At a special meeting on Tuesday, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors will consider implementing a COVID-19 vaccination policy covering all county employees.
The board will be presented with a range of possible policy options, including mandatory vaccinations for all employees except those with medical or religious exemptions.
In a report to the board, county staff says such mandates are legally enforceable. “Federal and state law make it clear that employers may require employees to receive an FDA-approved vaccination against COVID-19 infection” as long as the employer doesn’t discriminate and provides reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities or sincerely held religious beliefs, the report says.
Nearly 400 million doses of COVID vaccines have been administered in the U.S. since December 14, and public health officials attest to their safety and efficacy.
“COVID-19 vaccines are one of the most important tools to end the COVID-19 pandemic, and this option presents the best opportunity to reduce the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 in the workplace,” the county staff report says. It goes on to note the CDC’s advice that all three federally approved vaccines are safe, free and effective at helping protect against severe disease and death from the virus and its variants, including the Delta variant.
In conversations with the Outpost, a majority of county supervisors said they would likely support a policy requiring regular testing of all unvaccinated workers, though they said they’re looking forward to hearing feedback from the workforce. (Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone could not be reached before publication time.)
First District Supervisor Rex Bohn said he’s a proponent of the jab personally. “I am pro-vaccine because I see the results, and I’m looking out for my grandkids,” he said.
Bohn tested positive for COVID in August despite being fully vaccinated, and he credits the vaccine with making his symptoms mild and allowing a quick recovery.
Unvaccinated people in California are seven times more likely to contract COVID and 17 times more likely to die from it than fully vaccinated people, according to the latest state data.
Bohn said he has a lot of friends who are against the vaccines, and he’s gotten lots of emails with links to stories spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories. But he believes the data coming from public health authorities.
“When you read that [more] than 90 percent of all people having fatalities and severe cases where they wind up in the hospital are unvaccinated, it makes you wonder if there’s something there,” he deadpanned. “But with that, I think everybody has a choice what to do with their body. So if you don’t take the vaccine, you need to test on a weekly basis. … I’d have a hard time supporting a full vaccine mandate, [but] I do support a vaccine mandate with a testing option.”
Second District Supervisor Michelle Bushnell said she’s pretty much on the same page. “I don’t have a right to tell somebody they have to get a vaccine,” she said. “I can encourage, I can help, I can lead them if they so choose.” But she said she’d stop short of requiring jabs for all county workers. “I think a testing option is something we could do to ensure the safety of our employees.”
However, Fourth District Supervisor and Board Chair Virginia Bass said she’s been told that regularly testing the unvaxxed in a workforce as big as the county’s could be prohibitively expensive. One quote was for $3.9 million annually, she said.
“My personal wish [is that] we could make sure everybody is vaccinated and safe,” Bass said in a recent phone conversation. “We’ve got employees begging for us to require vaccinations, and of course we’ve got employees that are not very keen on the idea. … In a perfect world, everyone would get their vaccine, but that’s not where we live right now. … I think forcing [a vaccine mandate] would fracture the county at a time when we don’t need it.”
In recent weeks, an unfounded rumor began circulating, claiming that county supervisors would soon consider compulsory vaccinations for all county residents, not just employees. The rumor may have been sparked by an online petition calling for a countywide policy requiring proof of vaccination to enter all indoor public places.
Bohn and Bushnell said they were flooded by calls and emails ahead of last Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting from people outraged by the false rumor. Many forwarded links to an online initiative dubbed the Humboldt Freedom Coalition, whose stated goal is cultivating “a movement which pushes back on the prevailing narrative with our own, unique brand of journalism.” (Their brand apparently includes blatant falsehoods. They claim, for example, that “the overwhelming majority” of Humboldt County residents are invulnerable to COVID-19.)
Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson said he was reluctant to take a definitive stance before Tuesday’s deliberations, but he said he’s open to the possibility of a vaccine mandate.
“In general it looks to me like [such a mandate] is the direction we’re gonna need to go if we’re gonna get a handle on these things,” he said, noting that other agencies and companies in both the public and private sectors have implemented such policies.
The City of Eureka passed a mandatory employee vaccination policy on Tuesday. The State of California now requires vaccinations for all workers in health care facilities. The City of Los Angeles just passed an ordinance requiring proof of vaccination to enter indoor restaurants, shopping malls, movie theaters, hair and nail salons and many other indoor venues, and the City of San Francisco already has such a policy.
Wilson predicted that health insurance companies may soon start increasing rates to cover unvaccinated people, which could have a big fiscal impact on government agencies. And, like Bass, he said the steep cost of regular testing could play a factor in his decision on a county policy.
“First and foremost is the safety of our employees and the public,” Wilson said. “We have to acknowledge that that’s our primary concern, but cost isn’t totally off the table in terms of how we develop a policy to keep people safe.”
Bushnell encouraged county employees to speak up either by emailing the supervisors or contributing to public comments at Tuesday’s meeting.
“This is going to affect our staff either way,” she said. “This is about them.”