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San Jose becomes first California city to propose mandatory COVID boosters

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo speaks during a March 2020 news conference in Sacramento.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

As concerns about the Omicron variant of COVID-19 spread across the nation, San Jose is poised to become the first city in California to require booster shots as a mandatory component of vaccination.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo announced the proposal Tuesday. If approved by the City Council, it would require all San Jose city employees to receive booster shots as a condition of employment and anyone who enters city-owned facilities to do the same.

“To avoid crippling levels of hospitalizations and tragic outcomes, we have the great benefit of widespread access to booster shots, but we lack the benefit of time,” Liccardo said in a statement. “We must take decisive action to protect our workforce and our community, and a booster mandate will help.”

San Jose already requires proof of full vaccination at all city-owned facilities. In Los Angeles, vaccinations are required in a host of indoor businesses, including restaurants, movie theaters, hair and nail salons, gyms and museums. But no city in California yet requires the third round of vaccinations, which experts increasingly say can help protect people against the surging wave of COVID-19.

COVID booster shots will be required for UC students and staff, and chancellors are preparing for a possible return to remote-only classes after break.

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“Rather than awaiting the inevitable but plodding revision of the official definition of ‘fully vaccinated’ by federal and state bureaucracies, we should take action to protect our community with information made clearly available to us and affirmed by Dr. [Anthony] Fauci and other respected authorities,” Liccardo wrote in the proposal.

His announcement arrives as Omicron races ahead of other variants to become the dominant strain of the coronavirus in the United States. Federal officials on Monday said it accounted for 73% of new infections last week.

Even in California — where a relatively high 67% of residents are considered fully vaccinated — officials are growing increasingly worried about large pockets of unvaccinated people who they say are most vulnerable to the variant and face the highest risk of requiring hospitalization and dying.

San Jose Councilman David Cohen — who sits on the council’s Rules Committee that will hear the proposal in January — said via email Tuesday that “universal vaccinations are the surest way to protect the health of our community and move past the pandemic.”

“The surge of the Omicron variant is already taxing our heavily burdened healthcare system and we know that the best way to protect against this variant is to get the booster as soon as you’re eligible,” Cohen said. “Mandates might seem distasteful, but we wouldn’t need to have this conversation if more people were doing what is best for themselves and the community by getting fully vaccinated.”

California officials this month issued a statewide mask requirement as cases rose sharply; the mandate is set to expire Jan. 15.

The Omicron coronavirus variant will bring a spike in COVID-19 hospitalizations in the coming weeks, federal and local officials warn.

Liccardo joins a growing list of public officials weighing mandatory booster shots, including New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who earlier this month issued booster shot requirements for many state workers.

For the record:

4:58 p.m. Dec. 24, 2021An earlier version of this article said New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Graham is among a growing list of public officials weighing mandatory booster shots for many state workers. The governor of New Mexico is Michelle Lujan Grisham.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in December said he was mulling the idea of mandatory boosters for indoor gatherings.

Officials at Boston University this week said boosters will be required for all students, faculty and staff beginning in February.

On Tuesday, University of California officials similarly announced that all eligible students and staff will be required to receive booster shots before the start of the winter quarter or spring semester.

San Jose, located in Santa Clara County, is the 10th-largest city in the United States, home to more than 1 million residents.

Santa Clara County public health officials appeared aligned with Liccardo’s sentiments during a news conference last week, stating that two shots are “not enough” anymore.

“When I look around the corner ahead, what I see is a deluge of Omicron — what I see is perhaps one of the most challenging moments that we’ve had yet in the pandemic,” Santa Clara County health officer Sara Cody said, adding: “I really cannot underscore enough the critical importance of booster shots.”

Omicron surge could hit some parts of California much harder than others, with the Bay Area poised to weather the impact the best and the Central Valley the worst.

During a news conference Tuesday, Liccardo said his proposal was prompted in part by the federal findings about the spread of Omicron, as well as new studies indicating the efficacy of boosters against the variant.

Officials at Moderna this week announced that preliminary data indicate that half-dose booster shots of its vaccine increase the body’s manufacture of neutralizing antibodies able to fight Omicron by 37 times and that full-dose boosters trigger an 83-fold jump in antibody levels.

“That is also very compelling,” Liccardo said of the Moderna findings, “and I think, frankly, we know where this is ultimately going. It’s important for us to notify our workforce so they can make preparations — so that nobody is surprised by this when the mandate and the data is announced — so that everyone can be ready for it, and no one will feel as though the rug has been pulled out from under them.”

More than 95% of city employees have already received two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, he said. The city is still gathering data about boosters but will be tracking those numbers as well.

In his proposal, Liccardo directs the city manager to work with San Jose’s bargaining groups in anticipation of establishing the booster requirement in January, including encouraging employees to receive their third shot during the holiday break to “maximize convenience and minimize disruption” that might result from any of the vaccine’s temporary side effects.

Vaccinations are the “one path to avoid widespread shutdowns and full emergency rooms,” the proposal says, noting that “even a relatively low rate of serious illness applied to a very large denominator of infections can cripple any urban health system.”

The proposal also asks officials to report back on any software or equipment upgrades that would facilitate more rapid and less labor-intensive verification of vaccination status at the entrance of city facilities, and to provide support for on-site vaccination clinics for workers who may live in high-risk or low-income neighborhoods.

Exceptions to the mandate would include individuals who received their second dose of the vaccination within the last six months as well as minors who are ineligible.

Current rules for religious exemptions and sanctions for noncompliance would remain in effect, according to the proposal.

The proposal will be heard by the City Council‘s Rules Committee on Jan. 5.


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