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Vaccine Exemptions for NYC Employees Should Be "Rare"

LUCY GRINDON, HOST: Friday was the deadline for New York City employees to get their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine or risk losing their jobs. And almost one and a half thousand workers were fired. But according to The New York Times, about 9,000—or about 2.5% of the city’s workforce—are still unvaccinated. Many have been able to keep their jobs because they’ve requested medical exemptions. Dr. Jessica Justman is a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. I asked her: What are the reasons why people would receive medical exemptions from vaccine mandates, and how common are they?

DR. JESSICA JUSTMAN: They're very rare. They would consist of allergies to vaccine subcomponents—vaccine ingredients, I should say—and a severe adverse reaction to an initial vaccination. These are things that are, let me just emphasize, again, really rare.

GRINDON: What are the chances that 9,000 city employees will actually end up getting medical exemptions?

JUSTMAN: I think it's very unlikely that 9,000 people have the kind of medical history that really would mean they have a valid reason to not receive a vaccine. And even then, they might be unable to receive one kind of vaccine, but they could receive another kind of vaccine. We do have more than one kind of vaccine. And I guess, you know, my point of view as an infectious disease clinician, as well as an epidemiologist, a public health expert, is, I would look for ways to sit down and listen to the people who are getting fired, who don't want to get vaccinated and try and help address their concerns, so that they will feel more comfortable getting vaccinated and protecting their own health as well as protecting the health of others.

GRINDON: Have you had a chance to talk to people who are vaccine hesitant or refusing to get these vaccines? And what have they said?

JUSTMAN: I've had conversations with a college freind and one other person I know. My college friend is just terrified of the side effects. And no matter what kind of data I say—I supply all kinds of data to show how safe the vaccine is—it never really actually moves the needle, so to speak, it doesn't change her opinion. And I finally said, you know, I think this is not so much about the data. It's about trust. The other person reached the decision, not with my intervention, but because her sister got vaccinated and her daughter got vaccinated and all of the people in her network got vaccinated, and she could see that this was the way to go. So I do think that we are all influenced by the people that we know.

GRINDON: Will vaccine mandates for COVID ever go away?

JUSTMAN: I doubt it. No. I think, I think they're, they're here. And they'll be enforced to differing extents, depending on what your setting is, where you work. If you're a healthcare worker, healthcare workers must get influenza vaccines. There are some limited exceptions. I don't think anybody should have a gun to their head to get a vaccine. That would be too extreme. But I think, you know, all reasonable measures should be taken to have as large a segment of the population vaccinated as possible, because what we have come to learn over the last year of our experience with vaccines is that it protects people from the very severe outcomes of hospitalization and death. But I think it will be very, very similar to the way flu vaccines are handled in some settings, Measles vaccines are handled in some settings.

GRINDON: Dr. Justman, thank you so much for being here and talking to us today.

JUSTMAN: My pleasure.

GRINDON: That was Jessica Justman, who teaches epidemiology here at Columbia.

Lucy Grindon for Uptown Radio News.

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