Do Vaccine Mandates Work?

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S1: When I asked Eric Lach how he ended up marching across the Brooklyn Bridge the other day. Shoulder to shoulder with city workers protesting the mayor’s Covid vaccine mandate, he said it all started with this flyer.

S2: Let me see if I can pull it up for us and I can just read from it.

S1: Eric writes for The New Yorker. A firefighter had forwarded him this note, which was an invitation, really.

S2: It said NYC Workers A. Mandate March for Choice. Monday, October 25th, 11:30 a.m. Wear your job T-shirt. Make signs. Bring your families. There are tens of thousands of us. This is our last stand.

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S1: Dramatic.

S2: Yeah, it’s sort of unclear at the time. You know, I was talking to a firefighter and it was like, Is anybody getting out of this in our health league today?

S3: Massive crowds of protesters shutting down the fabled Brooklyn Bridge today, they are enraged over New York City’s Friday deadline for city workers to get vaccinated or risk losing their jobs.

S1: The answer to this question turned out to be yes. Oh right. We will. We will apply. We will have thousands of New York municipal workers showed up and gave speeches and waved placards when Eric joined them. He says it wasn’t exactly what he expected.

S2: It wasn’t just a kind of like right wing political rally like I’ve been to Trump. Rallies like this was not that it was colleagues kind of standing around. Everybody kind of saying hi to each other, hugging each other, high fiving each other, like there was some guy smoking cigars. You want to be vaccinated? Be my guest. I don’t care. Just don’t tell me what I have to do. Mayor de Blasio, I don’t know. I probably had conversation with like 50 people and like five or six of them said they were vaccinated, you know, and that they were just there to support their colleagues right to choose.

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S1: The whole time, Eric kept asking himself, How is this going to end? It’s funny looking at some video of these protests, I saw this one sign that stood out to me. It didn’t say much. It just said, I am very angry. And to me, I saw that and I was like, That’s the whole thing. We’re all very angry by this point in the pandemic. And I wondered if that was what was going on.

S2: I think that’s a big part of it. These are people who were deemed essential workers who, you know, went into work through the pandemic, you know it, sanitation workers were on the backs of garbage trucks like in March and April and May 2021. Nobody knew of Covid was, you know, transmitted by surfaces, you know, and they’re handling everybody’s garbage. I talked to one EMS worker who was there. She had brought her daughter. She was vaccinated, but she was just, you know, she was just pissed. I mean, she was just like, you know, we we weren’t to the pandemic. You know, they told us just to reuse our masks, you know, at the beginning when there wasn’t enough PPE to go around and, you know, we got shunted this way and shunted it that way. And then now we’re sort of being forced to do something. It wasn’t even she’s not even being forced to and she’s already vaccinated, but she was just, you know, the frustration that her peers were expressing, I mean, was totally resonate with her. She was mad. She was like, just just tired.

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S1: Today on the show, the debate over who can dodge a vaccine and who can’t is heating up, what happened with these workers in New York reveals how the fight could end. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. The latest vaccine mandate in New York City applies to all kinds of people EMT as firefighters, sanitation workers, cops. The mayor announced it just a few weeks ago on Morning Joe.

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S4: It’s a mandate now for all city agencies, all city workers. It’s time for everyone to get vaccinated,

S1: and the mayor gave these city employees just nine days to get their shots.

S4: But we also need to reassure all New Yorkers that if you’re working with a public employee, they’re vaccinated, everyone’s going to be safe.

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S2: Basically, they just announced it. I mean, you know, it’s like they’re there. I think it was a Wednesday and. Mayor de Blasio made a couple of TV appearances and put out a press release and said, you know, this was to October 20th was the day it was announced and it was like come October 29th at 5:00 p.m., which is a Friday. You know, if if you don’t have a dose, you’re going to go on unpaid leave. The leave would start that the following Monday, November 1st, and the mandate did come with kind of like. And I wrote this in my article. I mean, I had sort of a carrot and stick component where it was like, you know, the the stick was that you go on unpaid leave if you don’t get a shot. The carrot was that you would get $500 if you did get the shot on time. And you know, a lot of a lot of the city workers seem to just dismiss this 500. I mean, it was like the at least the ones at the march that have the votes. Vocally, I’m sure there is. Plenty of city workers were grateful for that $500. No question, you know, but the ones who are most vocally against the vaccine almost wanted to treat that $500 with suspicion. There were almost like, Why are we being bribed to get this vaccine? You know what kind of vaccine requires a bribe in order to like, go get it. So they just wanted to, you know, they just

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S1: it just shows how, like the suspicion once you have it like nothing is off limits to question.

S2: Totally. I mean, it’s like, you know, any grounds to dismiss this if they could find they did.

S1: This latest rule came down after months of back and forth over the vaccine. Back in the summer, the city had given workers a gentler mandate they could get shots or show up for weekly Covid tests.

S2: The idea with that policy was that, like the week, the tests were going to be so annoying that like people would eventually just give in and get the shot. Is that how it worked? Well, I think in certain departments, you know, particularly the ones that sort of turned out big for the for the March last week, fire department, sanitation department and to a certain extent, the New York Police Department. Those numbers prove more sovereign than you might have expected when that policy got put into place because those departments were in the 60s and percentage wise in terms of vaccination.

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S1: In fact, by the end of the summer, an average city resident was more likely to be vaccinated than a city worker. So the mayor and the governor began to crack down. They started with teachers and health care workers in September.

S2: City Hall It announced that the teachers and the health care workers, you know, we’re going to have to be vaccinated. And this all coincided with the FDA sort of switching over the vaccine approval from emergency use authorization to just. Regular authorization.

S1: Yeah, I remember this because I have kids in school and it was like a few weeks before school started, I think like really up to the wire and then all of a sudden it was like, OK, everyone’s going to be vaccinated. And it was like, Oh, OK,

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S2: yeah, it was taught. You know, you’re totally right. I mean, it was it was in the swirl of the back to school. You know, it was in the swirl of like, how are we going to make school safe? How are we going to get everybody back to school? Like how what’s this year going to look like? And sort of in that mix is sort of when the this mandate comes out

S1: and the mandate gets rid of the weekly testing option. It just says you have to be vaccinated,

S2: you have to be vaccinated. And there was an outcry from those workers and there was lawsuits that were filed in response to that mandate. Those lawsuits just didn’t didn’t work out in the courts, in the worker’s favor. And eventually, basically what the city government did is they worked out a deal with the union representing those workers that said that there was a slight carve out that was for medical and religious exemption you could apply for for those specific exemptions and you wouldn’t have to get the shot while will those exemptions were being reviewed?

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S1: So the bulk of people were buying time. And then in the end, a few of those workers would actually get an exemption.

S2: Yeah, I mean, you know, but those departments ended up at over 95 percent vaccinated. You know, that’s where they are today.

S4: Like so much of human life, people respond to deadlines at the last minute, they’re getting vaccinated.

S1: When the mayor noticed his vaccine mandate for teachers and health care workers seemed to be working. He decided on expanding it as quickly as possible to everyone else. That’s how Eric Lach ended up in a sea of firefighters and cops and sanitation workers on the Brooklyn Bridge.

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S2: The Police Benevolent Association, you know, which is the largest union that represents NYPD officers, you know, has been a vocal, vocal presence in New York City politics for a long time. You know, it’s just like no surprise to see them fight with City Hall to hate this mayor. It was more of a surprise, I think, to see the firefighters union and the sanitation workers and you know, and parks department workers and nature. The Public Housing Agency has one of the worst vaccination rates in the city. I mean, their union is not like front and center in the news or whatever, but like this involved city workers that haven’t been part of or played very vocal roles in some of the political fights in the last few years in the city. And so to that extent, it was surprising to see sort of how sort of widespread this was given that once the teachers and the health workers sort of had put their mandate in place like this didn’t that wasn’t exactly surprised that this was coming.

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S1: I wonder how you think about the politics of this nine day warning that the mayor gave. And I ask because I look at it now and I think giving such a short timeline, it certainly led people to really burn hot in terms of their emotions. But they also seem to burn fast. We had a big protest. We had a lot of worry. And then it was here.

S2: Yeah. And I think like no matter what, there was going to be a vocal contingent of people who didn’t want to do this. There was going to be some people who just refused to get the shot and then there was going to be, you know, regardless of the time Lach put on it, you know, there was going to be ugliness. You know, I mean, it’s like there was going to be, you know, the kind of like expression of political rage that like, threatens violence. You know, that essentially, you know, you had you had some firefighters that went in uniform to the office of a state senator in the city here and sort of demanded to know sort of what you know, what was going on and sort of expressed their frustration and that those those workers, you know, were reprimanded by them.

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S1: They told his workers that have blood on their hands if the mandate went forward.

S2: Right. I think like basically like that seems like it would have been expressed no matter what, if there was a three month deadline or a nine day deadline or a two day deadline. I think, like you said, I mean that there was some sort of contingent of city workers that would that would feel that way and that would respond in this way.

S1: When we come back, what about the workers that are still resisting the shot? As of right now, who are the main holdouts when it comes to getting vaccinated?

S2: Basically, FDNY, the firefighters FDNY includes firefighters and EMS workers, and the EMS workers are close to 90 percent vaccinated. At this point, the firefighters are still under 80 percent, and so they’re sort of a notable holdout.

S1: Why firefighters?

S2: Yeah, so it’s a good question. I mean, I think that the firefighters have a really strong kind of like job identity. And you know, the other thing that we haven’t really quite touched on yet is just that a lot of firefighters who I talked to and who have talked to other press outlets and online stuff, you know, they say, like a lot of us who already had Covid, you know, we had Koven. We have antibodies and therefore we shouldn’t be forced to get the vaccine because we already have the antibodies.

S1: So they believe in a previously acquired immunity.

S2: Yeah, exactly. And so like that, that argument really seems to have taken hold in the fire department.

S1: And we should say, even though the evidence shows that that immunity is not as strong as vaccine immunity, you know, and

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S2: the public health recommendations to get vaccinated anyway, they sort of dismissed that that that’s a that’s a real argument is taking hold. And that’s part of the reason it seems like the firefighter numbers are lower than other agencies.

S1: I think of firefighters as risk takers like they run into a burning building.

S2: So it’s kind of funny to me and risk assessment. Yeah. You know, I think that they’re in like just talking to test talking to some, especially the older firefighters, you know, and this kind of, you know, still the legacy of 911 and these special class, the first responders were put in after 911. Some of them will say, you know, like we were told, working down on the pile after 911 was safe and then a lot of us got sick. And like, there’s been a multi-decade fight with Congress for proper funding for people who got sick. You know, we’re firefighters in massive work done on and after 911 down downtown in New York City. And you know, and so still like this kind of like institutional memory and kind of residual sort of feeling of like this is a particular kind of job and we are a particular kind of city worker

S1: and we’ve taken one for the team.

S2: Yeah, you know, and I think some of that is definitely, you know, seconds. It’s just it’s just a mix of all of the stuff.

S1: There are other ways that New Yorkers were feeling this resistance from municipal employees who just weren’t comfortable with the shot like my trash wasn’t picked up for a day or two. And I know that three one one complaints quadrupled, I think. Yeah. And union heads were warning like, Oh, we are not going to have enough people to send to fires or we’re not going to have enough people to respond to medical calls.

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S2: Yeah, obviously that was, you know, that was one of the big questions going into the deadline was is this going to affect the functioning of city government, even if it’s a fraction of the total city worker population that holds out?

S1: Was the government worried about that?

S2: You know, Mayor de Blasio seemed pretty sanguine about it all week and, you know, was just saying, Friday is the deadline. You know, you got to get city workers have to get their shots by then. And, you know, after that, we move on.

S4: Look, I’d like everyone who’s not yet vaccinated to get vaccinated by the end of Friday. If they don’t, they’re going off payroll. I don’t want that savings, but that does create a savings. And if we have to give more overtime and make other adjustments, there obviously will be resources to account for that.

S2: And you know, there have been some sort of anecdotal reports of, you know, they get trash piling up on city sidewalks. And, you know, and then yesterday, Monday, there was there’s many, many firefighters called in sick, but so far there hasn’t been signs that this is really going to really mess with the functioning of the city government in some visible or troubling way, sort of in the even in the even in the short term here. Although, you know, although although that’s sort of still still playing out.

S1: So where do we stand now? I think the latest I saw was 9000 workers were on leave, but then 12000 workers have applied for a religious exemption. Is that right?

S2: Yeah, so so like there’s about 20000 unvaccinated city workers and yeah, about half have applied for some kind of exemption in those cases will be evaluated and then sort of resolved one way or the other. And yet to be seen, if this is a kind of a holdout that is relatively temporary and a lot of those people come back or if they just hold out indefinitely, I mean, some people. Again, anecdotal. But there are, you know, there’s a Facebook page for firefighters that I have been reading where they’ve been posting tributes to people who retired, you know, people who already had their 20 years, in some cases much longer than that 30 years, 40 years, and they just opted to retire instead of getting excited.

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S1: There were reports that the Police Benevolent Association held an event where people could donate to people who would rather take early retirement than get vaccinated.

S2: Yeah, I mean, it’s sort of we still don’t know how many people that there’s definitely those people exist. We still don’t know how many people those are. And, you know, over the next week or two, I think it’s going to be a lot more clear if we’re talking about a couple hundred versus a couple of thousand.

S1: As of last Thursday, 91 percent of all city employees had been vaccinated. That means that after lagging behind the rest of the city for months, municipal workers are now more likely to be vaccinated than everyone else. So I asked Eric, Does that mean the vaccine mandate is working?

S2: I mean, I think that’s the outcome that City Hall was looking for. I mean, they just wanted everybody vaccinated. So.

S1: So this is a success story.

S2: I mean, I I I think, you know, obviously the people who are holding out don’t feel that way. But overall, I mean, I think this is a city policy that was put in a place in relatively short order got the results that they they were looking for.

S1: When you called back some of the sources who you met at that march. Once the mandate was in effect, I’m wondering what they sounded like and what you thought the next few weeks would look like for them.

S2: I don’t think anybody who I talked to, who then I kept in touch with is holding out. You know, I heard from a bunch of people that by the end of the week, even though at the beginning they sat on the fence like by the end of the week said, No, I’m going to have to get it. And on Friday morning at fire department headquarters like people were, you know, sort of lined up waiting for their vaccine, you know, this was hours before the deadline and sort of and so I went down there and I just just kind of trying to catch people on their way out. And I talked to one firefighter who was, you know, who was like, I didn’t think I would ever. I didn’t think I would get it. I didn’t want to get it. But you know, he said to me, I have. I have a car, I have a mortgage, I have a family like, I can’t afford to not get it. So I just did it. I mean, he was like, you know, he was he was sad. I mean, he was sad. I mean, he said, he said to me, you know, he was like, You know, you kind of what you want to stand with your, you know, with your fellows, with your colleagues, but like that at the end, sometimes, he said, unfortunately, you have to look out for yourself.

S1: Eric Lach, thank you so much for joining me. Thanks for having me. Eric Lach is a staff writer for The New Yorker. And that is our show. What next is produced by Carmel Delshad olina, Schwartz, Danielle, Hewitt, Mary Wilson and Davis Land. We are led by Alison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. Go track me down on Twitter. I’m at Mary desk. Tell me what you thought about the show. All right. Thanks for listening. Talk to you tomorrow.