The Board of Supervisors convened Aug. 24,
The Board of Supervisors convened Aug. 24, discussing vaccine requirements for county employees.
(Grace Stetson / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Board of Supervisors will require vaccination or weekly COVID testing for county employees

After an acrimonious public comment period, the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted Tuesday to require county employees to be vaccinated or be tested weekly. Those who fail to do either may be fired.

The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted Tuesday to require either vaccinations or mandatory weekly testing for county employees.

The Board also voted to reevaluate the policy in 45 days.

Public comments were largely negative toward the requirement, with many touting theories about the dangers of vaccines that have been debunked by the scientific community. Others claimed the rule would be tantamount to Nazi-era rules that Jews wear an identifying yellow star.

During the meeting, County Administrative Officer Carlos J. Palacios said several counties and the state of California have recently issued similar mandates. Monterey and Santa Clara counties have also recently issued a vaccination mandate for all county employees, with exemptions only for medical or religious reasons. San Benito County also recently passed a rule nearly identical to that which the Santa Cruz board adopted.

In all places, including now Santa Cruz, if the mandates are not followed, employees face termination.

As of Aug. 13, 85%, or 1,937 of budgeted Santa Cruz County employees, were already fully or partially vaccinated, with an estimated 300 unvaccinated. Those numbers are much higher than what is reflected in the general county population, with 68% partially or fully vaccinated.

“We hope in the next survey that we will be up around 90%,” Palacios said. “But it appears that about 10% of our employees are not planning on getting vaccinated.”

Based on these statistics, Palacios and his team put together three options for the board. The first option was to keep the status quo — where employees are not subject to mandatory vaccinations or testing, but must provide their employer with their vaccination status.

The second was a mandatory vaccination requirement for all employees with exemptions only for medical or religious reasons, and the third option was to require vaccinations, but offer a mandatory weekly test if employees refuse to get vaccinated.

From Palacios’s staff survey, the majority — including himself — approved of option three.

“The main issue is how do we keep our employees safe — the testing option does definitely increase the safety of our workforce,” he said. “There’s also operational and legal issues with requiring a vaccination without an alternative.”

Supervisor Bruce McPherson said the issue is complicated, and likely wouldn’t please every employee or community member regardless of the decision.

“A decision does have to be made, and your recommendation is right on target,” he said to Palacios. “It’s an encouragement as well as an option.”

The main issue is how do we keep our employees safe — the testing option does definitely increase the safety of our workforce.

Supervisor Manu Koenig asked for additional clarification from County Health Officer Gail Newel regarding the statistics of vaccinated versus unvaccinated community members. Newel said the unvaccinated are seven times more likely to be infected, and could be asymptomatic. Further, while masking could be helpful, vaccines are the most effective way to protect against the virus.

Koenig questioned where testing would be provided for county employees and how the testing would be funded. Palacios said officials are working on the logistics for specific testing sites for county employees, including a potential mobile vendor. Preliminary contract agreements show that there would be no additional cost to the county.

Supervisors Zach Friend and Ryan Coonerty both voiced their support for option two — a strict vaccine requirement — with the goal of getting up to 100% vaccinations.

“I’m proud of the fact that county employees are not just telling the community to get vaccinated, but taking leadership and getting vaccinated,” Friend said. “I think option two is ultimately the cleanest way, and the real way to actually increase uptick.”

Coonerty said that those who are not getting vaccinated as of yet are putting their coworkers, friends and family, as well as the larger community, at risk.

“We need to at minimum have testing and ideally have vaccinations happen,” he said. “From an institutional point of view, we have a responsibility and from a community health point of view, we have a responsibility.”

Palacios said the majority of county employees are working a hybrid model, with some required to come in daily.

“There are very few working 100% virtually at this point,” he said, adding that was the reason a requirement of some type was necessary.

After public comments, Friend asked to move forward with option three, adding in a proposal to refer back in 45 days regarding costs and vaccination rates, and to go over the options again.

With that amendment, the Board confirmed option three by unanimous vote. The Board will reassess the vitality of the requirement in early October.