Later this week marks the deadline for Montgomery County, Maryland, employees to be fully vaccinated or submit to weekly testing. But already some county lawmakers are pushing for a stricter vaccine mandate for county workers.
Given the somewhat lackluster numbers of employees who have shared their vaccination status so far, members of the County Council are looking to eliminate the option for weekly testing.
Overall, just under 60% of the county employees — 5,666 of 9,500 employees — have submitted their vaccination status, Earl Stoddard, the county’s assistant chief administrative officer, told members of the council during a briefing Tuesday.
Of those who’ve submitted their information, about 95% are fully vaccinated, he said.
The deadline is Sept. 18.
“The fact that only 60% of the workforce has responded is really disappointing, and there’s an obvious confirmation bias risk here — that those who are the fastest to respond are the most likely to have been vaccinated,” said Council Member Andrew Friedson, who represents District 1. “And so we really don’t know what the numbers are.”
Stoddard said county officials met with representatives of employee labor unions on Monday to discuss efforts to get more workers to submit.
“We agree with you that the numbers need to be higher; there’s no question about that,” he said. He predicted the number would rise in the coming days as the deadline approaches.
At-Large Council Member Hans Riemer urged a tougher approach on mandating employee vaccinations.
“We’re all pounding the table, politically, about anti-vaxxers,” he said. “But we’re not doing everything we need to do to deal with anti-vaxxers who are working for our organization and are putting their fellow employees at risk.”
The county’s current vaccine mandate allows employees to opt out of getting vaccinated if they get tested for the coronavirus weekly.
“There has to be real consequences for not vaccinating, and a weekly test is not a significant burden, unfortunately,” Riemer said. “I think we need to require vaccinations. End of story. And if you don’t want to get vaccinated, then we don’t want you working for us. I’m OK saying that … I think we have to say it. This is about health and safety.”
At-Large Council Member Will Jawando said he also shared the concerns about needing to boost employee vaccination numbers and agreed with the idea of a firm vaccination mandate.
He pointed to recent moves by President Joe Biden to require the shots for federal workers — with no option to undergo weekly testing in lieu of being vaccinated — as well as a similar move by the Montgomery County Board of Education for public school employees.
Stoddard said there haven’t yet been discussions about outright mandating the vaccine. For now, county leaders are waiting on the latest data on how many employees are already vaccinated, which won’t be available until after the deadline.
“I think it would just be premature for us to say that we’re making any changes to the policy until we see exactly what we’re dealing with at the end of this week with regard to the reporting numbers,” Stoddard said. “At that point, we may revisit the policy.”
Search for new health officer
In the meantime, the county is on the hunt for a new health officer with the impending departure of Dr. Travis Gayles, who navigated the county through the coronavirus pandemic and is stepping down for a position with a San Francisco-based telehealth company.
Dr. Raymond Crowel, the head of the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, said the county has hired a national search firm to aid in their search. The firm has promised to provide a list of potential candidates by the end of the month.
But Crowel said he expects to take at least until December before a new health officer is named.
Council members pressed him on potentially speeding up the timeline, as the county continues to see an uptick in cases driven by the delta variant of the virus and prepares to enter the colder months.
“When I say December, I’m looking at an expedited process already,” Crowel said. Normally, such a search could take “many, many months,” he said. “This will be dramatically faster. And if there’s a way to speed that up, you can count on it.”
For now, James Bridgers, Gayles’ deputy, is the county’s acting health officer. However, Bridgers who has a doctorate in public health, cannot take on the permanent role, which requires a medical degree.
In addition, Crowel said Dr. Ernest Carter, the health officer of neighboring Prince George’s County, will sign off on Montgomery County health orders that require a physician’s signature.
“Dr. Carter is someone who is close to us, operates in a county that is equally sized to Montgomery County and is adjacent to D.C., so it’s part of our region,” Crowel said. “He knows the issues. He’s been doing the issues on the ground for many months. So there’s no ramp-up. He knows what we’re doing, what we’re dealing with, what we’re struggling with.”
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