Pima County employees could soon be required to get a COVID-19 vaccine to keep their jobs.
At the Board of Supervisors’ Aug. 10 meeting, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry will ask the supervisors to consider mandating vaccinations for county employees as a “condition of employment,” setting a deadline of Oct. 1 for employees to get at least their first dose.
“Our position is that vaccinations improve the public health strategy to significantly reduce the probability someone’s going to be infected with COVID-19 and dramatically reduce the severity of the illness that occurs,” he said. “We need to ensure that the people we serve are protected as well, so I think it’s critical that we have a mandatory vaccination requirement.”
New York City has required all city employees to get vaccinated or test weekly for the virus, as has California for state employees. Pima County would be the first government entity in Arizona to make the move.
COVID-19 cases in Pima County have more than doubled from the first to last week of July, according to Arizona Department of Health Services data, and the county health department updated its guidance last week to recommend mask-wearing indoors regardless of vaccination status.
With cases of the highly contagious delta variant rising throughout the nation, Huckelberry said “we should no longer take a wait-and-see approach” to vaccinations.
Only about 30% of the county’s 6,800 employees have been vaccinated, according to a report from Cathy Bohland, the county’s human resources director.
But the county determines staff vaccination rates by the number of employees who have requested an “I’m vaccinated” badge. After a request, the county verifies the employee’s vaccination status by looking at the state’s database or a vaccination card. Huckelberry thinks the actual number of vaccinated employees is much higher, as many employees “have not bothered to apply” for the badge.
If the board votes to require vaccinations, all county employees would have to provide proof of vaccination to the human resources department.
Although the county administrator recommends termination upon an employee’s refusal to get a vaccine, the supervisors may also consider requiring weekly or biweekly COVID-19 testing for unvaccinated employees.
However, the cost of testing, which Bohland puts at $85 to $95 per test, would have to be paid by either the county or the employee. Insurers don’t have to cover testing costs for general workplace health and safety as opposed to tests “for individualized diagnosis or treatment of COVID-19.”
It’s unlikely the county would cover those costs, and Huckelberry wants to “preserve as much of our COVID-19 tests as possible for valid public health response, not testing employees who refuse to be vaccinated.”
The mandate would have certain exemptions for employees with medical disabilities or a “sincerely held religious belief.” Bohland said those employees would undergo an “individualized assessment” to come up with accommodations such as a separate office space, telecommuting or undergoing frequent COVID-19 testing.
Bohland estimates at least 136 requests for exemptions based on a review of data tracked by Houston Methodist, which was one of the country’s first health systems to mandate vaccines for its employees in early April.
Differing views from supervisors
Matt Heinz, supervisor for District 2, not only adamantly supports a vaccine requirement for county employment but said he will ask the Board of Supervisors to extend the mandate to health-care workers.
Tucson Medical Center is requiring its employees to be vaccinated by Sept. 1, and Banner Health is requiring its staff to be vaccinated by Nov. 1. Heinz’s proposal is to enact a vaccine mandate for all health-care workers who work in the county, even those employed by businesses.
“We’re not going to be able to retroactively do anything, but we can at least prevent health-care workers from endangering patients, which I think is very reasonable to do,” he said.
Although the county is basing its potential mandate on the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s guidance that employers can require vaccines as a condition of employment, Steve Christy, District 4 supervisor, said he won’t support the vaccine requirement and called it a “slippery slope” for the county to face lawsuits.
“I think it’s an inappropriate approach to this particular issue. It really is a medical procedure that should be left to the individual’s own discretion,” he said. “I think we’re opening ourselves up to litigation, and I do believe that we’re going to see this probably ending up in the courts anyway as a result of any kind of mandate.”
No mandate for city employees
The city of Tucson is not mandating vaccines for employees at this time, according to Andrew Squire, the city’s public information officer. The city did, however, send a mandatory survey to all employees Monday to disclose their vaccination status.
“Once that survey’s filled out (City Manager Michael Ortega) may have that discussion with council,” Squire said. “We just don’t know yet.”
The Board of Supervisors will discuss implementing a vaccine mandate for county employees at its Aug. 10 meeting. The meeting will be live-streamed on Pima County’s Facebook page at facebook.com/pimacountyarizona.