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Delta first major U.S. airline to require new hires be vaccinated

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Delta Air Lines will require all new hires in the U.S. to be immunized against COVID-19, the carrier announced Friday, calling vaccines "safe, effective and essential to the future of the airline and our world."

The Atlanta-based airline noted its progress toward herd immunity within its own workforce, with 60% of its roughly 74,000 employees already vaccinated, the company said. To help maintain that trajectory, Delta will mandate that those joining the company be vaccinated unless they qualify for an accommodation, the company said in a statement. The policy starts Monday.

"Approximately two out of 10 Americans have been infected by COVID-19, and one out of 1,000 Americans has died from the virus. The vaccines are not only extremely effective in preventing illness and symptoms from COVID-19, but they are also nearly 100 percent effective in preventing hospitalization and death," Delta stated.

Delta "will not be implementing a company-wide mandate to require current employees to be vaccinated," a spokesperson told CBS MoneyWatch in an email.

While it is the first major U.S. carrier to make the move, at least one other airline seems likely to echo Delta in the near future.

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby in January signaled his airline would likely join others if they began mandating employee vaccinations, calling it the "right thing to do" for his airline and other companies. 

"We need some others to show leadership, particularly in the health care industry," Kirby told an employee town hall. "So, if others go along and are willing to start to mandate vaccines, you should probably expect United to be amongst the first wave of companies that do it."

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United is still considering a vaccine mandate for its employees, but no decision has been made, a spokesperson told CBS MoneyWatch Friday in an email. The company has opened vaccination sites including at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport to ensure its employees have access to the vaccine, the spokesperson added.

Other U.S. airlines indicated they had no intention of requiring their workers be vaccinated. 

"We are strongly encouraging team members to get vaccinated and offering an incentive for those who do. But we do not plan to require the vaccine unless it's mandatory for entry into certain destinations," an American Airlines spokesperson stated in an email.

American has offered employees who get vaccinated an additional vacation day in 2022 and a $50 gift card.

"Nothing new to report from our end along these lines and no changes underway," a spokesperson for Southwest Airlines emailed when asked whether the carrier might require its workers be vaccinated.

Alaska Airlines, meanwhile, is not considering requiring its employees get COVID-19 shots. 

"We continue to emphasize the importance of vaccinations in fighting the spread of COVID 19. However, it's a personal choice and we do not plan on making it a condition of employment," a spokesperson said in an email.

JetBlue and Spirit Airlines did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Delta's decision comes as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that fully vaccinated Americans can stop wearing face masks in most settings. But a federal rule imposed in January still requires passengers and crews on airlines and trains to cover their faces.

Delta, which operates a vaccination center at its flight museum in Atlanta, says the new policy is designed to protect other employees and passengers as travel recovers from last year's lows during the worst of the pandemic.

Air travel has risen gradually since hitting a low point in April 2020, with the recovery gaining speed in recent weeks. On Thursday, the Transportation Security Administration screened 1.74 million people. That was the highest number of people at U.S. airports since March 2020, although it was still 33% below the figure for the comparable day in 2019.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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