Supes Decline Employee Vaccine Mandate, Push Forward With Testing Policy

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Humboldt County Courthouse - FILE
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  • Humboldt County Courthouse
The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously this afternoon to move forward with a policy requiring all county employees who are unvaccinated for COVID-19 to undergo weekly testing for the virus.

After hours of discussion and public comment, the board stopped short of passing a vaccine mandate for county employees and instead directed staff to come back with a policy to implement a testing regiment for those county employees who don’t have proof of vaccination.

County staff presented four policy options for the board Tuesday: remaining status quo, following state and federal mandates; requiring weekly testing for unvaccinated staff; requiring vaccinations with religious and medical exemptions; and requiring that all new hires be vaccinated.

Eighteen months into a pandemic that has now killed more than 714,000 Americans, including 106 Humboldt County residents, a majority of the more than two hours of public comment taken on the agenda item this morning was decidedly against the idea of a vaccine mandate for county employees, much of it rife with misinformation about the science of COVID-19, vaccinations and the law.

“We know you are being paid to push this agenda,” charged one commenter, intoning baselessly that county supervisors and health officials are somehow in the pockets of pharmaceutical companies and profiting off the pandemic.

At least two county employees also spoke in favor of a vaccine mandate, saying they felt it would help protect them, vulnerable loved ones and the community from infection and critical illness.

When the matter returned to the board, it appeared Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson and Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone were supportive of the idea of mandating vaccinations for all employees, but it was clear First District Supervisor Rex Bohn and Second District Supervisor Michelle Bushnell were not on board.

Bohn said he “firmly” believes in the vaccine but wasn’t comfortable with a blanket mandate that didn’t include some kind of testing option for employees. Bushnell, meanwhile, asked repeatedly why only unvaccinated employees should face a testing requirement if breakthrough infections of fully vaccinated people are known to occur.

Health Officer Ian Hoffman said the California Department of Public Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control currently don’t recommend surveillance testing of fully vaccinated individuals, as studies have shown them to be less infectious for shorter periods of time than their unvaccinated counterparts, while supply chain issues still limit the availability of testing supplies.

Bushnell at one point said she wouldn’t vote for anything but continuing the status quo, saying she doesn’t believe only testing the unvaccinated is an effective measure to prevent disease spread in county buildings — despite studies showing unvaccinated people infected with the virus are generally more contagious than their vaccinated counterparts — and that she was uncomfortable with mandating employees get a vaccine that could cause an adverse reaction.

“I don’t want that on my shoulders,” she said.

After hours of debate that was often circuitous or delved into the weeds of how staff would implement the board’s ultimate policy direction, Madrone made a motion to require vaccines for all staff, with limited exemptions for employees with religious or medical reasons for not getting vaccinated being required to test weekly. The motion was later modified to simply require weekly testing for all employees who are not vaccinated.

Bushnell objected, saying she still thinks the county “should test everyone” but ultimately joined the rest of the board in voting to direct staff to draft the new policy, which is slated to come back before the board for final approval in the coming weeks.

After the vote, Wilson asked the board to revisit the option of requiring all new hires to be fully vaccinated.

Sheriff Honsal then addressed the board echoing comments he’d made earlier in the meeting, noting that his short-handed department has been approached by officers in other jurisdictions that have passed vaccine mandates about job openings.

“Whether it’s a doctor’s recommendation or they already had COVID, they do not want to be vaccinated and are required to under their current employers,” Honsal said, adding that requiring vaccination for new hires would diminish his pool of candidates. “I just don’t want a vaccine mandate for new hires to prevent someone from wanting to come to work for the county of Humboldt.”

Fourth District Supervisor Virginia Bass then raised concerns about the lack of a vaccine mandate for county employees becoming a “recruitment strategy,” but said she would want to “do more research” before officially weighing in on a potential mandate for new hires. Bushnell then reiterated her opposition to any kind of vaccinate mandate, saying that “misinformation or not … people have a right to what they put in their bodies.”

Madrone then indicated that he wants to “treat all employees the same” and wouldn’t support a vaccine requirement for new hires if one wasn’t in place for all county employees, effectively ending the discussion.

The County Administrative Office and Human Resources will now meet with county employee unions and public health before coming back to the board with a recommendation of how to implement a testing program for all unvaccinated employees.

The board’s vote came exactly a week after the Eureka City Council unanimously went a different route, voting to require all employees without a vetted religious or medical exemption to get fully vaccinated for COVID-19 by Nov. 23. The staff recommendation in favor of the policy was put forward by the city’s Human Resources Department and was supported by the city’s employee unions, according to a staff report.

Councilmember Kim Bergel indicated she was conflicted by the proposed mandate but ultimately voted in favor of it, saying the pandemic has created a reality where community needs outweigh individual concerns.

“This isn’t about individual people anymore,” she said. “This is about a community as a whole working together.”

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