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Experts say COVID-19 vaccine mandates at workplaces can help save lives and slow the spread of the disease. FG Trade/Getty Images
  • Companies such as Google, Facebook, and Uber are joining a growing list of workplaces that are now requiring COVID-19 vaccines for their employees.
  • Federal agencies such as the Department of Veterans Affairs are also implementing the mandates.
  • Experts say workplace COVID-19 vaccine mandates can help the United States get closer to herd immunity, but the protections won’t fully work unless all areas of the country have high rates of vaccination.

Santa Barbara City College in Southern California is known for its academic programs and scenic views of the Pacific Ocean.

However, the typically upbeat campus has been immersed lately in debate over whether the college should force students and faculty to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

The college’s Faculty Association and Academic Senate support the idea of a vaccine mandate for all students and employees.

But the school’s leadership, while “strongly” recommending vaccinations, has not approved a mandate.

This has led to considerable unrest on campus.

In an interview with Healthline, Peter Haslund, PhD, professor emeritus and president of the Santa Barbara City College Board of Trustees, said that at a special meeting of the board on Thursday, he and some of his colleagues will change their vote in favor of the vaccine requirement.

The last vote was 4-3 against the idea.

“I’ve spoken with people to make sure we have the votes to implement a requirement that people on campus be vaccinated,” Haslund said. “The sad truth is that people were not likely to respond to our strong encouragement to get vaccinated in sufficient numbers to achieve herd immunity. We want this to come to closure so that our students and faculty are safe.”

The situation at Santa Barbara City College reflects a trend nationwide.

With hospitals filling up again and cases from the highly contagious Delta variant on the rise, vaccine mandates are being debated in virtually every sector of the United States.

That includes everything from schools to corporations to cities to hospitals to charitable organizations to government agencies to restaurants and bars.

Companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, Uber, Lyft, Tyson Foods, Kaiser Permanente, and Walt Disney Co. have announced a vaccine mandate for all or some of their employees.

Even Fox News has instituted a policy that allows only the company’s fully vaccinated employees to work in their offices without a mask or physical distancing.

Last week, officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) became the first federal agency to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations, requiring inoculations for more than 100,000 of its employees.

Terrence Hayes, the VA’s press secretary, told Healthline that the spread of the Delta variant is causing an exponential increase in cases and hospitalizations at the agency.

“Since last month, COVID-related hospitalizations at VA have increased by 37 percent. We’ve already lost thousands of veterans to COVID-19 and now we’re seeing upticks in infections and deaths among veterans once again,” Hayes said.

“We tragically lost four employees to COVID-19 — all of whom were unvaccinated,” he added. “At least three of those employees died because of the increasingly prevalent Delta variant.”

Hayes said the agency cannot afford to lose any more team members or put veterans and their families at risk.

“This aggressive measure to seek the vaccination of our VA workforce who come in immediate contact with veterans is a necessary step to fight and ultimately defeat this deadly virus,” he said.

Officials say that President Joe Biden’s decision to mandate vaccines at the VA will lead to vaccine mandates at more federal agencies.

Could all these COVID-19 vaccine mandates lead to herd immunity, which occurs when a large portion of a community acquires immunity to a disease?

The level of vaccination needed to achieve herd immunity varies by disease, and it can range from 50 to 90 percent.

Vaccine mandates will lead the country in the direction of herd immunity, but that doesn’t mean the nation as a whole will get there, said Dr. Robert Turner Schooley, a professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases and global public health at the University of California, San Diego.

Schooley told Healthline that herd immunity is a good concept for a group, but a flawed concept at the individual level.

“If you’re sitting in Alabama and the vaccination rate is at 30 percent, and you say that because of herd immunity you will wait to get the vaccine and you will be fine, that is a bad strategy,” Schooley explained.

You can come close to herd immunity in an immediate population if enough of them are vaccinated, he said.

But it’s not that simple.

“I’m sitting here in San Diego in an area where we have vaccine rates that are 80 percent and will even be up to 95 by September,” Schooley noted. “But other parts of San Diego are still in the 50 percent range, and I may encounter those people as well if I go to a concert or a baseball game or what have you. You need to be aware of your entire social circle.”

Whether these vaccine mandates bring any broad herd immunity, they will still save millions of lives, Schooley said.

While 165 million people are fully vaccinated, an estimated 93 million Americans who are eligible for the vaccines have chosen not to get vaccinated.

Last week, President Biden lamented that too many Americans still refuse to get a vaccine, which are safe and effective.

“This is an American tragedy,” Biden said. “People are dying, and will die, who don’t have to die.”