Vaxxed Up

As of Aug. 24, 42 county employees filed requests for exemptions, 40 of them for religious reasons. Two medical exemptions and 16 religious ones were approved; the others are under review.

Four weeks ago, the five members of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors were feeling pressed: The Covid-19 delta variant was spreading, cases and hospitalizations were increasing and they were about to take their annual two-week summer break. Fearing another shutdown, they raced on July 30 to unanimously approve a vaccination and mask mandate for the county’s 5,400 employees with only weeks to comply.

The opposition from some employees was swift, notably Sheriff Steve Bernal. “The Sheriff does not support the policy and Sheriff won’t enforce this on [Sheriff’s Office] employees,” read an email from Undersheriff John Mineau, sent a few hours later. In the first regular meeting back from summer recess on Tuesday, Aug. 24, Board Chair Wendy Root Askew apologized for the rush. “In retrospect we could have done a better job to do outreach,” she said.

As managers scrambled to meet the deadline, their work served as outreach as they met with three employee union groups – California Nurses Association, Monterey County Deputy Sheriffs Association and Service Employees International Union – and figured out how to set up testing for those who are not vaccinated.

Seventy-seven percent of employees reported their vaccination status as required by the order, and of those 82 percent were fully vaccinated. (Human Resources estimates the rate is 63 percent for the entire workforce.)

Meanwhile on Aug. 5, the issue became moot for about a third of employees when California Health Officer and Director of Public Health Tomás J. Aragón mandated all healthcare employees and those working in congregate living settings be vaccinated by Sept. 30. That applies to employees of the county’s hospital, Natividad, along with health clinic employees and those working in the jail.

On Aug. 24, the supervisors voted to extend their deadline for vaccinations to Sept. 30 to align with the state. For those employees who don’t comply with any of the requirements – reporting vaccination status, testing if they are exempt, or wearing masks on the job, etc. – they will face disciplinary actions up to and including possible termination. County Administrator Charles McKee says the goal isn’t to discipline people but to get as many vaccinated as possible, in order to protect children and others who cannot.

Supervisor Luis Alejo said the mandate was necessary: “We don’t want to go back to shutting down our economy again.”

A few employees spoke against it, including Bill Hija, a DSA board member who argued vaccinations should be voluntary. Others said the mandate violates their rights to make their own medical decisions.

Alejo and Askew said they want to consider an indoor mask mandate for public locations in unincorporated areas of Monterey County on Aug. 31. Alejo pressed County Health Officer Edward Moreno to use his authority to switch from a recommendation to a requirement for indoor masks throughout the entire county, including cities.

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