City employees have 95% vaccination rate. Is a booster mandate next?

Berkeley hasn’t decided whether to grant 61 workers’ requests for medical or religious exemptions to the vaccine mandate.

A vaccination clinic at Oakland’s Frank Ogawa Plaza. Credit: Azucena Rasilla

Just over 95% of Berkeley’s city employees are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to data shared with Berkeleyside.

But with the highly contagious omicron variant surging in Berkeley and across the country, Mayor Jesse Arreguín says he wants the city to take its worker vaccination mandate one step further by requiring booster shots.

“With omicron and future variants, we need to ensure our employees are fully protected,” Arreguín said.

While research shows the standard course of vaccination — two shots of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or the single Johnson & Johnson shot — still provides some protection from omicron infections and severe cases of COVID-19, booster shots are substantially more effective at warding off the variant.

Berkeley public schools are among a growing number of institutions that are shifting how they define full vaccination to include boosters. Starting Feb. 25, Berkeley Unified students and staff who are not boosted will be subject to the same requirements for weekly COVID-19 testing as those who are unvaccinated.

Arreguín said he believes Berkeley’s vaccination requirement for indoor service at restaurants, bars and other businesses will likely be expanded to include booster shots “at some point.”

It’s not yet clear whether Berkeley’s city government will adopt a similar policy change, which would have to be implemented by the city manager’s office and requires consultation with employee unions.

“We strongly encourage employees to get boosters, but we do not currently require boosters, nor have we started any plans to require boosters,” city spokesman Matthai Chakko said in a statement. “We are closely watching all aspects of the pandemic, including the use of all tools, and we will adapt accordingly.”

Data Chakko provided this week showed 1,259 of the city’s 1,320 active employees reported they are fully vaccinated, based on the current definition, for a rate of 95.4%.

Unvaccinated city workers who are not granted either a medical or religious exemption from the mandate could lose their jobs under the policy. Three unvaccinated workers who did not claim an exemption changed their minds and got their shots after the city began the disciplinary process, Chakko said.

“This extremely high rate of vaccination not only protects our employees, but all of the community we serve,” he said.

(Chakko previously told Berkeleyside in November that 1,350 city workers were fully or partially vaccinated; he attributed the difference to employee turnover.)

Dozens of requests for exemptions from the mandate are still unresolved.

City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley said during a virtual forum last month that officials granted a handful of requests for what she described as “pretty cut and dry” medical exemptions. But Chakko said staff are still evaluating requests from another 61 workers to determine whether they should be exempted from the requirement as well.

Although nearly three months have passed since the deadline for workers to make those requests, Chakko did not say how much longer the process is expected to take. In the meantime, those workers are required to undergo weekly testing.

“Each of the 61 applications for exemptions are undergoing several layers of review to ensure they are carefully vetted,” Chakko said. “We do not take this lightly.”

Nico Savidge is Berkeleyside's senior reporter covering city hall. Email: nico@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: NSavidge.