In another aggressive effort to stop the spread of COVID-19 and ensure schools remain open, Gov. Gavin Newsom on Oct. 1 announced a vaccine mandate for students ages 12 and older, making California the first state in the nation to require students to be fully vaccinated for in-person instruction.
The mandate would add the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of required immunizations, which includes mumps, measles and rubella. Newsom issued this order in the aftermath of similar mandates from the state's largest districts, Los Angeles Unified and San Diego Unified.
"We intend to do that once the FDA has fully approved the vaccine which will give us time to work with districts, give us time to work with parents and educators to build more trust and confidence," Newsom said.
Parents still have some time to get their students vaccinated. The state mandate will go into effect only once the federal Food and Drug Administration fully approves vaccines for those 12 and older. Upon FDA approval, students will have until the start of the following academic term, either Jan. 1 or July 1, to be fully vaccinated.
The mandate, however, doesn't just put the responsibility on students. All public school employees will be required to be vaccinated as soon as the mandate takes effect for students. Until now, teachers and staff were either required to be vaccinated or undergo regular testing for COVID-19; negative tests will no longer suffice.
The state expects that based on current FDA timelines, students in grades seven through 12 will be required to be vaccinated by July 1, 2022.
Students who are currently too young to get the vaccine will be required to receive their doses as soon as they reach the required age, but they'll be given a "reasonable period of time to receive both doses."
The California Department of Public Health will develop the rules for personal and religious exemptions following a public comment period. Details for that process have not yet been released.
Nationwide shortage of rapid home COVID tests
Sarah Voit likes to keep 10 to 15 rapid test kits on hand in case any of the residents of the Family Emergency Shelter Coalition in Hayward need to be tested for COVID-19. They've had some infection scares, and the antigen tests — which return results in minutes — have been crucial to curbing the virus in the family shelter.
But in recent weeks, the staff has struggled to purchase enough rapid test kits. The local Walgreens and Costco have started limiting sales to one per customer. "We ran into the same issue at the beginning of the pandemic when we were trying to buy Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer," said Voit, the shelter's program director.
Three weeks ago, a child living at the shelter was sent home from school after a classmate contracted COVID-19. Voit's team used the rapid tests on the whole family. They all came back positive.
"Because we had those kits on hand, we were able to send them immediately to the isolation and quarantine hotel the county runs," she said. "Otherwise it could have taken three to five days to get those results and many more families could have gotten sick."
Online and in stores, major retailers are sold out of the popular at-home tests, and medical supply vendors can't find enough rapid test kits for schools, shelters, nursing homes, employers and other groups. Across the state, people in low-income communities are being turned away as community groups and clinics are forced to ration their tests. Workers in need of regular screening for employment struggle to find them. Some parents are spending hundreds of dollars out-of-pocket to test their school kids. And nursing homes are told they may have to wait weeks for testing kits.
"The U.S. gets a D- when it comes to testing," said Dr. John Swartzberg, an infectious disease expert and professor emeritus at UC Berkeley. "We're not doing enough of it and it's too difficult for people to get tests. Those with the least resources have the greatest difficulty in finding a free test site or purchasing at-home testing."
Experts say quick and easy testing is vital to contain the spread of COVID-19. Without widespread access to tests, people don't know they are infected and need to quarantine, causing outbreaks that could have been prevented.
When the delta variant reared its head, the shortage of rapid tests created the "perfect storm," experts say. The surge coincided with schools reopening and employers requiring quick, routine testing. At the same time, local health departments scaled back their testing efforts, focusing on vaccinations instead. Manufacturers, seeing decreased summer demand, reportedly shuttered production lines and tossed unsold product.
Fewer than 10% of testing locations across the state now offer rapid-result antigen tests, according to a database from Coders Against COVID and URISA GISCorps.
The test shortage is so severe that the federal government has stepped in to increase production. On Sept. 9, the Biden administration announced a national COVID-19 action plan that includes the purchase of 280 million rapid point-of-care and over-the-counter tests by the federal government and a three-month deal with Walmart, Amazon and Kroger to sell the tests at cost.
State expands COVID vaccine mandate to senior care facility, home care workers
The California Department of Public Health expanded the state's COVID-19 vaccination mandate on Sept. 28 to require senior care facility and in-home care workers to be fully vaccinated.
The update to the state's mandate will require people who work in adult and senior care facilities, certified home care aides, hospice care workers and employees of the state's facilities serving people with developmental and intellectual disabilities to be fully vaccinated by Nov. 30.
The state has already required health care workers, K-12 teachers and state employees to get vaccinated or tested at least once a week for COVID-19.
"We can and must continue to protect our most vulnerable communities from the ongoing threat of COVID-19," CDPH Director and state Public Health Officer Dr. Tomas Aragon said in a statement. "These care settings are home to Californians with complex medical conditions, all of whom are at high risk of having severe but preventable outcomes including hospitalization, severe illness, and death."
State residents can visit myturn.ca.gov or call 833-422-4255 to schedule a vaccination appointment or find a walk-in vaccination clinic in their county.
Comprehensive COVID-19 coverage
View interactive charts tracking the spread of the coronavirus in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties online at paloaltoonline.atavist.com/tracking-the-coronavirus. Find a comprehensive collection of coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by The Almanac and its sister publications, Palo Alto Online, and the Mountain View Voice, at tinyurl.com/c19-Almanac.
CalMatters and Bay City News Service contributed to this report.