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California to require Covid boosters for over 2 million health care workers

In response to the omicron variant — which now accounts for over half the Covid cases in the Golden State — Governor Gavin Newsom said health care workers have until Feb. 1 to get an additional Covid-19 vaccine dose.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — California will become the second state to mandate Covid-19 booster shots for health care workers in hopes of keeping hospitals staffed amid the intensifying omicron outbreak, officials announced Wednesday.   

Delivering his latest Covid-19 mandate, Governor Gavin Newsom called the readily available booster shots “game changers” and said health care employees will have until Feb. 1 to get an additional dose.

“We recognize now that just being fully vaccinated is not enough with this new variant,” Newsom said during a press conference at a Native American health clinic in Alameda County. “We need to make sure we don’t have staffing shortages; we need to keep all of you healthy and safe.”

The state already requires health care workers to be fully vaccinated against the virus but with cases on the rise, officials hope an additional jab will prevent an onslaught of infections as winter continues. New Mexico enacted a similar mandate this month.

California confirmed the first U.S. case of the omicron variant this month and infections have been rising steadily since. On Wednesday the state recorded 11,000 new cases, up from last week’s high of 5,400, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now projects that over half of new infections in the Golden State are omicron.  

Newsom credited the previous vaccination mandate for health care employees with helping the state fend off the delta variant and avoiding sweeping lockdowns over the summer. Asked about the potential of workers shunning the latest order and losing their jobs, Newsom noted the “overwhelming majority” of employees have been compliant thus far.  

New cases have nearly doubled over the last week, but the state thus far hasn’t seen a corresponding spike in hospitalizations. According to Newsom, there are around 3,600 people hospitalized due to Covid-19, a far cry from the 22,000 logged this past January.

“We’re holding strong, mindful though of these growth rates and these trends so we can’t take anything for granted,” the Democratic governor said.

Prior to the Feb. 1 deadline, California’s over 2 million health care workers and employees in nursing homes who haven’t received a booster will have to test twice weekly. To prepare for an omicron surge, Newsom said the state is in the process hiring an additional 2,000 temporary health care workers to ease staffing problems.

Omicron has also forced the return of California’s statewide mask mandate as well as testing requirements for people attending large indoor events. Cites are also beginning to ramp up virus controls, including the city of Oakland which is now requiring proof of vaccination to enter restaurants and other entertainment establishments.

California has administered more vaccine doses than any other state at 64.2 million and according to state data, 70% of its eligible population is fully vaccinated and another 8.7 million people have received booster shots. Nationwide, the Golden State ranks 17th in percentage of population fully vaccinated.

With omicron causing flashbacks to 2020, Newsom also promised a different approach Wednesday when it comes to K-12 education.

Like most states, California shuttered thousands of K-12 schools as well as public colleges at the outset of the pandemic, forcing millions of students into remote learning. As the waves of the pandemic came and went, the pace of school reopenings in the Golden State lagged behind much of the country.

But this time around, Newsom and education officials claim campuses will remain open despite omicron thanks to additional testing and mandatory boosters for college students.

“As we approach the new year, we reaffirm our shared commitment to one another, to our parents and to our students: to keep each other safe and to keep our classrooms open,” Newsom said Wednesday in a joint statement with a collection of organizations like the California State Parent Teacher Association and California Teachers Association.  

Just prior to Newsom’s press conference, California State University, the nation’s largest public university system, announced students and employees will need booster shots ahead of the next semester. The move follows a similar mandate issued by the companion University of California network.

“Vaccination, including a booster when eligible, remains our most effective strategy against infection and severe disease," said CSU Chancellor Joseph Castro in a statement. “This is particularly important in light of the rapid rise of cases of Covid-19 throughout the state and nation as the omicron variant spreads.”

At the K-12 level, Newsom said the state is in the process of buying 6 million over-the-counter rapid tests to provide directly to families. The aim is to have students tested 1-2 times prior to returning from the winter break.

Newsom, who reportedly hired a new communications director on Wednesday, took a stab at Florida by claiming it was struggling to keep schools open and that its Covid-19 death rate is higher than California’s.

“Florida is not keeping their kids in schools because many of them are shutting down because of outbreaks,” Newsom said. “I do not want to see our schools shut down.”

Of the 9,600 school closures nationwide, Newsom claimed California accounts for 32 or just .03%.

If pandemic conditions continue to worsen in the nation’s most populous state, Newsom acknowledged booster mandates could be considered for other sectors such as state employees. He added he’s hopeful the step won’t be necessary due to the state’s existing stringent pandemic policies.

State health secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly capped the press conference by saying the state is actively awaiting potential new quarantine guidelines from the CDC. Experts are pressing the CDC to shorten the 10-day isolation window to allow public health employees who get the virus to return to work more quickly.  

“We can do some things differently than we were before,” Ghaly said. “As the CDC maybe moves in that direction, we are supportive and we’re weighing in.”

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