Denver jail workers required to get COVID-19 vaccination in new order
The order covers more than 10,000 people who work for the city and county, as well as private health care and school facilities
By Conrad Swanson
The Denver Post
DENVER — Denver appears to be the first city in the U.S. to not only require COVID-19 vaccines for its employees, but also extend the mandate to private businesses and organizations.
The first, according to Megan Corey of the National League of Cities, was announced Monday by Denver Mayor Michael Hancock. His health order covers more than 10,000 people who work for the city and county, as well as first responders and people who work in health care, correctional facilities and public and private schools.
What's not clear is exactly how the city plans to hold private businesses and organizations accountable once the Sept. 30 deadline for vaccinations has passed, though officials outlined some possibilities, like fines.
The change comes amid rising concerns over the fast-spreading delta variant, leading to a rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations across the country and in Colorado.
Hancock said masks and social distancing aren't enough to protect the city and keep its economy moving forward, adding that the "silver bullet we need for full recovery is to ensure maximum vaccination."
The order applies to teachers and school staff within Denver Public Schools, private schools, post-secondary schools and higher education, City Attorney Kristin Bronson said.
And it came as an "absolute surprise" to Rob Gould, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. He added that the union expects city officials to collaborate with Denver Public Schools before imposing such mandates.
DPS spokesman Will Jones said city officials informed the district itself an announcement was coming but didn't reveal the details.
Denver Public Health Director Bob McDonald said while city officials couldn't clearly communicate all their plans to partnering organizations before announcing the mandate, they all now have two months to sort out the details.
Private businesses and organizations subject to the vaccination requirement will be asked to maintain records to show their compliance, Bronson said. That could mean financial penalties for private businesses or employees who don't comply, or a court summons, McDonald said.
"They could be issued an administrative citation every day for not complying," McDonald said.
Hancock pledged that Denver will work with those who have concerns about the vaccine or refuse to get their shots, but he noted there will be consequences for those who do not follow his order.
"There might be some folks who may lose their jobs behind this," he said.
McDonald added that the mandate applies to public and private health care providers alike. Denver Health, Kaiser Permanente, UC Health and National Jewish Health require employees to get vaccinated, spokespeople confirmed. Centura Health and HealthONE do not.
Denver airport and library employees, city board and commission members and elected officials must also get the vaccine, McDonald said.
Hancock's mandate will likely be difficult to challenge in court because cities can use public health orders to require private-sector employers do a vaccine mandate, according to Daniel Goldberg, a public health law expert at the CU Center for Bioethics and Humanities. Public and private schools alike have long used similar mandates to ensure students are vaccinated against other illnesses like measles, said Ruth Faden, founder of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics.
A spike at an unusual time
The order is needed now, he said, because the delta variant is causing COVID-19 cases to spike faster than this time last year.
"What I'm seeing happening now is a spike that's occurring at a time when respiratory illnesses normally would not do so well," he said.
In June, the city saw about 15.4 positive cases per 100,000 residents. The number more than quadrupled to 71.2 cases per 100,000 residents in July.
And vaccinations in Denver have largely stalled, McDonald said, even with about 70% of the population fully vaccinated. If that trend continues he said more people could get sick and die in the short term but he fears the virus could mutate further, putting those who are vaccinated at further risk.
Monday's order doesn't change the city's masking or social distancing recommendations, McDonald said. Neither are currently required in Denver, though both remain effective methods at curbing the spread of the virus.
"We are not going to mask our way out of this, we are not going to test our way out of this," McDonald said. "We need to get people vaccinated, that is the only way we are all going to pull out of this."
In May, city officials encouraged employees to get vaccinated but did not require it, nor were they asked about their vaccination status, according to Diane Vertovec, spokeswoman for the city's Office of Human Resources. Employees were also strongly discouraged from asking each other if they had been vaccinated.
"Whether employees receive the COVID-19 vaccine is a personal choice," Vertovec said at the time.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended late last month that vaccinated people wear masks in indoor public places in counties with "high" or "substantial" spread of the virus, which covers the majority of Colorado.
The state health department recommended that K-12 school districts consider masking requirements but hasn't broadened its recommendations outside of Colorado's schools. Other metro agencies, like the Tri-County Health Department, Jefferson County Public Health and Broomfield Public Health and Environment, issued statements last week echoing the federal masking guidance.
McDonald said city and Denver Public School officials are still considering whether to impose mask requirements for the upcoming school year.
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