Amid a debate about a strict COVID-19 vaccine mandate for county workers, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said Wednesday he has ordered a study of staffing levels in key agencies to see whether such a mandate would “break the system” by hindering critical public safety operations.
Maryland’s most populous county already requires county workers to either get vaccinated or provide weekly negative COVID-19 test results. A bill introduced by two members of the Montgomery County Council would require vaccination with no option to submit test results instead.
That bill is scheduled for a public hearing Oct. 19.
During a media briefing Wednesday, Elrich, who has already declared the council members’ bill the “wrong approach,” repeated concerns that unvaccinated workers facing discipline for not getting the shots would walk off the job or retire early.
The study he has ordered will probe already-tight staffing levels at the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Services; the Department of Corrections, which staffs the county jail; and other departments with a high percentage of workers who are unvaccinated or haven’t declared their vaccination status.
“We’re asking critical departments … how many people they can withstand before the absence of those bodies would lead to a breakdown in our ability to provide critical services,” Elrich told reporters.
“I don’t have a problem with mandates,” Elrich said. “The problem is, I’m not just dealing with COVID; I’m dealing with running a county that relies on certain services. I’ve got to balance those two things against each other.”
Advocates of the mandate say unvaccinated county workers — especially in the public safety field — put the rest of the community at risk of contracting COVID-19 and that maintaining the option to test out of vaccination provides no incentive to get the jab.
Seventy-seven percent of the county’s more than 9,500 employees report having had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to a county dashboard. Another 6% of workers say they’re not vaccinated, and about 16% of county workers haven’t reported whether they’re vaccinated.
Among some departments, the uncertainty about vaccination status is far greater. Across the Fire and Rescue Services’ 1,300 employees, more than 32% haven’t reported their vaccination status. More than 30% of the Department of Correction and Rehabilitation’s nearly 500 workers haven’t reported their status, and nearly 18% of the police department’s 1,800 employees have not provided their vaccination status.
Elrich said the county is still working with departments and labor unions to understand the true number of unvaccinated county workers.
If the number turns out to be low enough, Elrich said he would support a firm mandate, saying “I would live with the consequences.”
But if the non-reporting workers turn out to be unvaccinated employees who might be sidelined by the mandate, “We would not be able to put ambulances out; we would not be able to provide adequate fire coverage, and, most critically, folks in the jail would be without adequate staffing. And the last thing I want is a jail where I can’t staff it at a level that can maintain the security and safety inside the jail.”
The point of the study is to see how much wiggle room the county has, he said.
“I’m trying to weigh how to make sure I don’t cripple the county for something that may have a minimal impact on whether or not COVID gets spread,” Elrich said. “This is one of those not-fun decisions.”
Earl Stoddard, the county’s assistant chief administrative officer, said recruitment and retention in some public safety positions, such as first responders, has been an “underlying problem” in the county even before the emergence of COVID-19.
“We are doing force holds within our fire department, which basically means we’re forcibly holding over people into additional shifts to cover for gaps, already. And so it really isn’t a huge number of employees that would have to decide to early retire or leave for us to be in a real, real bind,” Stoddard said.
He said the study of staffing levels will be completed ahead of the Oct. 19 council hearing so that it can be part of the public discourse.
“There’s a weighing of concerns here, and obviously, the concern of vaccination versus the concern of what could happen in reduction of service, and how you balance those two things out, legislatively, I think is important for the council to understand,” he said.
The firm vaccine mandate has drawn the support of at least three council members, including Will Jawando and Hans Riemer, who have sponsored the measure. Council Vice President Gabe Albornoz said he also supports the bill.
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Amid improving numbers, ‘trick-or-treating will be a full go’
The upturn in coronavirus cases over the summer appears to be a downward swing, Elrich said, which he attributed to the county’s high vaccination rate and the reinstituting of an indoor mask mandate early last month.
“The latest wave of cases we’ve experienced over the summer due to delta have begun to plateau and subside a bit,” he said.
In fact, the county, which is trending at around 75 cases per 100,000 residents over the past week, is on the “cusp” of reaching a lower level of community transmission.
Below 50 cases per 100,000 over seven days, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and indoor masks are no longer recommended.
The county’s indoor mask mandate is set to automatically lift if the county sees seven straight days of moderate or lower transmission.
With Halloween in about a month, Stoddard said those who enjoy the spooky season can expect relaxed guidance compared to last year when health officials recommended against trick-or-treating.
The guidance for celebrating Halloween is expected next week, he said, but Stoddard gave a preview.
“I think trick-or-treating will be a full go this year,” Stoddard said. “We’re not going to offer any guidance to the contrary.”
The guidance will still include some precautions for indoor activities, such as wearing masks, he said.