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As vaccine mandate kicks in, 91% of New York City employees have had at least 1 shot

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is declaring victory as his administration begins to enforce a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all city workers. As of today, 91% of the city's workforce has had at least one shot.

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BILL DE BLASIO: I'm going to say up front to every mayor in America, every governor in America, to every CEO of a company in America, go to a full vaccination mandate because it will allow us to end the COVID era once and for all. We got to end it. This is how we do it.

CORNISH: But WNYC's health and science editor Nsikan Akpan has heard a lot of pushback from city employees. And first, can you just help us understand what happened as the mandate rolled out today?

NSIKAN AKPAN, BYLINE: Yeah. So the mayor's mandate has worked well by and large. You know, about 60,000 city employees were unvaccinated prior to his announcement on October 20, and he has cut that number in half in just 11 days. But that still leaves 21 to 22,000 employees unvaccinated. About 9,000 are at home on unpaid leave, while the other 12,000 people were granted temporary passes for medical and religious exemptions, so they're allowed to apply for them.

They can still go to work under the city's old policy of agreeing to a COVID test once a week, and that helps soften the blow of services being cut today. So, for example, the NYPD had been holding retirement drives for officers that wanted to take their pensions rather than take the shots. But this morning, the police commissioner said only 74 employees have been put on leave out of about 8,000 who are unvaccinated. But still, the general noncompliance is being felt around the city.

CORNISH: Can you talk to us about the ways that that's being felt?

AKPAN: Sure. The most visible problem has been trash collection. So there are mountains of trash across the five boroughs but especially in Staten Island and in Brooklyn. Citywide, there has been a huge spike in 311 complaints about missed trash collection - so from about 200 per day to more than 2,000 per day. And members of the sanitation department are also protesting. Wendel Rivera (ph) is a sanitation worker who was rallying outside a deployment center in Staten Island this morning.

WENDEL RIVERA: We already have enough manpower problems. Now you going to send half the department home? It's bad. There's not a win-win for anybody. People want to work. People want to work. People want to work. They're not letting us work. It's backwards.

AKPAN: Yeah. So it isn't half the department. It's more like a fifth. But even the staff going to work are protesting. So we've seen garbage trucks driving through neighborhoods, pulling up to heaps of trash and then just driving away.

CORNISH: Another report - firehouses, right? Thirty-five hundred members of New York City's fire department are still unvaccinated. How are they operating?

AKPAN: Yeah, that's right. You know, the fire department commissioner said no firehouses had been closed, but about one of every 20 firefighter teams aren't working. That included about 2,300 firefighters who called out sick, but only half of that group is unvaccinated. The rest are vaccinated, and the city thinks many of them are calling out in protest. You know, and also last week, the fire department had expected a bunch of ambulances to be out of commission today, but luckily there was a last-minute surge of vaccinations among EMS workers. They went from 61% vaccinated before the mandate to nearly 90%.

CORNISH: What's behind that? And were there any changes to the ambulance service?

AKPAN: Yeah. I think, you know, people like to work. And I think at the moment it's hard to say what the impact is going to be. You know, we know the city called on private ambulance companies to share their fleets. But the - and the city is legally bound to publicly report 911 response times on a regular basis, but it hasn't since early August. We're flying blind.

CORNISH: That's Nsikan Akpan, WNYC science and health editor.

Thank you for your reporting.

AKPAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.