The debate continues over a proposed COVID-19 vaccine mandate for employees of Montgomery County, Maryland.
Members of two Montgomery County Council committees quizzed county officials Monday about whether the mandate — with no option to provide weekly test results instead — would lead to attrition in already-stretched-thin county agencies. And they discussed how vaccination mandates have played out in other jurisdictions.
The hearing Monday was only a discussion among members of the County Council and the heads of several county agencies, including Fire and Rescue Service Chief Scott Goldstein and police Chief Marcus Jones.
The County Council plans another meeting next month to discuss adding a religious exemption. The current proposal only allows for a medical exemption.
A vote on the bill isn’t expected until January.
County Council members who support the firm vaccine mandate say it’s necessary to drive up vaccination rates and limit COVID-19-related disruptions.
Currently, 81% of county employees who have reported their vaccination status have had at least one dose, according to a county dashboard. Another 11% of county employees have not reported their status. About 8% of county employees have reported they are not vaccinated.
But Earl Stoddard, the assistant chief administrative officer, said state data indicates an even higher percentage of county employees are actually fully vaccinated even though they haven’t reported it to the county.
The departments with the highest share of unvaccinated employees are the Department of Fire and Rescue Services, the Department of Correction and Rehabilitation and the Department of Transportation’s Ride On bus drivers, officials told council members.
County Council staff researchers examined 30 similar vaccine mandates across the country. Carlos Camacho, a legislative analyst, said the biggest staff impact they could find was in Washington state, where around 3% of a roughly 60,000-person workforce resigned, retired or were terminated in the wake of a firm vaccination mandate, including 127 employees from the Washington State Patrol.
In New York City, fewer than 1% of city employees were on leave without pay as a result of being noncompliant with the city’s vaccine mandate, according to staff research.
Council staff did not look at the vaccine policies of neighboring jurisdictions — such as D.C., Arlington and Fairfax counties — because those jurisdictions all have weekly testing as a way for employees to opt out of vaccination.
Council Vice President Gabe Albornoz — who is one of the sponsors of the mandate proposal and who says the council is striving to strike a balance — noted: “There are understandably predictions that there will be significant swathes of the workforce who will choose to quit rather than proceed with the mandate … but other jurisdictions who have enacted the mandate have not seen large percentages of their employees leave their workforces.”
Still, the heads of the police and the fire departments said that they are already at critically low staffing levels, and that even a small percentage of employees leaving or being disciplined for noncompliance could hamper their public safety work.
MCFRS Chief Scott Goldstein said the department “is at one of our lowest points in our staffing ability.”
Just under 75% of fire personnel have received at least one dose. However, 19% of fire employees have not reported their vaccination status, and another 6% have not been vaccinated.
“The staffing challenges for FRS are daily” — such as forced overtime — “and will not improve practically until our next recruit class graduates, and they do not graduate until July,” Goldstein said.
Even losing 3% of staff — 35 to 50 employees — will “absolutely result in service adjustments,” Goldstein said.
“We can’t dance around this, that we are facing staff shortages in some very critical areas,” Council Member Nancy Navarro said.
Under the current policy, which requires unvaccinated employees to submit weekly test results, there are already 24 Fire and Rescue Service personnel who are on personal leave because they have refused to provide weekly test results, officials said.
Required weekly testing for fire and rescue personnel began Oct. 31.
Jones said the vaccine mandate could mean the loss of 20 dispatch call-takers from the county’s 911 center.
“I do think that this could have some significant impact on our emergency call center,” he said.
However, Council Member Hans Riemer, who is one of the most vocal backers of the vaccine mandate, countered: “Vaccination requirements minimize disruption, they don’t cause disruption. If we’ve got several dozen people going into the 911 call center who are not vaccinated, they’re liable to get sick at any moment. It’s just a matter of time.”
In addition, unvaccinated employees must quarantine for 10 days — for which they received paid administrative leave — if they have close contact with a confirmed positive COVID-19 case.
Stoddard said the county is still trying other approaches to drive vaccinations up. For example, the county is planning to offer an hour of overtime to Ride On bus drivers for townhall-style educational sessions to answer employees’ questions about the vaccine and dispel rumors.
“We want to make sure that we’ve exhausted every avenue to try and encourage people to get vaccinated … because at the end of the day, when people come along willingly, really, it’s just better than people who feel like they were forced or mandated into something,” Stoddard said.
Gino Renne, president of the UFCW 1994 MCGEO union that represents scores of county workers, including bus drivers, urged council members to give employees more time to get vaccinated before mandating it.
Renne said the No. 1 reason for vaccine-hesitant employees is what he called “medical skepticism.”
“I believe that if you would give us the time to continue to work the program that we have developed with the county executive’s team and allow us to educate the medical skeptics, that their fears may not be as grave as they believe and that we’ll get to a point that the number (of unvaccinated employees) is negligible,” Renne said.
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