Three weeks after the deadline for all Philadelphia city employees to be vaccinated for COVID-19 or wear double masks, less than a third of workers have offered proof they are fully vaccinated, according to data compiled by the city.
As of Sept. 22, 31% of city employees have reported they are fully vaccinated, while 69% -- representing more than 20,000 workers -- have not.
The fraction of employees confirmed to be fully vaccinated dramatically lags that of residents as a whole. In fact, the data is flipped: nearly 69% of residents age 18 and up are fully vaccinated, according to Philadelphia Health Department statistics.
Philadelphia’s policy comes as cities and states across the country also set requirements for workplaces in an effort to fight the virus, and the Biden administration is rolling out a vaccinate-or-test mandate for employers with more than 100 workers.
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But Philadelphia’s experience also demonstrates the challenges in implementing mandates.
“It says that implementation is a big problem,” said Robert Field, a professor of public health and law at Drexel University, about Philadelphia’s numbers. “We know from national vaccination rates and vaccination rates in the city that they’re much higher than that. In the city of Philadelphia they’re higher than the national average. But asking people to prove that presents a logistical nightmare.”
A spokesperson for the city said Philadelphia is only able to track how many employees voluntarily report their vaccination status to Human Resources. Although 31% are confirmed to be vaccinated, the spokesperson said, “We believe that number to be far higher in actuality.”
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Staff in many departments don’t have access to computers at work that would allow them to easily upload vaccination cards, the spokesperson said, adding that “departments continue to work with HR managers to update this.”
Philadelphia announced its new policy for employees on Aug. 11. The city set a deadline of Sept. 1 for new employees to be fully vaccinated and current ones to be fully vaccinated or wear two masks -- a surgical one and a cloth one -- when working inside with others.
The memo detailing instructions to employees gives workers the choice between uploading documentation or presenting it to their HR manager by the deadline. It also allows employees to update their status after the deadline.
To enforce the double-masking requirement for unvaccinated employees, the city spokesperson said reports have been created by department and work location, and departments have developed their own protocols for getting that info to supervisors.
Nationally, vaccination mandates in general have been very effective at convincing those who are on the border and hesitating but not those who are anti-vaccine, Field said.
But implementation can be a challenge.
“You can ask them to just show that paper card but that can easily be faked,” he said. “If you’re asking people upload documentation to a computer you have to have access to a computer, they have to be somewhat computer literate, they also have to have the time to do it.”
The coming months will likely give a better idea of how many people are fully vaccinated as more people report their status, but “it is a tech challenge and a logistical challenge,” he said. “And it’s another burden for the HR people.”