ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) — Nearly 4,000 city workers in St. Paul must get the vaccine by the end of the year, Mayor Melvin Carter announced Thursday. There isn’t a routine testing alternative, making it one of the strictest policies in the state.

In a video announcement, Carter said employees need to get vaccinated by Dec. 31, unless they qualify for certain medical or religious exemptions.

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By mid-January, workers need to submit proof of vaccination, the mayor’s spokesman Peter Leggett said, or they “will not be able to work and may be subject to discipline.”

“Not getting vaccinated poses a significant risk to all of us,” Carter said.

Union leaders expressed concern of the policy endangering critical workforces, like first-responders. Mike Smith, president of St. Paul Firefighters Local 21, said 20% of the department — upwards of 100 firefighters — could leave or be forced out because of the rule.

“In the next couple of weeks, I hope we can continue the talks and adjust the policy as we see would serve the people of St Paul,” he said. “And that’s not losing any paramedics or firefighters.”

The mayor of Minnesota’s second largest city cited rising test positivity rates in Ramsey County that have increased three-fold since July in his decision to issue the requirement.

Public health experts and doctors consistently underscore data that shows vaccines are effective at preventing severe illness and death, and are the best tools to combat the pandemic.

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Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm this week said the unvaccinated in Minnesota are 15 times more likely to be hospitalized from COVID-19 and 30 times more likely to die from the virus.

“Testing only provides a way to determine if someone has COVID after they’ve already contracted it,” Carter said of his decision to offer no testing opt-out. “It offers no protection for an unvaccinated individual or any individuals they interact with.”

St. Paul’s mandate is stricter than other cities in Minnesota. In Minneapolis, city employees have to be regularly tested if not vaccinated. Hennepin and Ramsey counties and the State of Minnesota have similar rules.

City Council Member Jane Prince in a statement online said she supports vaccinations, but is “deeply disappointed” that Carter’s mandate “ignores the reasonable requests of our employees and their unions” to have a routine testing option.

In cities nationwide with more stringent mandates, there are tense clashes over the policies. In Chicago, there are two lawsuits filed against the policy there from firefighters and police. In Washington State, nearly 1,900, or about 3%, of the state workers were terminated or left their jobs after the deadline to get vaccinated passed last week, according to The Seattle Times.

There is evidence suggesting when faced with losing their job, people get vaccinated. Airline United said 99.5% of its employees are vaccinated since it first issued the policy in August, according to an NPR report this month.

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Caroline Cummings