Hennepin County is bolstering its employee COVID-19 vaccine mandate by removing the option for non-vaccinated staff members to be tested regularly.

The Hennepin County Board on Nov. 16 unanimously approved the measure, which will go into effect Feb. 4 for all county employees who may have to perform their work on-site or in the community once a hybrid working model is implemented. The mandate does not apply to staff members with legally granted exemptions.

The requirement goes into effect earlier for some employees. The deadline for full vaccination is Jan. 4 for staff members who work in departments funded by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, which is requiring such entities to mandate vaccinations for their staff.

“COVID-19 cases are again increasing in our community and continue to threaten the safety of the workplace,” County Administrator David Hough said in justifying the more strict mandate.

The County Board voted on the initial mandate in August, requiring employees to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination by Oct. 1 or submit to weekly testing. At the time that policy was approved, the county was experiencing a seven-day new-case rate of 122 per 100,000 people, compared with 360 cases per 100,000 people as of Nov. 15, as Minnesota experienced the worst infection rate in the nation in the nation, Hough noted.

At the time of the board meeting, the vaccination rate in the county was just over 67%, “meaning that more than 30% of the county remains unvaccinated, giving the delta variant ample opportunity to spread,” he said.

However, the vaccination rate for county employees is 85%, which Hough called a “phenomenal number.”

Employee objections

Several county employees, including union stewards, objected to the vaccine mandate in recorded statements aired during the board’s public comment period.

Remy Huerta-Stemper, the union steward for AFSCME Local 34, the union representing social service workers, warned of the mandate’s effect on BIPOC – Black, Indigenous and people of color – employees. “The data from organizations like the CDC is clear that BIPOC Americans are more likely to be vaccine-hesitant than white Americans,” Huerta-Stemper said.

“I worry that this move towards a full mandate will only deepen disparities in Hennepin County, and I urge the board to go slowly in making these decisions.”

Echoing that worry was Angel Gardner-Kocher, president of AFSCME Local 2864, which represents a variety of county employees including librarians, vocational counselors and planning analysts.

“A lot of our folks that are being brought into investigations about vaccinations are employees of color,” Gardner-Kocher said. “So I think it would hurt our racial diversity as well. We know, historically, people of color have been subject to government policies that have hurt them and that there is (vaccine) scrutiny because of that.”

She stated she is “pro-vax, but I would hate to see these employees who have been faithful to the county throughout the duration of their career being cast aside over this, when they’re truly trying to comply with the testing policy that has been put forth.”

Gardner-Kocher added, “We have members that are still figuring out the testing process and willing to comply. There’s a very small handful of members that are not willing to comply.”

In response to the objections, Hough asserted, “Routine testing of unvaccinated employees is not equivalent to vaccination,” since testing offers no protection.

Since vaccinated people can contract COVID-19 as well – though at lower rates and with less severity – Gardner-Kocher advocated for all county employees to be regularly tested, regardless of vaccination status. “So if this is truly about public safety, let’s get testing on site for all workers, not just vaccinated workers,” she said.

County Commissioner Jeff Lunde said he was open to that proposal. “I really believe that we should look at testing for all our staff,” especially due to the vaccines’ waning effectiveness over time, he said.

Staffing considerations

The resolution initially presented to the board called for the mandate to be effective Jan. 4 for all employees, not just those subject to the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid mandate, but Lunde and Commissioner Chris LaTondresse introduced a revision adding a month to the vaccination deadline for general staff.

That will give departments more time to prepare for staffing challenges and allow employees more time to research vaccinations and make appropriate decisions, LaTondresse said.

Lunde, who said he is vaccinated, was more explicit in his concern. “I do worry about mandates, because I don’t like making people do things, but I understand why we’re doing this,” he said.

Lunde acknowledged that the federal requirement is absolute, considering the funding ramifications for non-compliance. “As a former mayor, when the state or federal government says, ‘Hey, you want the money, you have to follow these rules,’ You know what you do? You follow the rules,” he said.

Noting how common it has been for public safety personnel to avoid the vaccine, Lunde said there is concern in that field that “if mandates hit, people will quit.”

At the same time, it has been widely reported that COVID-19 is currently the leading cause of death for law enforcement personnel in the U.S., with more than 460 police officers having died from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, compared with 93 deaths due to gunfire during the same period.

Lunde imagined the outcry if the inverse statistic were true. “If deaths from gunfire went from 93 to 460, I think we’d be having a lot different conversations about how to change tactics,” he said.

Minnesota’s infection rate being the worst in the nation is enough to require change, Commissioner Debbie Goettel said.

“We have to do something more bold,” Goettel said. “And leadership is hard, and people are going to disagree, but I’m going to vote for this today.”

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