinated, with more vaccine cards still being counted.
“This new deadline should result in more members of our community receiving the vaccine, which is key in keeping both Temple and North Philadelphia safe and healthy,” the university said in a statement.
Bettigole said Wednesday that she does not intend to extend the city’s deadline again.
“We’ve seen from other places that have implemented vaccine mandates that they work, that workers do step up and get their vaccines despite lots of anxiety before the deadlines,” she said.
Philadelphia also has a requirement for city employees to either be fully vaccinated or to double mask while at work. That requirement took effect Sept. 1 and is not affected by the extended deadlines for the other vaccine mandates.
Last month, the city said that only 32% of city employees had voluntarily provided proof of vaccination.
“I don’t believe that number has gone up significantly,” Bettigole said Wednesday. Because the policy for city workers is not a mandate, she said many city employees may have chosen to not report their vaccination status and continue to wear masks.
Staff writers Jason Laughlin and Susan Snyder contributed to this article.